What Makes Fake News Fake?

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One aspect of the aftermath of President Trump’s successful election campaign which I find fascinating is the notion of “fake news”. A quick Google Trends search indicates the topic has become quite popular as of late, especially in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Initially, the phrase tended to denote news sites which fell outside those typically used by the American people, or which were not recognized as “legitimate” within professional journalistic circles. How such sites arise, and what effect they have on US politics, is an interesting topic in its own right.

Setting that aside, the existence of this phrase does raise a valid question - What makes fake news “fake”, anyway?. After all, if some news is “fake”, it stands to reason some is “real”. So what’s the difference?

The answer, as I see it, is “it’s all fake”.

To see what I mean, let’s start with a point (I hope) we agree on - news is “fake” if it reports factually false things. So, a news story saying Einstein was born in 1789, instead of 1879, would be “fake” in that sense. (Or maybe they made a typographical mistake.) And indeed, any news story which reports “facts” which are not factually true should be called out as “fake news”.

But, you say, what about this Orwellian-sounding notion of “alternative facts”? If a news story uses such “facts”, is it “fake”? The answer, I think, depends on context.

Manufacturing Fake News - An Economics Example

Consider this NPR piece, “The America Donald Trump is Inheriting, By the Numbers”. Skimming through it, the article does an excellent job of conveying factual, quantitative information, by providing the hard numbers on “how things were, and how they are now.”. It’s a great example of “news as facts” reporting. Let’s start by looking at a statistic the piece provides regarding the unemployment rate:

“December’s unemployment rate is more than three points lower than when Obama took office and more than five points below its October 2009 peak of 10 percent. “

Below, I pulled a graph from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Branch’s Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) regarding the unemployment rate, It’s clear that, when President Obama took office in January 2009, the unemployment rate was approximately 7.8%, and that it dropped to 4.7% by the end of his term in December 2016.

It is a fact that the unemployment rate decreased overall during President Obama’s administration. And insofar as the NPR article was reporting such facts, then both of us would agree that this article is not “fake news”.

However, there’s a compelling context just begging to used in understanding this fact; namely, “The unemployment rate went down, and that’s a good thing, so therefore the President’s policies, and those enacted by Congress, were successful in helping pull America out of the Great Recession”.

It is the coupling of that context to the chart above which makes for fake news.

Why?

Allow me to present you with an alternative fact - the labor force participation rate. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The labor force participation rate is the percentage of the population that is either employed or unemployed (that is, either working or actively seeking work).”

Let’s pull up some data from the FRED.

It is also a fact that, during President Obama’s Administration, the rate went from approximately 65.7% down to 62.7%. To their credit, the NPR piece does provide that information at the bottom of their section entitled “Economy”.

Again, there’s an compelling context we could use to understand this fact - “The labor force participation rate went down, and that’s a bad thing, so therefore the President’s policies, and those enacted by Congress, were not successful in helping pull America out of the Great Recession”.

Again, coupling that context to the chart above makes for fake news.

Two Contexts, Two Data, Two Fake News Pieces

The example above illustrates the following general observation:

Any time facts are presented in conjunction with contexts, we have to be aware of how the context affects our interpretation of the fact.

During the election, I told people “facts don’t matter, because people choose not to make facts matter”. I remain convinced this is the case, regardless of which side you hold in a discussion. Why? Because at the end of the day, none of us has the full information on any topic. And, lacking information, we will fall back on our ideologies or philosophies to bolster our arguments.

In writing this piece, I found this blog post, “The chart Obama-haters love most—and the truth behind it”. It discusses the labor force participation rate and how powerful demographic trends - such as the retirement of the baby boomers - are driving changes in its behavior. I didn’t know that was the case. And now, I better see how the labor force participation rate might not necessarily be a good one when discussing the overall health of the economy and labor market.

Amusingly, NPR also makes the same observation, saying

“The labor force participation rate has declined since Obama took office. Part of that is due to demographic shifts; as baby boomers retire, that will drag the rate downward, as those people will no longer be working or looking for jobs. The same goes for many adults who are in school. However, some of this downward movement is because of a bad economy; as of 2014, the CBO attributed half the decline at that time to demographics and half to economic problems.”

Is it a bit odd that the unemployment rate is accompanied by no such context, while the labor force participation rate is?

All News is (Basically) Fake News

Regarding the NPR article above, the quandry in interpreting the economic/social/political facts presented is that we never have the whole story. So how do we make sense of such facts? The best I can think to do is use the information I have, try to find more, be honest about where I am lacking, and acknowledge ideology will probably fill in the gaps.

For this reason, I say all news is (basically) fake news. There’s always more information and context which could be presented in any article or blog post (even this one!). As users of news, we must therefore be vigilant about this kind of an effect, and hold journalists and writers accountable so that they may keep our trust.


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