The phrase “fake news” has had something of a roller-coaster trajectory. When it first got big, during the presidential campaign, it felt like a useful way to explain a very harmful source of political information: “news” websites and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that spread false or grossly distorted rumors, to many readers, without bothering to fact-check them. As BuzzFeed and other outlets showed, such content spread like wildfire, especially on Facebook (whose weighted algorithm privileges content that elicits shocked or outraged responses), likely contributing greatly to all sorts of political misconceptions — particularly when it came to outrageous rumors about Hillary Clinton and her campaign.
But in part because BuzzFeed and others showed pretty convincingly that the biggest fake-news sites and Facebook pages tended to be conservative — a fact conservatives didn’t appreciate — there has since been a backlash. These days, everyone is accusing everyone else of spreading “fake news,” with the epithet even hurled in instances of simple, everyday journalistic mistakes that are quickly corrected. (It should be said that, yes, liberals spread “fake news” too, but there’s a strong case to be made it’s a bigger problem on the right for various reasons.)
In light of all this, it might be time to rethink the “fake news” frame entirely, and on the website Culture Digitally, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Mercer University who wrote a 2015 book on internet trolls, makes a compelling case for a new way of understanding this sort of misinformation: through the lens of folklore. Now, folklore happens to be one of Phillips’s primary research interests, so it might not be surprising that she’d choose it. But she makes a strong case.
First, she lays out why the “fake news” frame’s focus on the truth value of a given claim misses the boat a bit. “Perhaps most importantly,” she writes, “‘fake news’ tends to direct focus to the veracity of the text itself, not on the social processes that facilitate its spread, or how particular stories align with the interests and biases of those sharing it. It is geared towards surface phenomena, in other words, not to underlying currents.”
She also argues that this frame carves the world a bit too neatly into the sorts of people who would and wouldn’t spread fake news, as though many or most humans carefully evaluate the quality of the information they receive before spreading it on. But that’s simply not true, Phillips argues:
To be clear, slippery relativism is something to actively guard against; there are such things as actual things, and it is important to parse verifiable claims from those that are patently untrue. That said, it is also critical to recognize that people are often memetically, and not empirically, situated, a point my Ambivalent Internet co-author Ryan Milner and I highlight in our discussion of election “meme magic.” We—all of us, at some point in our lives, to varying degrees—believe things because they align with our existing worldviews, or because we were told these things by people we trust, or because we desperately want to believe them, not because we have independently verified these things using anything even vaguely resembling an analytic methodology. This point is supported by Sandra Harding’s articulation of feminist standpoint theory, which foregrounds the extent to which political standpoint—literally and figuratively, where someone is standing in relation to power, due to race, gender, class, etc.—directly impacts what someone sees, and therefore what they know (or think they know) about the world.
Phillips argues instead for a “folkloric frame” — she suggests the descriptor “folk news” or “folkloric news” rather than “fake news.” This sort of frame “sidesteps myopic focus on the text itself and instead foregrounds how and why resonant memes spread across specific collectives,” she writes. It “takes seriously—and explores the organic functionality of—the values, assumptions, and behaviors of participants, essentially replacing the more accusatory ‘what you are sharing is wrong’ with the more curious and engaged ‘in what ways is this true for you?’”
For example: Edgar Welch, the man who opened fire inside of Comet Ping Pong during his “investigation” of the outrageous Pizzagate rumors, “asserted [to the New York Times] that mainstream journalism was biased to the point of fakery; for him, journalists’ proclamations of ‘fake news’ thus pointed to the veracity of the story they were refuting,” writes Phillips. Someone like Welch has complicated reasons for believing what he believes, and he isn’t going to be swayed by the dozenth debunking coming from exactly the sources that led him to seek out fringe outlets in the first place.
In light of all of this, Phillips argues that the folkloric frame offers more hope for combating the spread of false information by “allow[ing] observers to peer beyond the memes and identify—and when necessary, to exactingly challenge—deeper cultural logics. To tell a different story, in other words, one that will help maintain our collective grip on what’s really real, and why that really matters.”
Because Phillips is introducing this framing rather than diving into the specifics, she doesn’t really go into how the folkloric framing could help spread potentially dangerous misinformation.
It’s interesting, though, how her argument connects with a lot of stuff we already know about political psychology, ethnography, and the nature of misinformation.
For example, there is a persistent strand of angry atheism that holds that if you just yell at believers long enough about how wrong and dumb their beliefs on evolution or the existence of God or whatever else is, the sheer power of reason will eventually dislodge their “primitive” beliefs. There’s very little evidence this works, except in an isolated number of extreme cases, and part of the reason it doesn’t work is that it doesn’t account for the many reasons people believe false things in the first place. Beliefs aren’t only about whether they are empirically true or false — they are woven into people’s social and cultural and family lives in complicated ways. Sometimes they have important functional roles that, in the distant or not-so-distant past, helped bind together communities in arguably useful ways (at least in the context of a world built more around small, closely knit communities than the present one is). The idea that you can cut through this tangled self-reinforcing web by pointing out the falseness of a belief is a bit haughty.
Along those same lines, researchers have been arguing for a long time that when it comes to highly politicized subjects like climate change, mere debunking doesn’t work unless it’s done in a very specific way. As I wrote back in 2014:
It’s worth pointing out, of course, that for many conservatives (and liberals), the current debate about climate change isn’t really about competing piles of evidence or about facts at all — it’s about identity. Climate change has come to serve as shorthand for which side you’re on, and conservatives tend to be deeply averse to what climate crusaders represent (or what they think they represent). “The thing most likely to make it hard to sway somebody is that you’re trying to sway them,” said [Dan Kahan, a Yale University researcher who studies these sorts of questions].
But in practical, apolitical contexts, many conservatives already recognize and are willing to respond to the realities of climate change. “There’s a climate change people reject,” Kahan explained. “That’s the one they use if they have to be a member of one or another of those groups. But there’s the climate change information they accept that’s just of a piece with all the information and science that gets used in their lives.” A farmer approached by a local USDA official with whom he’s worked before, for example, isn’t going to start complaining about hockey-stick graphs or biased scientists when that official tells him what he needs to do to account for climate-change-induced shifts to local weather patterns.
When it comes to false claims that tie deeply into someone’s identity — whether religiously or politically or whatever else — the more we can get away from the idea that those claims’ falseness is what matters the most, the better off we’ll be. “Folk news” is very unlikely to overtake “fake news” as a description of the rampant information whizzing around the internet, but Phillips is nudging us in the right direction. We should listen to her.