Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the disturbing real news stories about his behaviour and his administration’s policies have been a huge mental burden—to the point where workers have admitted to being less productive and people have written guides for psychological self-care when your newsfeed reports one infuriating development after another.
But there’s no denying that fake news won Trump the presidency, and its scourge continues. Whether deliberately or because he lives in a fantasy universe of affluenzal delusion, Trump and his team have deployed the “firehose of falsehood” propaganda model that has been so successful in Russia. The point is to overwhelm you with so much information that you just don’t have the time or mental resources to sort out fact from fiction.
Some libraries have even developed guides to help people discern real from fake. For most critical thinkers, fake news is unwelcome noise: from a mental burden perspective, whether you have helpful guides or not, it still takes deliberate cognitive effort to read and evaluate the headlines, possibly out-of-context graphics, and full stories that come through social media. Double-checking with the source, reverse image searching—these techniques can be effective but take time. Fake news also adds an element of uncertainty, which itself is mentally taxing.
Part of the problem comes from the gutting of newsrooms, which has left us with few curators we can trust to give us the facts. Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger, laments in her book that although we’d hoped the internet would be a great democratic equalizer, what it’s really done is deprofessionalized and devalued actual journalism. As she elaborates in this 2015 interview:
Twenty years ago when I started, I could call all these people who were investigative journalists and they would go and do fantastic work and sometimes show me I was wrong about something, though they’d often support what I was finding. Today there’s virtually nobody, not even the ones I know from twenty years ago, who hasn’t left the business. It used to be they could work on a story for three weeks, and now I’m lucky if they can spend an hour looking at what I’m sending them. It’s horrifying and I don’t know where it’s going to go.
I am really worried about investigative journalism in this country because it’s so absolutely, fundamentally important to the functioning of democracy. I don’t think the American public understands. They think they have more information than ever. They’re on fucking Twitter and they think that that’s news but so much of what they’re reading is just commentary, and it’s commentary on things that aren’t even true.
On the other hand, just after [New York Times columnist] David Carr died, I listened to an old interview with him and he had the most interesting thing to say. When he started out he needed a camera crew and a transcription device and now, just his phone allowed him to do recording audio, recording video, look things up real-time to challenge his source, everything you need to do good investigative journalism. And he felt what we needed was to recognize that and mobilize people to do journalism. But they have to be mobilized, and trained, and inspired to care about facts. And that’s turning out to be harder than I thought it was going to be.
Facebook has finally acknowledged its role in the fake news problem and has started to flag false stories, but what we need to alleviate the uncertainty and mental burden of fake news is more public investment in news. (And, of course, Trump’s proposed budget cuts to PBS and NPR undermine this.) Bloggers and academics can’t fill the void left by laid-off journalists, and as long as media outlets are privately owned and beholden to advertisers, the onus will still be on the reader or viewer to verify and vet every story.
This is not to say that subscribing to trusted newspapers isn’t a good idea. At the moment they’re all we have.
I’d written earlier that when we pay for a good or service, what we’re buying is peace of mind. If we want peace from the relentless barrage of fake news, we’re going to have be willing to pay for solid journalism.