Putting the Folklore in Fake News

Amid all the rancor of the 2016 election, fake news emerged as a rare unifying force, one equally decried by the incoming and outgoing presidents, journalists and pundits across the political spectrum, and even those who stand to gain financially from the proliferation of false information. The problem of fake news has yielded a growing corpus of articles exploring its impact on traditional journalism, public safety, and even democracy itself. Rather than throwing its hat into those rings, this article will argue against the “fake news” framing itself. In its place, it will propose a frame that foregrounds why a particular story is believed, and what that belief reveals about the broader cultural landscape—not just whether or not the story is true.   

First up are the handful of problems ushered in by the “fake news” frame. Most basically, the term—not unlike the ambiguous and ultimately unhelpful “trolling”—has become hopelessly muddled through imprecise use; in addition to describing purposefully deceptive clickbait published by bogus websites and then spread via social media, the “fake news” label has also been applied to a variety of conspiracy theories and rumors, the sincerity of which is often impossible to parse. It has also proven to be a handy way of undermining the credibility of one’s critics (this is Trump’s preferred use of the term, despite his own history of amplifying false narratives), and has therefore become the go-to insult for those looking to derail an argument (“YOU’RE fake news!”).

The “fake news” frame also tends to trivialize the impact of a particular story, as if its falsity renders its impact equally untenable. This point was on glaring display when Trump denounced BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a summary of the so-called “Russian dossier.” Sidestepping the ethical issue of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this document, the story—and the questions it raised—were all too real. Even the fakest news, in other words, can have a profoundly serious impact.

Perhaps most importantly, “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.

Illustrating this point—as well as what is missed when the primary focus is truth versus falsehood—is Edgar Welch, the man who opened fire on D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong in an effort to investigate what he believed to be a Satanic child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. As noted in an interview with Adam Goldman of the New York Times, Welch didn’t just reject the “fake news” frame (in this case, he was referring to the plethora of unsubstantiated rumors circulating parts of Reddit and 4chan), he outright inverted it. Echoing many far-right conspiracy “truthers,” he asserted 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.

This jarring disconnect reveals the etic nature of “fake news” framings, which impose external standards onto the indigenous values and assumptions of a particular group—a group that may experience a narrative in totally diametric terms. Most notably as true rather than false.

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.

By focusing more intently on the objective falsity of a story rather than the subjective truth of beliefs about it, the “fake news” frame thus posits a set of circumstances that may not even be perceivable to believers. For Welch, for example, it was impossible that mainstream reports debunking the pizzagate story could have been telling the truth, prompting his on-site investigation. Welch’s case also illustrates Lewandowsky et al.’s findings that attempts to correct misinformation may ultimately serve to reinforce false beliefs through entrenched repetition.  

But if not “fake news,” then what? Although less catchy (and a decidedly less fun insult), a folkloric framework—perhaps described as “folkloric news,” perhaps even as “folk news,” though the specific label is less important than its underlying theoretical approach—provides one possibility.

First, given that folklore is most simply understood as “the stuff people share,” such a framework sidesteps the definitional fuzziness of fake news by embracing that fuzziness. It reflects the fact that questionable digitally mediated content can take a variety of hybrid forms (from professional articles to semi-professional YouTube videos to individual social media posts); can be amplified through a variety of hybrid media (from Facebook to email to traditional journalism outlets); and can be underscored by a variety of hybrid motivations (from malevolence to playfulness to who knows what). Folkloric content can, of course, accurately reflect the world, i.e. be true. But the frame doesn’t begin and end with veracity. It begins and ends with participation.

To that same point, the folkloric frame sidesteps myopic focus on the text itself and instead foregrounds how and why resonant memes spread across specific collectives. (For an adept analysis of the logics animating the spread of memetic media, see Milner). The folkloric approach thus encourages an emic approach: rather than externally imposing what is true or false, 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?”

This does not mean that one must sympathize with the why of belief, or maintain complicity in the face of violence, ignorance, and bigotry. Nor does it mean that what is really true and what is really false no longer matters. What’s right, what’s wrong, what’s real, what’s fake—these things couldn’t be more important as we march into the gaslight of the Trump era, where truth, that is to say, the actual things we actually saw happen, will be contested at every turn.

That said, without considering how a particular belief coheres within a particular paradigm, censorious fact-checking risks being heard only by already-sympathetic ears, thus becoming its own kind of fake news to those who disagree. Lewandowsky et al.’s findings affirm this point, noting that misinformation is best corrected not merely by saying facts at someone, but by filling coherency gaps left in the wake of a retraction (116). And that’s precisely what a folkloric approach has the power to do: rather than approaching narratives as true/false binaries, it allows 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.