Fake News: Moral Incontinence

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As a psychologist interested in ethics, Dr. Bossypants spends many hours contemplating the human condition. Lately, she’s been fascinated with the facile ascent of fake news and the apparent gullibility and complicity of humans in this phenomenon. Here is the first of perhaps many speculations.

From time immemorial, humans have needed each other to survive. Even rugged individualists and extreme preppers benefit from the collective creativity of the human species. And generally, we don’t want to hang out with just any old Jane Doe or Joe Blow. We seek people who more or less value and agree with us. Usually, outliers start suspecting there’s something wrong with them, and soon enough, there will be. Completely isolated people suffer, and most break down over time.

Within the context of community, humans have a lot of other needs. For example, there are needs for power and control, prestige, order, safety, excitement, love, nourishment, offspring, humor, and attention. There are needs to contribute positively to society, and needs to protect yourself and those you love. This is not an exhaustive list. Some argue that these needs can all be traced back to the urge nature imbedded in us to propagate our genes. Maybe. But like many of our basic animal urges, we must refine, redirect, balance, and sometimes overcome these urges with consciousness, compassion, courage, reason, and love. Nature has no problem with animals dropping their pants and pooping wherever and whenever this natural and necessary need strikes, but I’m a big fan of outhouses and collective expressions of self-control in this domain. The taming of fire as an evolutionary step forward is rivaled in importance by the invention of the diaper. Indoor plumbing came much later, but again, an impressive leap for humankind.

Fake news is tempting for many reasons. As we’ve noted, humans like to feel like they belong. They hang with their homies, even in the face of evidence that their homies might be bad dudes. And humans greatly enjoy being right. Most parents have noticed that the shorter, less mature among us will argue well past the point of absurdity to hold on to a false belief that benefits them. For instance, the possibility of global warming is quite inconvenient. Therefore, the easy route is to simply deny it.

Fake news is generated for financial and political reasons. Fake news is certainly not our best attempt to explain the world or keep ourselves informed. Mature, moral humans can distinguish between fact and propaganda, between rumors and explanations. We have the means and the abilities, but we often lack the will.

So here’s one possible conclusion Dr. Bossypants endorses: Fake news is successful because of moral incontinence. Yes–giving into the temptation to cut corners and indulge in what Freud might have called leakage of the Id.

Aristotle believed humans were prone to moral incontinence when it came to money or self-aggrandizing. And of course, anger. Think about it: When you let yourself get crazy angry, you might say or do things you aren’t proud of later. Similarly, when we let ourselves want to be right at all costs, we gobble up bot-driven absurdities to bolster our beliefs. Sadly, the more frequently and loudly lies are repeated, the more likely they are to be believed. It’s Groupthink on steroids. Generating, promoting, and sharing highly suspicious “facts” in order to reassure our inward little self, be popular, or sell ads is the equivalent of taking a moral dump in a crowded room.

Diaper-up, people. These compelling human needs (to belong, be right, be rich, etc.) set us up for trouble when paired with immaturity and laziness. Sure, it’s thrilling to contribute to massive conspiracy theories. It’s easier to believe than check the facts. It’s also easier to fear, cheer, and jeer than reason, research, and admit being wrong. But easier isn’t better. In fact, sometimes it’s a public health hazard, and pretty much always, it stinks. Of course, there will be people willing to tell you it doesn’t, but trust me on this one folks, it reeks.