‘Bad News: Why we Fall for Fake News’ review: Fact and myth

A psychologist explores how much information the globe can process and be a smarter consumer of news

Published - August 08, 2020 04:06 pm IST

Fake news has been in currency for so long that we need another term to deal with the present, perhaps something on the lines of post-truth and alternative facts. Come to think of it, fake and news are mutually contradictory. How can something patently fake be news? And yet, there is fake news and there is news. The term has been popularised by U.S. President Donald Trump who has taken credit for coming up with the term and has used it for news unfavourable to him and to discredit critical media outlets.

Peddling misinformation

Closer home, and perhaps taking its cue from the U.S. President, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), which functions as a mouthpiece of the Government of India, has decided to counter news critical of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government by labelling it fake news. On the microblogging site Twitter, the PIB, which has positioned itself as an official fact-checker, spends extraordinary amount of energy countering every nugget of news which counters the dominant narrative of a majority government as fake. But what does one make of mis-information peddled by the government and amplified by television channels and social media embedded with the government? Would that qualify as fake news as well?

To answer some of these vexatious questions, Bad News goes to the heart of the matter by examining what is news and author Rob Brotherton quickly comes to the conclusion that “fake news mimics the form and function of standard news, leveraging our collective notions of what news is or should be to its advantage. Because of this parasitic relationship, we can better understand the problem of fake news by exploring our complicated relationship with news in general.”

Appetite for blood and gore

Brotherton writes about the media’s insatiable appetite for blood and gore and how we as readers fall for it. It is a fascinating compendium of how news and those who create it or report it, have never enjoyed a stellar reputation; their ranking quite often was close to real-estate brokers. From bad news to breaking bad news to deadly breaking bad news — news has been about blasts, deaths, floods and gore. If there is a break from this, the good news, as the author reminds us, is of a tragedy averted. The book is as much about news, false news as it is about how we consume news. As we progress into curated news, and consumption of news changes, the future of news is anybody’s guess.

By tracing false information back to the 17th century, and by presenting undisputed facts, Brotherton quite effectively convinces us into believing that “fake news” has been around for a long time. This book is not kind on newsmakers. It offers a mirror for newsmakers to see themselves — warts and all.

Bad News: Why we Fall for Fake News ; Rob Brotherton, Bloomsbury, ₹599.

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