“We live in an age of misinformation—an age of spin, marketing, and downright lies.” So write two professors of logic and the philosophy of science in this sober study of the “important mechanisms by which false beliefs spread.”
Today, with the broad reach of the internet and social media, both individuals and institutions are vulnerable to fake news and manipulation, with far-reaching consequences. As O’Connor and Weatherall (The Physics of Wall Street, 2013), who teach at the University of California, Irvine, contend, if “you make decisions on the basis of [false] beliefs, then those decisions are unlikely to yield the outcomes you expect and desire.” In this fresh addition to the groaning shelf of recent books about fake news, the authors thoroughly examine nearly every facet of this phenomenon, which may seem new but is not. Fleshing out examples running from the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine through the Pizzagate nonsense in 2016, the authors comb through the historic peaks of fake news and propaganda, demonstrating its potential to not only swing elections, but also inspire killing sprees and even ignite wars. Giving ample space to the ongoing problem of misleading scientific reportage, the book explores big tobacco’s cancer links in the 1950s through today’s purposefully ignorant discussion of climate change. While social media often blames algorithms for the viral spread of false information, the authors write, “organizations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are responsible for the rampant spread of fake news on their platforms for the past several years—and, ultimately, for the political, economic, and human costs that resulted.” The most significant question? “Can democracy survive in an age of fake news?” For starters, the authors demand more editorial discretion, fact checking, and investment. “The challenge,” they write, “is to find new mechanisms for aggregating values that capture the ideals of democracy, without holding us all hostage to ignorance and manipulation.”
Empowering and thoroughly researched, this book offers useful contemporary analysis and possible solutions to one of the greatest threats to democracy.