The subject was billed as “The Rise and Fall of the Fact.” And while it sounds like a treatise in current events, in reality it was a brief history of the world. And who better to talk about facts than a law professor who teaches a course at Harvard University called “The History of Evidence.”
Jill Lepore, a teacher, attorney and writer for New Yorker magazine gave a classroom-style overview on the history of facts, data, propaganda, public relations and fake news during the James P. Elder Lecture last week at Elon University. It’s a subject she’s studied well and began talking about decades before it emerged over the past few years as a critical issue that is dividing and defining American life. No one seems to believe anything anymore.
“I used to talk about this years ago. Now everybody’s talking about it,” Lepore told the audience at Whitley Auditorium. She equated it to a college student who thinks they’ve discovered a hot new band and talks them up to everyone they know. Then the band becomes famous, is featured in Rolling Stone and is playing giant coliseums and stadiums instead of hole-in-the-wall dives. When I was in college REM was that band. One day they were playing a small club on Tate Street in Greensboro the next they were opening for The Police at the Capital Centre in Maryland.
So I knew what she was talking about.
Lepore gave a largely academic overview on what has become the hot-button topic of our times — the erosion of trust in pretty near everything but especially media, politics, science and higher education. When she got into the emergence of propaganda during World War I, the creation of public relations and selling political candidates, it was familiar territory to lectures I remembered from my college years as a communications and journalism student. She even touched on the Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds — perhaps the most famous fake news event of its time. It was meant to be a Halloween entertainment program about an alien invasion. So many people took it seriously that Welles gave a warning shot of what was to come.
Namely, people believe what they wish to, hear what they select to hear and follow their own worst instincts without asking through questions or even cursory examination.
Sounds a lot like today.
Lepore believes we are now in an age where data are viewed favorably in opposition to facts. This has evolved over time but has accelerated thanks to online accessibility, Google and social media. The fact is — no pun intended — data aren’t always factual. Numbers may not tell bald-faced lies but often don’t always reflect what is truly occurring. “Facts require discernment,” Lepore says. “Data are detectors of patterns.” In essence, data can lead to a fact but can only be part of a larger whole. Facts are observed and in essence science is the observing and study of things believed to be mysteries and turning those mysteries into facts.
“Much of contemporary discourse, and pretty much all of contemporary politics, is really a dispute over evidence,” Lepore said.
By coincidence, Lepore’s Elon appearance coincided with the furor over the social media giant Facebook and its cavalier liberties with the privacy of billions of users along with its role in promoting false news stories and impacting politics and culture in general.
Again by coincidence, a report was produced this week titled “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World.” The study was produced by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Elon professor of communications Janna Anderson is affiliated with the Imagining the Internet initiative. No surprise that many experts believe digital access will be mostly harmful to people over the next 10 years — from my point of view it already is. Many of them believe some measures will be put in place to mitigate the damage by improving technology, establishing guidelines or regulations, improving tech literacy for users, privacy protection laws and a host of other ideas.
I’m not sure how much anything should be regulated. There are free speech issues at play here. But I did find it interesting that Lepore was in agreement with a well-known leader in the digital world about one key step in battling the belief or spread of fake news. Better thinking by tech users. This was included in the Pew / Imagining the Internet report.
And this I think speaks volumes about measures government might take concerning this issue.
As for Lepore, she was asked during the Q&A portion of the lecture how to combat fake or misleading reports spread by those who read Breitbart News, the right-wing online publication that helped fuel the political rise of Donald Trump to the White House. She turned the question around, saying “Readers of Breitbart would probably ask how do we combat the New York Times?”
She had multiple pieces of advice. First and foremost, check facts yourself and do so thoroughly. And second, “always ask people where they get their news.”