The silver lining of fake news

What exciting times we live in! The UK is stockpiling food and medicine as it charges willingly into a catastrophe of its own choosing. The next Australian prime minister is likely to be a man who has committed crimes against humanity. And America has descended so far into dystopia that it can’t even be summed up in one pithy sentence.

I spend a lot of time wondering how future generations will look back upon this period in history. Will there be memorial museums on Nauru and at the US-Mexican border, pledging Never Again? Will the UK’s years in the European Union be heralded as a golden age for the country? And what will the history books say about Donald Trump?

When I imagine these future historians, giving their seminars and writing their books and assigning their students essays, there is one overarching theme I’m sure they will focus on. One puzzling phenomenon is at the root of so much of the madness we face today. Our future historian might title such a seminar “Widespread public rejection of facts in the early 21st century”. Or, if you wish to be so crass, “Fake News”. A distrust of experts, and of the very idea of facts, now permeates almost every part of public life – from science to economics to medicine to politics.

Climate change used to be the sole target of this. I’ve been wrestling with fake news on climate change for more than ten years now. And I used to get so frustrated, because my friends and family would read dodgy articles in respectable newspapers written by fossil fuel executives and believe them. Or at least, consider them. Reasonable people heard debate on this issue and assumed there must be some merit to it. “Both sides of the climate change debate have good points to make,” they would reasonably say.

It’s different now. Denialism has spread into so many topics, and received so much attention, that reasonable people are now well aware of its existence. “You guys, did you know that there are people who don’t believe in facts?!” is the gist of so many dinner conversations around the world these days. And the exhausted climate scientists sit back, twirl their spaghetti around their fork, and say “Yes, yes we know. So you’ve finally caught on.”

This is the weird silver lining of fake news: reasonable people now take climate change more seriously. When they read bogus stories about global cooling and natural cycles and scientific conspiracies, they just say “Aha! These are the people who don’t believe in facts.” It’s like the dystopia of 2018 has inoculated many of us against denialism. More and more people now understand and accept the science of climate change, even while those who don’t grow louder and more desperate. Climate change deniers still exist, but it seems that their audience is shrinking.

(Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re actually doing anything about climate change.)

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PS I am now Twittering, for those of you who are so inclined.

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