Fake News and the Good News Cherie Harder

In the contest for attention between fake news and truth-telling, fake news wins in a landslide. The Atlantic recently reported on the results of a comprehensive study that analyzed every contested news story in English since the advent of twitter, and found that “the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth… Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.”

In fact, the study found that a false story actually reached people six times faster, on average, than a true one. Fake news stories were also found to be retweeted 70% more often than accurate ones — and thus were far more likely to go viral. And because time and attention are both limited resources, it is no exaggeration to say that truth-telling is literally crowded out by our attraction to falsehood. Much in the way that counterfeit money corrupts a financial system and drives out legal tender, our addiction to the sensational makes it less likely that we will see, pay attention to, and understand what is true.

Moreover, we cannot blame bots for our propensity to being suckered. The study found that it was humans, not bots, that circulated the most misinformation and caused the most confusion. One of the study’s data scientists mused “It might have something to do with human nature.” Or, as the great mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal put it: “We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.”

How did we get here? There is significant evidence to suggest that people read and disseminate fake news for very different reasons than they would share more truthful, if less sensational stories. Indeed, reading fake news is an entirely different experience than reading complex texts that reveal truths about human nature — such as, say, Great Books or the Good News itself. It evokes dramatically different responses, makes different demands, aims at different goals.

Fake news stories are almost always short, sensationalized, and context-free. They evoke reaction (usually outrage), rather than reflection, and often aim to confirm bias. They require and receive only a quick skim, a rapid extraction of information, before generation of a retweet or other response. (Even then, it is striking how often simple posts are misunderstood.)

Reactions to fake news stories are often aimed at signaling affiliation with a particular viewpoint or group — a very different goal than imparting truth or wisdom. Comments and retweets usually express agreement or denunciation, often in extreme or insulting terms. Indeed, it is striking how often a bit of “news” is disseminated with the promise that it will make a political opponent’s “head explode.” Such news is circulated presumably not to edify or persuade, but to “trigger” those who disagree. (Of course, given the increasing tendency to restrict one’s news feed to like-minded sources, those targeted for cranial combustion are among the least likely to be exposed to a detonating post.)

But if reading and reacting to fake news is largely a matter of instinctive self-assertion, tribal affiliation, and aggression, spiritual reading — the slow, deliberate, attentive reading required to grapple with either Great Books or the Good Book itself — is quite the opposite.

Rather than a rapid scan and assertive reaction, it is necessarily a deliberate process of contemplation, inquiry, and attentiveness that entails an openness to change. Instead of grabbing at a bit of weaponized misinformation and hurling it towards a political adversary, the spiritual reader tastes, savors, tests, reflects upon, and digests what he reads. The result is not only nourishing, but also transformative — we are changed by the stories we reflect on and absorb. Such spiritual reading shapes our imagination, perception, and intellectual acuity.

In her beautiful book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre writes: “…the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential. How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts. [emphasis added] Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies.”

Perhaps the best defense against the confusion of fake news is immersive reading in the truth of the Good News.

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