Book review: All about fake news and state of journalism today

The academic psychologist at Columbia University, Rob Brotherton, deals with questions about the state of contemporary journalism in his work titled Bad News: Why We Fall For Fake News (2020)

Representative image
Representative image


Fake News is a much-talked-about phenomenon of the contemporary period intricately linked with political developments of last few years; not only in India but all across the world. The magnanimity of the phenomenon can be simply grasped from the point that Collins dictionary rated ‘Fake News’ as the word of the year in 2017 and defined it as: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Previously in 2016 the Oxford Dictionary had declared another related term, ‘post-truth as the word of the year and defined it as ‘circumstances in which people respond more to feelings and beliefs than to facts’. Today, fake news and other related terms have become part of popular vocabulary tossed around by almost every one, irrespective of their political affiliations.

As the term ‘Fake News’ gained popularity, it rapidly acquired broader connotation. Today, it is used as a slang by politicians or their supporters to discredit the opposition by pointing the falsity of their respective claims or accusations. It is used as an insult directed at media platforms or personalities who might have got facts wrongs, intentionally or innocently. It is also used to point out any biases or one-sided pieces of information in circulation. In short, the term ‘fake news’ is used as a tool to discredit and de-legitimize political and social ‘others’. Primarily, because of this negative connotation attached to it, everyone believes that everyone else, except them, fall for ‘Fake News’.

But what is ‘fake News’? What does it means when someone calls a piece of news or information fake? Why do people believe in fake news, have they become more stupid and gullible? These are just some of the pressing questions that have arisen due to the fake news phenomenon. The highly visible phenomenon of the fake news pandemic, post-truth, sensationalism, breaking-news, etc has also given rise to an apocalyptic vision about our contemporary period where it seems that we are living through one of worst periods in history. Along with these questions, there have also arisen concerns surrounding the credibility of the journalistic profession. ‘Journalism is in a crisis' is one of the most recurrent phrases we hear all the time.

But is this the case? Are we living through one of the worst periods in history of Journalism? Are fake news, eco-chambers, and sensationalism etc. completely novel phenomenon in the world of the news industry that have been brought about by the advances in audio-visual and digital technology? Or, has there been a period when journalism was not in a crisis or media houses maintained complete objectivity and neutrality and followed journalistic ethics?

The academic psychologist at Columbia University, Rob Brotherton, deals with all these questions and many more related to state of contemporary Journalism in his work titled Bad News: Why We Fall For Fake News (2020). Through Brotherton is an academic, he has very carefully avoided academic jargon and minimized the usage of technical terms, which makes his work readable for general audience.

Divided into eight chapters, this book presents a concise history of the News industry as it has developed through the last few centuries. Each chapter is titled after buzzwords-cum-concept-cum-phenomenon like Fake News, Bad News, Breaking News, Too Much News, Echo Chambers, Deep fakes, and Post-Truth which are supposedly plaguing the news industry and concurrently the world today.

While dealing with each topic, the author first proceeds with a historical anecdote related to the topic in order to show that none of it is a completely new or recent phenomenon. In fact ‘audiences and critics have been complaining about these problems for centuries’. The problem of fake news, sensationalism, alternative facts or breaking news, biased reporting etc. has accompanied the news industry since its very beginning in the sixteenth century. Through extensive historical research substantiated with the latest psychological studies, Brotherton shows that ‘fear of fake news- in the broadest sense- seems to be as old as news’ itself, which always has been a business and operates according to consumers demands.

According to Brotherton, if we have to understand fake news, ‘we need to understand the appeal of all news’, because fake news ‘mimics the form and function of standard news, leveraging our collective notions of what is or should be its advantage’ and in its broadest sense is as old as news itself. People have not become more stupid or gullible under the influence of technology in recent times, rather they have always liked news or information or ‘facts’ that suits their socio-political-economic beliefs. Similarly, when it comes to the Breaking News format of digital media, the concern with the fast and latest delivery of news has existed since the 18th century and often has proved fatal for news carriers.

Discussing ‘Bad News’ or news related to reporting blood and gore, this again is not a recent development but has existed since newspapers began to exist. Even though people show disgust at these stories, they like to read them, and that is why newspapers and televised media are full of such stories. Similarly, the buzzword phenomenon of ‘Eco-chambers’ or ‘filter bubble’, in recent times goes back to the very beginning of organized information dissemination systems. Known in psychology as homophily or ‘love for the same’, people have always liked to limit themselves within a group that validates their thoughts and have avoided those who challenge their beliefs. As far as the most recent development of deepfake goes, Brotherton again cites historical examples to show that editing or reworking of images is as old as the camera itself. The concerns around ‘too much news’ or ‘information overload’ expressed by both intellectuals and general public alike, is yet again not a new development but goes back to the early 20th century.

Historically speaking, editors of newspapers have always sided with political parties who they support. There also have been fist-fights, accusations of spreading fake news or wrong information, and campaigns run by editors of one newspaper against another newspaper, who have differed on social, political, and economic issues. The much-celebrated and eulogized concept of ‘objectivity’ and ‘journalistic ethics’ is a relatively late development whose history can only be traced to the early decades of the twentieth century coinciding with the rise of the academic study of Journalism.

Brotherton argues that cognitive bias is the cause of current predicaments of the entire news industry. The pandemic of fake news and related epidemics have always existed. Its root lies in the psychology of news consumers who interpret any piece of information in accordance with their socio-political beliefs. Technology, according to Brotherton, has only given impetus to and made visible what has always existed.

Though the book provides a much-needed understanding about fake news and such related phenomenon by explaining its history and explaining it psychologically, Brotherton nevertheless ignores the political dimensions and roots of the phenomenon. By emphasizing that people have always been like this, the author ignores the socio-economic-political aspects of development of Human cogitation. Nevertheless, the book is a good entry point if one wishes to understand the current state of Journalism and much talked about ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

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