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What state propaganda and the spread of fake news say about human nature

Written by Michael Lee

To observers of North Korea, the most incredible fact of the Kim regime’s survival is the resilience of its lies in the face of unfavourable domestic and international circumstances. There are few states in the world today that force their citizens to outwardly believe, on pain of imprisonment or death, such an alternate reality of half-truths and lies. Although the proliferation of DVDs and USB sticks carrying South Korean and Western entertainment have opened a small window into life outside the Hermit Kingdom for North Koreans, state propaganda retains a strong grip over the people’s worldview.

The misplaced emphasis that journalists and other outsiders place on the minutiae of state propaganda lead them to overlook aspects of it that appeal to the North Korean people. In fact, the ridicule the Western press specifically reserves for the regime’s hagiography—for example, the notion that former ruler, Kim Jong-il’s birth was heralded by a double rainbow and a swallow proclaiming his destiny to rule the world—misses the point of state misinformation by a wide mark. Not only are such legends largely irrelevant to North Koreans themselves (long-term residents have noted that the populace glosses over those aspects of propaganda that are obviously false or démodé) the North Korean propaganda machine’s strongest falsehoods are the ones that resonate with both the patriotism and insecurity of Kim Jong-un’s current subjects.

Playing to Their Weaknesses

The key to the propagandists’ success in playing the emotions of Kim Jong-un’s North Korean subjects is their exploitation of the very human desire to avoid uncomfortable truths. The famine of the mid-to-late 1990s forced a change. After all, it is difficult to insist that one is living in a paradise when family and neighbours are starving. Yet instead of admitting the catastrophe of the communist project, the propaganda machine switched from trumpeting socialist triumphs to stroking the North Korean people’s bruised ego, mainly by playing up their racial purity, but also by defending their innocence and righteousness. Simply put, the propaganda machine spun a veil of victimhood to deflect responsibility away from the state to believable culprits. Today, the state media blames the US empire and its trade embargo, derides the weakness of Eastern European and Soviet peoples who abandoned communism, and trumpets the necessity of the nuclear-armed state to protect against enemies. The regime also lurches from one hare-brained project to another, following on-the-spot guidance issued by the succession of Kims at various industrial sites. This is the propaganda that North Koreans continue to believe in—the kind that flatters them, confirms their biases, suggests easy fixes, and scapegoats outside forces.

From this, it isn’t hard to see the unlikely parallel between North Koreans and those among us who mistake fake news for the truth.

The Media Discredited

Most writers and commentators use the label of ‘fake news’ to refer to any news stories created to deliberately mislead. These are posted on websites that regularly relay stories with no basis in actual fact, usually with the purpose of generating ad revenue from viewer traffic. While some seek merely to make money, fake news stories also constitute one of the principal guises through which partisans can push a political agenda. ‘Fake news’ therefore becomes a much broader category if it also incorporates all media that deliberately mislead by omission, exaggeration, alteration, or fabrication. Some of these news organizations purport to be legitimate news outlets. Thus, part of the difficulty in defining fake news is drawing the line between news organizations with a general ideological slant in their reporting, and individual stories that obscure or distort vital aspects of the truth.

Misreporting by bona fide journalists is nothing new, but the drastic decline in faith in traditional media, especially in the United States, is a recent phenomenon. According to Gallup, a research-based consulting company, Americans' confidence in the mass media, "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly," dropped to its lowest level in Gallup-polling history last year, with only 32 percent saying they have a good amount of trust in the media, down eight points from last year. A few of the reasons for this decline are no mystery. Most major broadcasting channels and newspapers failed to challenge the Bush administration’s pre-2003 assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even the New York Times and CNN were accused of acting as “cheerleaders” for the subsequent invasion and destabilization of Iraq, which demolished the credibility of official predictions that the nation would be quickly pacified. Reporting about the military occupation was also tainted by false claims that copies of the Quran were desecrated at Guantanamo Bay, which prompted a retraction by Newsweek.

A Vacuum to Be Filled

Although political polarization in the United States is at an all-time high, polarization of ideas is less pronounced at the level of rank-and-file voters. As Andrew Gelman writes in his 2009 book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, the poor in both red and blue states share more values than which divide them, and are more likely to vote Democratic. However, Democratic and Republican voters do diverge significantly on the question of whether they trust the mass media. In the same Gallup poll where only 32 percent of Americans expressed trust in the media, the number of Republicans who say they have trust has plummeted to 14 percent from 32 percent a year ago; whereas Democrats' and independents' trust in the media has declined only marginally, with 51 percent of Democrats (compared with 55 percent the previous year) and 30 percent of independents (versus 33 percent) expressing trust.

