Ricardo Bilton, a staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab, read my book about the history of conspiracy theories and decided it might help put the current debate about "fake news" in perspective. So last week he interviewed me, and this week an edited version of our conversation went online. Here's an excerpt:
BILTON: So you're optimistic about media's ability stop fake news from spreading?
WALKER: I looked historically at some of these rumors that floated around in the early 1940s. There was, for example, this idea that blacks in the south were organizing to take over once World War II was over and Hitler would put them in charge. It sounds like the most absurd sort of fake news rumor of today. The thing is it wasn't being circulated online where someone could read it and then easily Google it or click over to Snopes to see the debunking. It was just being talked about face-to-face as a rumor, and that's how it spread.
So, yeah, I'm actually moderately optimistic, because the fact that everyone is talking about fake news and on the lookout for it shows there's more of an awareness of it and how people can be fooled. Obviously, tons of false stories are circulating, but it's easier than before to identify them, and debunk them, and counteract them. I don't know whether it's true that the debunking is doing the job, but the people writing the debunking stories are at least being somewhat empowered in a way they weren't before…
Bilton also asked about political partisanship's effect on people's willingness to believe false reports. After agreeing that yes, partisanship can fuel confirmation bias, I noted another force at work:
For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative. They expect news stories to look like the movies or TV shows that they're familiar with. Even if they're regular journalism consumers, the stories they remember best are these well done stories that tell a compelling narrative and make them feel like they're watching a movie or TV show.
In reality, stories are messy and have real loose ends. That's the real bias that readers have to combat, and it's something that people in the media have to think about. Because, on the one hand we want to provide good, compelling narratives, but on the other hand, we don't want people to think they live in this world that's made up of these easy, compelling narratives. They don't.