Book review: Bad News - Why We Fall For Fake News By Rob Brotherton

This is a lucid, clever, well-written and deeply problematic book. It is both timely, and in ways, tardy. Of course we have all heard about “fake news”, and the central thesis of this work is that the dangerous part is not the “fake” but the “news”.
Rob BrothertonRob Brotherton
Rob Brotherton

It replicates some of the problems it identifies: like many books seeking to be easy to read rather than palatable, it relies on the very strategies it seeks to uncover. Just as with The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb or Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature or Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, it has a structure determined by clickbait switches. “Think you know about the news? Then think again!”, “The Seven Top Tips To See If You Have Been Hoodwinked!”, “EVERYTHING you thought about media circulation MIGHT BE WRONG!”

Brotherton, having told us that the fake news part of the title is not really what he is interested in, takes a jolly canter along some well-trod paths. He runs through our propensity to read bad news stories rather than uplifting stuff due to negativity bias. Then there is positivity bias. If I am told “Stuart Kelly is a fine critic,” I am inclined to believe it. If I am told “So-and-so said you are a disgrace to reviewing,” I will rationalise that the stupid nonentity I slated is wrong. The news is also too quick, and Brotherton, as he does frequently, dredges a bit of cultural history to frame his argument. In this case it is the sinking of the SS Anglo Saxon, which deviated from course in order to get the post delivered. Then we get overload – we don’t have it – and “deepfakes”, parodic versions believed seriously. I am rather a connoisseur of this genre. If you are stuck indoors, then CassetteBoy or Plinkett Reviews or Grumpy Skeletor will while away a few minutes. Have you ever changed your mind because of a correction? Or do you think “Ted Heath” and “suspected paedophile” are semantically linked, even though there was no conviction or evidence?

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The best chapter is about “echo chambers”. This is a topic which many hands have wrung over, to no perceptible gain. The marrow of this book is that the echo chamber is the echo chamber. Those who write or worry about the idea of the echo chamber are those most susceptible to such thinking. Of course, as Miss Jean Brodie said, “For those who like this sort of thing… that is the sort of thing they like.” But it is peculiar to be reviewing a book, in a newspaper, as part of the media, which insists (I would say rightly) that the real story is that few are reading the stories. Within the bubble, the next editor of a paper seems like life and death, or at least promotion or penury. Outwith – who gives a tinker’s cuss? The media loves to talk about the media. The overwhelming “meh” is the frightening thing.

All the psychological legerdemain is fine enough, and will give many dinner-party bores their “But did you know?” moment. But sometimes scrutiny is good. Again and again I doubted the methodology behind the flourished “facts”. Sixty per cent of people think they were misreported? Over what? What they said, on record, or a misspelling of a second cousin’s name, or that their chipper tie went unmentioned? If you go looking for grievance, there are plenty of strident voices. If you look for humility and caution, you don’t get a headline.

Let us take an example. Brotherton is keen on fact-checking, and rightly so. But on page 273 he writes about the “Moses effect” – people are asked if Moses took animals on to the Ark, and because he’s a bit Old Testament, they tend to agree. Brotherton then says – big reveal – it was “Noah, who built the ark and welcomed aboard two of each animal”. FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS! Noah was not shaking hooves with any of the crew. Nowhere does it say that he “welcomed them”, so that’s an emotive casting of the data. Moreover, Noah takes two of every unclean animal and seven of the pure. Whether or not this included pygargs (Deut. 14:5) is unclear.

There is much to admire and more to ponder in this book, even if much of the research has already been pre-packaged for the market. The use of “fake news” in the title is itself a little fake, in that the work does not analyse what is “fake” about “fake news”. Did Hitler believe his vile ideas about Jewish people in the same way as Trump denounces valid questions as lies, mendacities and falsehoods?

It’s easy, as my Mum says, to cast nasturtiums, but far harder to create a vaccine for them.

Bad News: Why We Fall For Fake News, by Rob Brotherton, Bloomsbury Sigma, £16.99