The Telling from the Trivial

In an era of "fake news," a liberal-arts education is more important than ever.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | December 1, 2016

It’s the day after the presidential election, and like most Americans, I’m surprised—even stunned—by the result.

This is not the time or place to dwell on my opinions about the candidates. But I do think it’s worth asking a basic question. Did voters get the information they need to make an intelligent choice? 

At first blush, the question sounds absurd. There has never been a political contest in history that has attracted more attention from the media. Every aspect of the race, no matter how trivial, has been been the subject of scrutiny and even scorn, from Trump’s hair to Clinton’s pantsuits. (As I write, a search of “Trump and Clinton” in Google news sites yields 73 million hits.)

Yes. The information gushes like a fire hydrant. But this torrent of data makes it hard for voters to distinguish the signal from the noise, the consequential from the clickbait. And the rise of social media and its “trending” algorithms has begotten a bizarre shadow world of misinformation and rumor that is hard to distinguish from fact. 

A recent report in the New York Times cited some sobering examples: a fake news site claimed that an FBI agent connected to the inquiry into Clinton’s emails had murdered his wife and shot himself. Another reported that Clinton had promised amnesty to undocumented immigrants who voted for her. More than 11,000 users on Twitter retweeted a tweet about a rigged voting machine in Philadelphia. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Fake news items swarm through social media like locusts, deepening prejudices, tarnishing reputations, reinforcing stereotypes, and stoking outrage. And ironically, it’s easier to create fake news than real news—fake news, after all, requires no actual reporting. 

Unfortunately, this trend reinforces older ones—the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, and our tendency to read articles that confirm our existing assumptions, rather than challenge them.

It’s possible that the big social-media platforms will improve their algorithms, but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I think it’s time to double down on the best antidote I know of—education, and specifically, liberal arts education. 

How do we go about sorting true statements from false ones? How do we distinguish the telling from the trivial? Once we form a hypothesis, can we find a way to test it? Can we borrow insights from literature to shed light on history? Apply a concept from chemistry to a problem in political science? 

These are precisely the kind of questions that students grapple with at Reed. And I am convinced that they are the best defense against the tide of misinformation that threatens to overwhelm our republic.