Fake News: the Telos to Confuse

“The goal is to make you question logic and reason, and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidenced, and ourselves.”

-Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (2017)

The first draft of this piece was written on April 29, 2017. It was initially framed as a response to a story about the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and until now remained unfinished. Given current events in the US with the #MeToo movement, Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and magazine cover stories sounding the alarm bells of Chinese spyware, it appears that this moment may be either the best or the worst time to publish another piece about Fake News. This is a topic I find intriguing regardless of political preference, and I believe that the media in our country should be held to a higher standard than it is currently. And to clarify, the fake in fake news is applied here to the News itself, rather than the story or events being reported on.

My aim isn’t to make light about a person’s lived experiences, or to cast doubt about their account of those experiences. The subject of my interest in Fake News is the News Media, and the ways they use those accounts to push larger narratives, entertain without informing, and monetize the fears and impulses of their audience. As a culture, we’re quick to jump on the day’s outrage bandwagon, and we’re slow to think critically about what we’re being told to accept as true. News outlets from across the political spectrum know this, and they take advantage of it everyday.

I’m not a journalist, nor do I have formal training in media studies (my education is in analytical Philosophy), but I am a citizen doing my best to sort through it all and better understand what’s really going on.

How do we spot Fake News?

After reading or hearing a story in its entirety, begin by identifying the story’s telos. This can be done by asking, “What is the story’s purpose?” Perhaps because it’s so easily done, the purpose of many harmful fake news sites and stories is to confuse the audience about what’s fact and what’s fiction, or to instill doubt and obfuscate the truth. This can be accomplished in myriad ways, and with very little effort on the part of the news media.

If the story misleads, intentionally shocks the audience, is full of omissions that leave you wondering, or if it contains only a conclusion without premises that logically support that conclusion, it’s likely fake news.

If the story’s primary purpose is to trigger an emotional reaction from the viewer/reader without providing sufficient verifiable evidence to support the emotion-triggering claims made in the story, there is a high chance the story is fake news.

Determine whether any original research, investigative journalism, or additional fact-finding on the part of the writer or the publisher as means to verify the claims made has been attempted. If the media outlet fails to provide any additional context for understanding the story, it may be fake news. Finally, if a news story shows you only what people are saying, without reference to what any statistics or data say, it may be fake news.

So, what are people saying?

An easy way of showing what people are saying is to gather a collection of quotations from bystanders or witnesses, and reciting or replaying them in quick succession. The classic Human on the Street segment, is one example of a model used today to create quick, entertaining segments that can be packaged and distributed to affiliates across a news network.

Here’s an example of fake news from the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Keep in mind that the people appearing in the segment need not necessarily be liars for the segment itself to be fake news. The segment is fake news because it is itself based on a falsehood, not because of anything the people on the street recount.

Testimony isn’t a substitute for verifiable fact, nor should it be discarded out of hand. What’s critical is that speech alone not be mistaken for fact by the critical observer or careful reader. Close attention should be paid to opinion-based testimony that isn’t reporting on facts, and closer attention should be paid to the framing of the conversation in its entirety.

There’s a common understanding that there are always two sides to a story. Typically, the “two sides” refer to the possibility that there are at least two versions–two sides–of a story. But what if we used this turn of phrase in a different manner? What if the two sides instead referred to (1) the interviewer, and (2) the individual recounting the story.

Look again to the video example above to see how two parties engaged in a single dialogue can participate in two entirely different conversations, exacerbated by a vacuum of facts and an abundance of bad faith. Listen for gossip and opinion as response to a leading question. Pay as much attention to the questions and to the interviewer as you do to those providing a response.

Testimony in formal argumentation, when delivered effectively, can be used to supplement pathos. It may be permitted to persuade, but it may not be held in equivalence to proof. This distinction between persuasion and proof is essential when further attempting to distinguish between feelings and facts, fake news and real news.

To borrow another turn of phrase from YouTuber and internet influencer Philip DeFranco, “Why be informed when you can use your feelings as facts?”

For Reference

  • Pathos: emotion
  • Ethos: style, mood
  • Logos: logic
  • Telos: purpose

One thought on “Fake News: the Telos to Confuse

  1. […] I posted last year about the telos of fake news, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.” In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized. All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill. […]


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