By Fraser Raeburn |
#Fakenews is everywhere. While I wouldn’t go quite so far as Richard Evans and claim that we live in a postmodern, post-factual dystopia fuelled by literal interpretations of Foucault, we clearly live in a world where facts ain’t what they used to be. It’s no longer enough to have different interpretations or biases than your political opponents, but an entirely different set of facts altogether.
For many of us, this is a tad worrying, not least because there are certain issues where basic facts are both pretty well-established and immensely important. Climate change springs to mind – an issue that has been mired in #alternativefacts longer than most – but there are many others for which any sort of rational debate needs to be based on a common ground of something approximating reality.
In all of this, history has been touted as a panacea, usually (and probably not coincidentally) by historians themselves. History, it is claimed, teaches scepticism and critical engagement, allowing us to sort the real wheat from the fake chaff on our news feeds. At the core of history’s identity is a belief that through evidence we can better describe past realities. Not perfectly, and we may often disagree on interpretations or emphasis, but we’re all working from the same historical record, with the same goal in mind: to more accurately understand the past. As such, by teaching people how to do history, we can sort out #fakenews by giving people the intellectual tools necessary to make judgements about what is real and what isn’t – or so the story goes.
As it happens, I’m not convinced. For one thing, history is hard. As anyone who teaches undergraduates can attest, it takes a lot of time and effort to train someone to do history on a level that goes beyond learning and recounting information. Learning stuff is good, but ultimately we can never learn enough to be able to judge all news by its factual content. In itself, more knowledge is not a solution.
More fundamentally though, I think we don’t appreciate the thought processes that make fake news so successful. When we see a news article, we all already judge its contents critically, but we don’t do this based on our factual knowledge (and how could we?). Rather, what we do is assess its plausibility – according to what we do already know, does this make sense? Does it fit into your worldview? Does it help confirm or disrupt a pattern? Of course, if it does feel plausible, there’s not much incentive to check into it further – the checking is pre-done, as it were, by your existing knowledge. A successful fake news story isn’t some cartoonishly outlandish piece of propaganda, but rather a story that builds on what its audience already believes to be true, and therefore doesn’t ring alarm bells in their minds.
Historians reading this are sniffing, and thinking that this is where history comes in – after all we’re trained to critique new sources, to assume nothing, to check it independently. But do we do this in a way that ? In my work, I deal with tens of thousands of bits of evidence. I can’t critique them all in depth. I can only rely on my knowledge of the subject to give me an idea of the plausibility of the information they contain, and it’s only when it seems either implausible or goes well beyond what other sources say that I’ll start thinking hard about reliability. If it’s just one more bit of evidence confirming the pattern I’ve already observed elsewhere, then what basis is there to spend time critiquing it? I’ve got 9,999 other problems, and this bit is done – just like no one has the time to critique the hundreds of news items from dozens of sources they’re exposed to each day.
My point is, our method is often just a refined, more knowledgeable version of the thought process everyone goes through when receiving new information. Its effectiveness owes as much to the level of knowledge we can build up about a narrow specialisation than our unique ability to evaluate sources. While history undoubtedly teaches us to think more critically, we shouldn’t pretend that it is a silver bullet that can rid the world of #fakenews.
(Cover image (CC) Pixabay.com; Image 1 (CC) Lily-Anne Homasi/DFAT; Image 2 (CC) Wikimedia Commons)