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CONNECTIONS: Fake news, tool of the autocrat

We need to know what is real. The facts are the basis for good decisions. Our entire form of government ceases to work without real news.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Someone asked me to define fake news and autocracy—sad that the person found both terms relevant in our country, currently.

To those who do not support our current president, purveyors of fake news are the president himself and FOX News. To those who do support the president, purveyors of fake news are “the liberal media.” For one side, fake news can be reports with which they do not agree. For the other side, fake news are things that cannot be proven by demonstrable facts.

A dictionary definition of fake news is “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.”

If so, fake news is not new; however, “bogus stories can reach more people more quickly today than ever in our history.”

That being the case, it is ever more important to spot fake news—and at the same time, it is more difficult. Repetition is easier in today’s social media world, and repetition makes any report seem more credible. Long before the internet, there were courses in spotting what was then called propaganda. Clues are hyperbolic language, excessive repetition of slogans and stories too outlandish to be true. Tools to determining the fake are considering the source, checking against expert reports and using critical thinking. Would that we could.

There is another, more subtle definition of fake news. Interpretation, opinion and prediction are not news. News is the reporting of recent events—things that happened and are observable in time and space. News reporters are those that tell you what happened. They are highly regarded for speed and accuracy. They are not expected or respected for offering “color,” a k a opinion.

Commentators are not reporters. One reports the news, the other comments on the news. What you are reading right now is commentary—not news, fake or otherwise.

You may feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of news, but actually there is not enough real news to fill 24/7 TV news, internet outlets and print journalism. So, the time and space are filled with stuff that is decidedly not news. Interpretation, opinion and prediction are not news. If they call it news or do not clearly differentiate the opinion page from the news, reporting from the discussion thereof, then it can be called fake news.

Furthermore, “legitimate” news sources are increasingly using the techniques of propaganda. The repetition on cable news is amazing, as is the hyperbole. They even manage to dramatize the weather report in an effort to command attention. When legitimate sources use suspect techniques of communication, it becomes more difficult to differentiate what is fake and what is real.

We need to know what is real. The facts are the basis for good decisions. Our entire form of government ceases to work without real news.

That is the connection between fake news and autocracy. Simply put, an autocracy is a form of government in which all power rests in the hands of one person. If that person cannot empathize with your pain even as he inflicts it, do not put yourself in his power. If he does not differentiate between the state and himself, if he cannot understand or evaluate anything except as it affects him, don’t put him in power. An autocrat cannot long survive the dispensation of real news. Who would stand behind someone who wants all power and is uniquely unkind and selfish? An autocrat creates and relies upon fake news.

If an autocrat is exposed, does the public care? If gas and groceries cost the same, and you are still fighting with your wife, what difference does the form of government make to you?

It might, and if it does, then the news is, as Thomas Jefferson warned, vital to a government of, by and for the people. Our current problem with rapidly dispensed nonsense is an issue, perhaps the issue, of the day.

There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Perhaps we are so cursed.

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