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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Virtu(re)ality of Fake News

The world is awash in fake news, misinformation, disinformation – you choose the term that fits best. The question is not why people disseminate falsities, but why so many are so willing to accept them at face value.

I will start with a warning: the following is not to be taken as any sort of justification for fake news, but merely an explanation. The reason that such a “warning” is necessary: falsification is deeply embedded in life generally, and human life specifically. Thus, one might think that anything “natural” is justified or good. However, toxins are found all over the natural world, but that doesn’t mean we should ingest them. Certain ant species capture other ants and literally turn them into their slaves; we’re past that stage in human history. And so on.

Where do we find fakery in Nature? Everywhere. There are animals that perform “cryptic camouflage” – they blend so well into the environment that they can’t be seen e.g., grasshoppers that look like a twig on a branch. Similarly there’s mimicry, where in order to scare off predators an animal will copy the look (or scent or sound) of another (usually more powerful) animal e.g., the “Mimic Octopus” can make itself look like a poisonous fish. It doesn’t take much of a leap to surmise that early humans saw this “natural” behavior in the animal kingdom and began to mimic or adapt such camouflage and deceptive practices themselves.

Indeed, in very ancient cave paintings we have found wall art that depicts hunters dressed as animals during a hunt. That was but the start of a long line of human fakery, reaching its “height” in the modern world. For contemporary society seems to have a penchant for the “fake” that is found everywhere and in almost everything: counterfeit labels, imitation brands, art replicas, fake masterpieces, faux furs, and other indistinguishable substitutes of “politically incorrect” originals (e.g., stuffed animals). Indeed, fake products have become so “mainstream” that a “rephotograph” (a virtual picture of a virtual image) in 2005 was auctioned for $1 million in 2005! (Untitled—Cowboy, from a Marlboro Man cigarette advertisement). Some fake “masterpieces” have been resold ten times to different collectors; university art departments use them as teaching tools.

To an even greater extent, “image fakery” extends to our own bodies. To stay slim, we eat artificially sweetened foods; spend fortunes Botoxing wrinkles, enlarging breasts, artificially pumping up muscles with steroids (and in the Far East, “westernizing” eye shape); dye our hair or cover baldness with toupees and hair weaves; not to mention snake oil solutions for body “handicaps” e.g., penis enlargement, and sexually attractive olfactory pheromones to slather on before a date. The “service” industry is also full of prevarication: psychics and tea leaf readers, Elvis impersonators, lip-synching singers, ventriloquists, sleight of hand illusionists…

If most of these seem relatively harmless, not so the next step down the ladder of social verisimilitude: conspiracy theories — from the antisemitic and totally fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, all the way to the recent (completely debunked) 2020 US presidential “election fraud” theories and similar Corona anti-vax (non)”facts.” So abundant has all this become that beyond “fake news” we now have produced neologisms such as “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” and “post-truth.” Although these are not necessarily pure economic (or personal) forms of fakery, they are tied to the modern capitalist system in helping sell print and electronic media products to an increasingly eager and (partly) gullible mass audience.

So here lies the (at least partial) explanation for why so many people believe such nonsense: our lives have become so suffused with, and surrounded by, “fakiness” (there, I’ve just created another neologism), that it becomes “natural” to accept that fake news is just as “real” as breast implants and hair weaves. And there’s the rub…

I return to where I started: just because something is prevalent, doesn’t make it “right” – and even if right for one species (slave ants; plant toxins to defend themselves), that doesn’t make it right for others. Moreover, specific examples where “lying” might be justified (“How do I look dear?” “Quite nice, honey”), should not entail a generalization that all lying is acceptable, and for sure not in all circumstances – especially when it comes to something as critical for democracy and a functioning society as “the news” i.e., what’s really happening in our world. As thinking humans (that’s the meaning of homo sapiens) we must distinguish between the day-to-day, harmless, interpersonal white lies we tell each other on occasion, and the long-term devastating effects of manufacturing, reporting, and believing the flood of “fake news” that threatens to overwhelm society.

What can each of us do? First, do not blindly believe everything you read, see, or hear. As we move into a world of AI-generated “Deep Fakes,” video, audio, and texts that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, we have to put on a permanent mantle of healthy skepticism. Second, double-check “news” from more than one source. Third, never ”forward” such news without first going through Step 2. Fourth, if you find important “news” to be false (or seriously biased e.g., lots of missing information that provides context), warn your friends on social media; half-truths are sometimes more pernicious than complete lies precisely because they look “true.” Fifth and finally, keep track of which news sources consistently produce fallacious information – your own personal news blacklist. Stay away from them – and if someone sends you “news” from that source, kindly inform the sender that the source is not to be trusted. In short, just as we all try to prevent Corona from spreading by “distancing” and vaccinating, so too does each of us have an obligation to prevent fake news from spreading virally – distancing ourselves and others from the virus spreaders.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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