Geography is another factor that has emerged in 2016 as a fault line between voters in the United States. Pundits have gone so far as to label the phenomenon “Red Country, Blue Cities,” highlighting the growing separation between urban clusters of Democratic voters and rural, Republican-leaning counties. Some see this geographic self-segregation reflected in the views that garner news coverage; whereas major media outlets are based in the more homogeneously Democratic cities and coastal regions of America, rural regions are relatively under-represented in the broadcast media.

In such an environment of geographic and media polarization, it should not come as a shock that there is a demand for alternative commentary amongst those voices feeling disenfranchised. Yet today’s conservative media vacuum is a drastically different landscape from 1996, when Rupert Murdoch launched the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. One need no longer sit through the whole nine o’clock broadcast or buy an entire newspaper to access news. Consumption of news is effectively à la carte, with print and broadcast media uploading their stories individually onto their social media feeds to generate maximum viewer traffic. Social media provides an easy method of distribution to amateur content creators, quickly connecting them to wider audiences than ever before. Viral posts and videos ricochet across digital social networks, ramping up publicity and attention with every new “like” and comment they gain.

The injection of new viewpoints and articles into the political debate might be a refreshing development, if only all these new viewpoints and articles were grounded in fact. However, with the rise of hyper-partisanship and the cherry-picking of information as the norm of modern political culture, online content creators can play hard and fast with the truth to push a selective agenda to readers who want to be rewarded with the news they want to see.

Sometimes the authors of fake news are shockingly flagrant in their mischief, but often the real abuse of facts occurs under the radar. One of the most egregious perpetrators of fake news is Alex Jones of Infowars.com. One need only listen to a few episodes of his radio show to know that Jones regularly re-writes his previous day’s script to suit his purposes, as he did when he first called the Sandy Hook school shooting a hoax, and then denied saying just that before listing more conspiracy theories about the tragedy. Yet most fake news stories are less blatant, and thus demand greater scrutiny. Some will refer to “studies” whose evidence has been debunked, such as a November 2016 article by CNS News which claimed 6.1 million illegal immigrants were engaged in Social Security fraud and cited a 2014 Electoral Studies paper that concluded undocumented immigrants tipped the outcomes of close races. Political scientists criticized the paper in question, saying it misinterpreted the data collected by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). The CCES even published a newsletter that disputed the findings, stating,  “The likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent US elections is 0.”

Why, then, do readers entertain obvious lies like those trafficked by Infowars.com, or fall for articles that refer to discredited academic papers?

It’s Only Human

In the vein of the age-old adage that “sex sells,” news outlets have an incentive to make repeat customers out of their readers or viewers by piquing their interest, either by finding information that is groundbreaking—the ever-elusive “scoop”—or by catering to the interests of the audience; the latter habit makes some newspapers terribly predictable. Before Brexit consumed news coverage in the UK, the front pages of conservatively-inclined British newspapers, such as The Daily Telegraph, invariably carried a headline about the “failing” National Health Service (a favourite target of British Tories), accompanied by a photograph of the Queen or some other member of the royal family.

Instead of hooking readers with true stories, fake news stories merely complete the commoditization of news by solely selling what readers want to hear, thereby validating their worldview–even if the news is detached from reality. Psychologists have long known that people exhibit confirmation bias, which favours information that supports their preexisting beliefs while discounting contradictory evidence. In today’s highly atomized media environment, consumers of news can subscribe exclusively to outlets that conform to their interests and worldview. Sometimes, consumers will entertain an obviously fake story, or easily provable lies from pundits they favour, in the same way they would root for a favoured sports team. They do this because such stories restore their self-assurance and reinforce assumptions about a dishonest media. People can thus isolate themselves from uncomfortable viewpoints and contradictory evidence, creating personal Hermit Kingdoms, where barriers to the truth are voluntarily imposed. In a word, these are the perfect conditions for fake news to thrive by preying on their consumers’ confirmation biases.

In an example that illustrates perhaps how tolerant the news media has become regarding fake news stories, Fox News allowed a tweet falsely claiming the suspect in the Quebec City mosque terrorist attack was of Moroccan origin, to remain online for over 24 hours before the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office intervened. While official action in this case was timely and fortunate, it will require much more vigilance from fact-checkers and introspection from the public itself to halt the spread of fake news and misinformation. Left unchecked, the proliferation of fake news bodes ill for informed decision-making in our democracy.

As the philosopher David Carr originally said, “Truth is singular and lies are plural, but history—the facts of what happened—is both immutable and mostly unknowable.” Here Carr acknowledges that while the facts may not be entirely known, they do not change, and the eventual, complete story is but one. As Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell more succinctly put it in the words of the character Sonmi-451, “Truth is singular; its ‘versions’ are mistruths.”