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Our Addiction To Outrage, And The Rise Of Fake News

23/11/2016 13:41

You've probably encountered it, even without realising at times; fake news is everywhere and the truth-rich reality that we have previously shared has taken quite a beating. The situation is not entirely new as fake news has always been with us, through hoaxes and humour, gossip and insinuation, and the National Enquirer or Sunday Sport; it always sells well. And we can certainly look to the darker moments of the last Century to see how out of control it can get. Or perhaps this Century. But what we cannot deny is that we seem to have a growing appetite for sensational news and Macedonian youths, amongst others, have fed upon that. But to really tackle the problem, we might need to look at other areas of online behaviour to start the process of bringing truth back home. So where do we start?

We must first look to the filter bubble, and the resulting echo chambers that the larger companies have promoted. It initially seems like a good idea to be repeatedly presented with what you want or like, through search engines or news feeds, and that you meet others through this. It feels pleasurable to find 'like'-minded individuals, and helps us feel less alone in our views and interests. But there are two consequences that need to be considered. Firstly, we start to become less critical in our thinking when a feeling of sameness with others grows. This can result in an astonishing and moving outpouring of grief, as we saw after the death of Princess Diana. But we can also switch off, and lose touch with why those who are different from us think and feel the way they do, and then lose touch with reality itself. In the famous myth of 'Echo and Narcissus', Narcissus, after rejecting Echo's love, becomes fascinated in a reflected image of all that he admires in himself; unable to look away, he wastes away and dies.

Yet fake news has a rather different quality to that of loved image, as it often provokes a powerful response of quite a different type: outrage. It is as if we become addicted to that emotion, and like an addict feeling empowered through using chemicals, we want more and more and more. And if you think addiction might be too strong a word for our fascination with sensationalistic news think about the name of but one channel: 'BuzzFeed'; you are fed trending news to get your 'buzz'.

Ironically, it is BuzzFeed who have provided us with an important analysis of how fake news rocketed on Facebook in the run-up to the US election (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.ucVA2Nxoq#.pvLvbYqrB ), and the results are both shocking and fascinating. Each true and fake news piece was capable of generating quite a cocktail of anxiety and outrage in the reader, but it was greater with fake news. The intensity of this response is unlikely to support good judgement, but instead a demand for the release and satisfaction that only a mob affords. If we continue to pursue a business model in the media where only the extreme and outrageous stories are worthy of a click, one wonders what the future holds.

Yet there is one other aspect of the fake news story that haunts; we might understand a lack of responsibility towards truthfulness in the excitable minds of Macedonian youths, but when we repeatedly see this become mainstreamed in political discussion, we must wonder what is at work. It seems to me that desensitisation to extreme content online over the last years has created not so much an 'online disinhibition effect' as described by John Suler, but an 'offline disinhibition effect'. Disinhibition on social media then becomes more acceptable offline. One feature of the online disinhibition effect is what Suler calls 'dissociative imagination', whereby everything becomes a game and thus unreal. When this goes offline, and is normalised, we can see why Mary Aiken suggested that Donald Trump displayed many of the qualities of an online troll, but offline ( http://time.com/4371724/welcome-to-the-troll-election/).

Of course, any addiction has a back story, and if many find the 'buzz' of fake news helpful in their daily lives, we might ask why. We all need to turn away from too many echoes and reflections, and look around us at the world we have, in the hope of making it better. And for that we do need real information, presented in ways that help us think and grow, and not leave us feeling cheated, empty and more than a little confused.

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