In an article that appeared in a recent issue of Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin decries the recent prevalence of fake news and recommends that history teachers are especially qualified to take a leading role in educating the public about the difference between this counterfeit article and the real thing.
Levin begins by defining fake news as “deceptions” that “play to the readers’ worst fears” for the sake of “maximizing visitor hits” to “generate massive revenue” on web sites. Levin quotes Neal Gabler who writes that the point is not to present an “alternative truth . . . but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a word where there is no defense against lies.” Levin points out that the advent of the internet, which has allowed just about anybody to post information online, has facilitated the proliferation of fake news. In the age when print media dominated, he argues, librarians and others could serve as the gatekeepers to information, “allowing for a certain level of quality control.” Since then, however, technology has “quickly outpaced educators’ ability to police or even guide students as to how best to search [sic] and assess online information.” The result is not only that fake news has proliferated, but that large numbers of people also give credibility to these stories. Having laid out the problem, Levin asks historians to help solve it by teaching students how to assess they information they gather online. After all, so the argument goes, historians are expert at the “critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources.”
One Thing after Another is flattered whenever someone calls upon historians to solve this or that problem. And this blog is just as discouraged as anyone else at the ubiquity of fake news. However, One Thing after Another is somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for success in this battle, no so much because it doubts the hearts and minds of historians, but because the problem Levin contemplates is more massive and deep-rooted than he seems to realize.
Levin’s focus is somewhat myopic in contemplating this issue and its solution. Levin’s article aims mainly at fake news (which merely seeks to make a buck), but in an aside, he seems to understand that only a thin line divides this phenomenon from misinformation that has clear political objectives (e.g. propaganda). He never stresses the close relationship between the two, does not appear to grasp what makes them so dangerous to the public, and does not explain why they should be countered so vigorously. Getting facts wrong does not merely lead to poor performances in Trivial Pursuit or bad grades in history courses; it divorces our politics from reality which can only lead to terrible consequences. What makes this problem so difficult to contend with is that history itself shows that people have long been susceptible to misinformation.
Levin, along with many others, seems to see the influence of dubious news of uncertain provenance as something new. For example, by declaring “post-truth” the word of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary gives credence to the notion that fake news and other sorts of misinformation are a product of the early 21stcentury. According to the OED, “post-truth” is an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition, however, does not describe a particularly novel state of affairs. History is replete with examples of peoples who were convinced by appeals to dearly held prejudices or who were inspired to act upon unfounded rumors that corresponded with cherished beliefs. One has only to recall the reaction of the slave states to John Brown’s raid or the activities of French peasants during the Great Fear. In many ways, fake news and post-truthiness remind One Thing after Another of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (1964). Hofstadter discussed a longstanding rhetorical tradition in American politics which was characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” where “style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than with the truth or falsity of their content.” He continued by associating this paranoid style with a series of episodes in American politics including the anti-Masonic movement, the Know-Nothings, populism, and McCarthyism. In other words, it seems clear that the species of lie that Levin worries about is part of an ancient, intractable genus.
It is for this reason that we have cause for pessimism. Pace Levin, many people are not purely rational animals who are willing to change their opinions when confronted by facts. We are all reluctant to give up our shibboleths and world views. It is here that we should recall Hofstadter’s speculation that the paranoid style is “a persistent psychic phenomenon” that consistently affects “a modest minority of the population.” However, he argues that under the right circumstances, this minority can “be built into mass movements or political parties.” When our tendency to grasp falsehoods is encouraged by fake news or misinformation, untruth begets untruth, until we are, as Gabler puts it, set “adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies.” It is in this world that the paranoid style thrives. As Hofstadter put it:
A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.
Don’t we all know somebody like that?
Hofstadter’s reference to the value of a historical sensibility brings us back to the question of what historians ought to do when confronted by this contemporary cocktail of fake news, misinformation, the internet, and the paranoid style. For one thing, the burden of truth cannot become the historian’s alone. The difficulty is so vast and entrenched that other public figures must share in the work, especially two classes of people held in low esteem these days: journalists and politicians. However one feels about journalists, it is obvious that they are crucial to dealing with this problem of fake news or misinformation (although one could argue that soi-disant journalists are the problem). But why politicians? In this case, One Thing after Another is inspired by Walter Bagehot’s comments in the introduction to the second edition (1872) of The English Constitution. Bagehot, who was then editor of The Economist, wrote a new introduction to this classic work in an attempt to forecast changes wrought by the Reform Act of 1867, which had redistributed representation in the Commons and expanded the size of the electorate by reducing the property threshold for voting. It is in this context, where the franchise had been extended to the upper portion of the working class for the first time, that he made the following observations:
The mode in which the [political] questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them. No doubt when statesmen live by public favor, as ours do, this is a hard saying, and it requires to be carefully limited. . . . What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives those in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. . . . And so he will both guide and benefit the nation. But if, especially at a time when great ignorance has an unusual power in public affairs, he chooses to accept and reiterate the decisions of that ignorance, he is only the hireling of the nation, and does little save hurt it.
The relevance of this excerpt (and others in The English Constitution which state something similar) is that Bagehot saw political leaders as bearing an educational responsibility to the nation, a task they shared with journalists. For sure, this view of politicians and journalists was based on a low opinion of the new electorate and a fear that if left to its own devices, working people might engage in class politics. And Bagehot wrote in a different era when the upper classes still dominated national politics and media outlets were limited. Still, the point stands. One Thing after Another wonders if we have completely lost the sense that politicians ought to educate the electorate instead of saying whatever is necessary to win votes from their base.
Pointing out that journalists and politicians are a necessary part of the solution only reveals how large the problem is. In the meantime, historians (imperfect as they themselves are) can only hope to contain the influence of misinformation, not eradicate it. They must labor like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, knowing that in the long run they cannot win, but that it is the right thing to do.