« The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth ».
Written more than a century ago by H.L. Mencken, one of the greatest of all U.S. journalists, these words could probably apply to the people of any nation at any time in history. And no less so now.
The idea that we love or have ever loved the truth or even have much need or respect for it is one of the great myths of humankind. Men lie as they breathe. Men spread false information knowingly. Men very often prefer lies to truth – not always for their own profit, but simply because it makes everything more interesting. It has always been thus.
Our propensity to lie probably comes from monkeys, like much else. When confronted by danger, let’s say a deadly snake, monkeys will scream (in monkey language, of course), ‘snake!’, ‘snake’, so all of them can scamper safely up the nearest tree. However … when a monkey finds a piece of food, he often screams ‘snake’, ‘snake’ too, to fool his friends so he can eat the food alone and in peace while his fellow monkeys are trembling from snake fear up in the branches.
A digression … Back to humans. Serious news media, indeed whole societies world-wide, are getting very heated up and anxious about lies and fake news, which is great for the seminar and conference business, as journalists gather to debate the issue. This hysteria about fake news originates from and is noisiest in America. There are perhaps two reasons for this: 1) The American hatred for lying (publicly at least; in private, Americans lie at least as much as everyone else) is legendary. It is tempting to blame this on the first puritanical Scandinavian settlers (but if I am to believe my beloved John Ford westerns, Native Americans really hated lying too and most probably still do). Bill Clinton was not, let us remember, crucified for getting a blowjob from an intern, but for lying about it (a curiosity for us Europeans. 2) The American people have just elected a spectacular liar as President, putting most of us average liars in the shade.
The history of man is a history of lies and fake news. Ask the Trojans, who innocently accepted the gift of a wooden horse from the Greeks, who then jumped out of it and slit their throats. How about Titus Oates, who invented a Jesuit plot to kill King Charles II and set off a murderous purge of English Catholics? And the Piltdown Man – faked fossil evidence to prove Charles Darwin’s theories of our descendance from apes. Or the Dreyfus ‘affair’, an anti-semitic plot to condemn a man on the basis of faked evidence? Einstein was a poor student and failed at mathematics? Nonsense! Fake News! He was a child prodigy who showed his genius as early as 11 years old. And so on and so on.
So what, if anything, has changed today? Are there more falsifiers and fakers among us than in the past? I think not. The only thing that has changed is that we now have a more fantastically powerful tool for the propagation of falsehood than we could ever previously have imagined – the Internet, of course. Thanks to this communication tool, we now have the ultimate means of spreading falsity and rumours of every imaginable kind, at leisure and for whatever motive pleases us. Can we ever control and stop the spread of fake news and information? Obviously not. The efforts of news media and even the Internet giants like Facebook to stem the flood look to me as credible as King Canute’s vain promise to hold back the tides of the sea.
No, the answer does not, cannot, lie in laudable programmes to seek out and eliminate false information. Serious media should and must investigate, deny and contradict fake news when it really gets out of hand and endangers society. In the meantime, they must simply get on with the job of fairly and seriously reporting the news as they see it.
In sympathy with Mencken, I see the task elsewhere than in this impossible, Herculean challenge to identify and disprove fake information. The problem goes right to the roots of human nature. The real question is how to help people prefer the truth from mendaciousness, how to help them to favour the truthful men from the ‘daring liars’. This may take a very long time and the support of an army of psychologists and philosophers. In the meantime, fake news has a great past and most certainly a great future.