How to fight ‘fake news’

Compelling readers to recalibrate their own opinions – to look at the world dynamically and flexibly – is healthy. And it’s how fake news is defeated.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A Hong Kong newspaper describes clashes between police and protesters on Sept. 9, 2019.

These days, there’s lots of talk and concern about “fake news,” and it’s easy to see why. Social media and the fracturing of the news landscape into countless television channels and online sources have changed how we see the world. Today, we can easily piece together a view of the world that confirms our beliefs. The definition of “good journalism” often seems to be based on whether the conclusions it reaches conform to our own ideas rather than to the processes involved.

But journalism itself has not been without fault. Journalists have their beliefs, too. How willing have they been to challenge themselves and their own views?

Certainly, the best journalism has done this and continues to. But consider this: As fake news has arisen – allowing people to choose their own news along partisan lines – most media organizations have reacted by becoming more partisan. The two trends have ended up working in concert to fuel one of the more unfortunate tendencies in human behavior, which is “in-group bias.” In other words, human beings express an innate tendency to tribalize. There is no question that more-partisan journalism can still do essential, groundbreaking work, but it can also set us more concretely into competing factions.

For this reason, narrative-busting is one of the most powerful functions of journalism today. This is author Malcolm Gladwell’s superpower, for instance. He takes something that we think we know, and then completely blows it to pieces, forcing readers to confront their own biases and worldviews. This process of compelling readers to recalibrate their own opinions – to look at the world dynamically and flexibly – is healthy. It is how fake news is defeated, because it teaches us all to wrestle with how the world is, not how we wish it to be. That is when progress is possible, because that is when we identify challenges honestly.

And that is why I love Ann Scott Tyson’s cover story on Hong Kong this week.

The prevailing Western narrative about Hong Kong’s resistance to Chinese influence is a powerful one. They are fighting for individual liberties against the creeping anti-democratic agenda of the mainland. And this narrative is 100% true.

But it is also incomplete. The fact is, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is also fueled by underlying concerns about how a major influx of mainland people and money is changing the place. There is a justifiable reason for this concern. China appears to be embarking on a policy of assimilation, undermining Hong Kong’s unique politics and culture with a colonizing wave of mainlanders.

Yet Ann also shows there are hints of xenophobia and prejudice in the Hong Kong mind. For me, her story was a narrative-buster, forcing me to see the mechanics beneath the Hong Kong protests in more nuanced ways. It doesn’t mean I have less respect for the resistance. Nor does it lead me to dismiss China’s potentially insidious intent. But it does mean I now see that there is more to the story – and more than just politics at work.

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