Fake news, in all its glory, is once again permeating our social discourse. It inundates popular culture and confuses the hell out of all of us as we struggle to understand: What is fake, and can we stop it once we know?
A thousand years from now, assuming humanity manages to hang on for another millennium, what will people (or whatever we have evolved into) think about our society as they look back, excavate, examine and otherwise curate our relatively brief existence?
Think about it next time you go to a museum to see the mummies of Ancient Egypt or the relics of Greece and Rome, or the next time you read about the latest discovery of some long-lost city or tomb.
Think about the myths we grew up with… studied in school, read in books, watched as movies, and listened to as operas. Think about how they permeated creative thinking through the eons… morphing, adapting and evolving as they became a part of our DNA, and then part of current culture in their latest iterations.
History.com’s Greek Mythology section quotes Robert Graves (of I Claudius and The Greek Myths to name just two) on what myths are and what they mean:
“Myth has two main functions,” the poet and scholar Robert Graves wrote in 1955. “The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’…The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” In ancient Greece, stories about gods and goddesses and heroes and monsters were an important part of everyday life. They explained everything from religious rituals to the weather, and they gave meaning to the world people saw around them.”
Now let’s examine those same two functions using fake news as the filter–as the modern myth.
- Answer the awkward questions that children ask, such as:
Where did President Obama come from?
Who really blew up the Twin Towers?
How many Jews actually died in the gas chambers?
- Justify an existing social system:
Why are the tides rising?
How come there are ever larger-scale mass murders?
What rights do I have over my own body?
And on and on.
Fill in your own questions based on fake news reports and stories you have heard or read.
The Independent, in a fascinating article “How Did Our Legends Really Begin?” shares the following:
“The similarity of the narratives could be just coincidence. Each culture might just have devised its own folklore independently of the other, coming to surprisingly similar storylines. But many myths seem to share similar incidents, characters or narrative structures, whether they derive from classical Greece or the ancient mythologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Japan or India.
When you start looking at these similarities, you begin to wonder whether they could have had a common origin, perhaps carried from one part of the world to another as Palaeolithic peoples migrated over many thousands of years to colonise new lands. Could the legends and folklores of the world be connected in the sense that they stem from a common origin, passed down by word of mouth over several thousand generations?
This, fundamentally, is the radical idea of Michael Witzel, a Harvard University linguist and philologist, who has drawn on the scientific disciplines of molecular genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and his own field of linguistics to propose that the world’s many mythologies have a common origin – similar to the evolution of related species from a long-extinct common ancestor.
Witzel argues in his new book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (OUP), that the myths and legends of today’s world cultures can provide important insights into the earliest myths as they were told by the first anatomically modern humans more than 100,000 years ago, the time of “African Eve”, the last common ancestor of all our mitochondrial DNA.
This would mean that some myths have survived being told over somewhere in the region of 3,000 generations.”
Imagine 3,000 generations from now, that some fake news story of our generation is still circulating, maybe as the basis of a new religion, or as proof of why killing is OK.
As Defense One reports, some are calling the basis of the new mythology “Weaponized Narrative“:
“With lawmakers poised to authorize $160 million to counter Russian “fake news” and disinformation, and the CIA and the Congress examining meddling in the U.S. election and democracies around the world, it’s time to see weaponized narrative for what it is: a deep threat to national security.”
They too look back to mythology:
“Narrative is as old as tribes. Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. We cannot endure an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the night sky and deal with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the most elaborate – even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a hard-wired need for myth. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.”
“By offering cheap passage through a complex world, weaponized narrative furnishes emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding. The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts.”
Just as our ancestors connected the dots and created figures out of the stars, we connect random dots and create fake news stories to simplify the world in much the same way.
And as we saw last week during the tragic Las Vegas massacre, the machinery of digital social media fueled by AI driven algorithms and catalyzed by our own clicks and responses created a mythology all its own and all wrong. CBS reports, “In the Wake of the Las Vegas Shooting, fake news on social media takes a personal toll”:
“People are looking for answers during crisis and news events,” said Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who has been tracking fake news since the run-up to the 2016 election.
“The authors or the promoters of this type of fake content often are seeking to shock people, to outrage them. So even if people stop to investigate or dispute, or even debunk, or especially things like fact-check, you’re just getting kind of more engagement with that, which in turn tends to reinforce the content elsewhere,” Albright said.
And here are two sources, often at odds, yet in this case sharing the same basic story:
“Facebook, Google Spread Misinformation About Las Vegas Shooting. What Went Wrong?”
— NPR, October 3rd 2017
“Digital Disaster: Facebook, Google carry fake news on Las Vegas Shooting”
— Fox News, October 4th 2017
Sadly, we seem to be creating a new mythology. Though I love the stories of the Gods and heroes of old, I shudder to think of the stories and justifications our new myths will inspire.
“Myths which are believed in tend to become true.” George Orwell
And that is the fear. That is what confronts Facebook and Google, and you and me.
What do you think?