John Locke and the Emergence of Fake News

Fake news is everywhere. From your friend’s angry post on Facebook to mainstream news sites, the media often outright lies to you. Just look at the varying accounts of the election last year. People still don’t know exactly who got more votes or what happened with the Russians. It’s getting to the point where it is almost impossible to find out the truth. Worse still, this is not a new phenomenon.

In the 1800’s, newspapers used young children to sell their papers on street corners. The children would call out the headlines and hopefully attract a sizable buying audience. In order to keep this system profitable, the headlines had to attract a lot of attention. Newspapers began to sensationalize events and publish poorly researched, often plainly false stories. The age of “yellow journalism” began. (To learn more about the historical trend toward fake news and how to combat it, click here.)

Fast forward to today, when news has become just another genre of entertainment. News media capitalizes on the immediate, emotional responses of its viewers to repost and share stories based on little or no real information. It manipulates people’s beliefs and actions in order to sell more stories and more ad space. But the most dangerous effects of fake news come when they are accepted as fact. When people can no longer discern with any certainty whether the media is lying, it is nearly impossible to tell whether any fact is true or false. This lack of certain truth causes the fabric of society to unravel.

What has caused this trend toward “alternative facts” and fake news? In the 17th century, the philosopher John Locke wrote about two types of people and their relationship to truth. On one hand, he described philosophers, who loved truth for truth’s sake and never put more faith in a proposition than could be proven. On the other hand were those who claimed to love truth, but who were instead ruled by their feelings, accepting anything they thought felt right. These people he called “enthusiasts.”

In our day, many people have become enthusiasts, accepting the convenient answers without putting in the effort to think things through. It is this apathy toward truth that has led to the emergence of fake news and yellow journalism. Many people rant about these problems without addressing their root. Do we, as a society, even want to know the truth?

To pick up an audio version of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, click here.

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