Like so many other things in today’s culture, the controversy over “fake news” is a didactic battle between two camps whose polar-opposite positions are largely driven by outrage over the opposing camp’s position. And, again, like so many other things in today’s culture, this venial division completely misses the point.
The left, which is all for democratic expressions of will until it gets a result it does not like, is suddenly once again concerned with the social implications of public speech and has rediscovered a passion for holding would-be demagogues accountable after being silent on the matter for eight years.
The right, which is currently testing the newfound strength of its federal muscles, suddenly sees no need for accountability, which conveniently ignores not only the central tenets of its individualistic ideology but also runs counter to its outrage with prominent social media sites recently involved in scandals where conservative speech was suppressed.
This is winsome, petulant rhetoric all around.
Private companies do not have to meet any standards of ideological diversity; they have every right to create speech codes and discriminate on the basis of ideology. The government, on the other hand, has absolutely no power to do the same.
What’s more, the idea that either of these sides is crusading nobly for truth is absurd. It is short-term self-interest only that dictates these positions. And it is thoroughly dishonest. This is not even a sort of noble egoism. True self-interest is rooted in principle and cleaves to it absolutely in its thoughts and actions because this conveys seriousness and respectability to other social actors, thus leading to long-run benefits. But the feckless backtrackings and contradictions of these positions demonstrate no such merit. As the political winds of fortune blow one party upwards, they change their tune and abandon principle, then wonder why they are shortly on the descent.
The “fake news” hoopla is as choreographed as these political machinations. What makes this abundantly clear is that both sides speak passionately of a need to protect “the public,” whose voice is conveniently ignored.
In reality, it is the public, acting on their own volition and discretion, which is the proper actor to sort out “fake news” from “real news.” The inability to recognize, let alone express confidence in, the rationalism of the citizenry betrays this is an issue which is not truly about truth in reporting but about political power games.
This, however, has not always been the case. Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, rather presciently settled the matter. Having just faced a vicious onslaught from the yellow press of his day, Jefferson commented:
“the experiment is noted, to prove that, since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint; the public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions, on a full hearing of all parties; and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its sentiment must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.”