08.18.17

Why Fake News is a Like a Big Mac

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We are now well into what many have called the “fake news” crisis, a now overused term. As has been pointed out before, fake news is nothing new. Misinformation, slander and propaganda are beloved tools of those who seek to gain or retain political power and social control.

While it is nothing new, I also think “fake news” is a red herring that obscures the deeper issues challenging well-informed democratic discourse.

One useful way of understanding it begins with a hamburger.

In the early 1950s, fast food burst onto the American landscape. Fueled by ubiquitous automobiles and a more mobile population, fast food restaurants mushroomed across the country. People loved them. Quick, tasty, affordable food quickly became as fundamental to the American experience as motherhood and apple pie. A trip to MacDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell or — our family favorite, Kentucky Fried Chicken — became a beloved ritual for many families in the 1960s and 1970s.

Then we started to notice some big downsides. Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled and currently, nearly 38% of all adults are considered obese. These alarming figures have contributed to what is now considered to be a diabetes epidemic, engendering a full-blown public health crisis. Experts predict if we don’t change our eating habits, one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050.

It turns out that all that cheap, tasty food had poor nutritional content. People were consuming too many calories and still not getting their basic nutritional needs met. The phenomenon of overweight, underfed people is now a reality, particularly among disadvantaged groups and populations living in areas with little access to high quality food, such as the inner cities.

The response to this crisis, which is ongoing, is worth noticing.

The response covers a diverse range of public, private and non-profit organizations pitching in with their unique communities and points of view. Science and academia began to study nutrition in earnest, seeking to understand the causes of obesity and the role of “good” and “bad” calories in our diet. An organic food movement emerged, fueled at first by health food stores and coops and now a multibillion-dollar industry with major product lines and supermarket chains. Farmer’s markets and locavore organizations erupted along with the slow food movement, spawning a vast farm to table industry that gains momentum every year. Non-profits have worked on eradicating “food deserts” in low-income communities so that people can have better choices easily available. Some forward-looking businesses, like Starbucks, have chosen to list the calorie content in their food. In our schools, nutritional education is increasingly a part of the curriculum. And some local governments have even begun to levy a “soda tax”, following the precedent of the “tobacco tax”, where some of the profits of the harmful substance are redirected to managing the public health costs they incur.

The list of initiatives is long, and growing all the time. While we are far from fixing this crisis, and its impacts remain most pronounced among poorer and more disadvantaged populations, we are making real progress on nutritional options, education and the reforming the underlying food systems that support what we eat every day.

As the response to the obesity epidemic shows, the problem wasn’t really the Big Mac. The Big Mac was in fact a symptom of a much larger set of issues that included education, poverty, culture, behavioral habit, and the business models supporting the food industry.

The information revolution we are now two decades into is revealing a similar set of challenges. Too much “junk news”, propelled by an information market that rewards clicks over engagement, is producing a population that is over stimulated and under informed.

Ensuring the widespread distribution and consumption of quality news and information will require a broad based, multi stakeholder response. Education, research and adaptations of the underlying production and distribution systems of news, media and information must all come into play. We need to educate people about the choices they make in their consumption habits. We need to look critically at the distribution systems and business models that drive the news and media industries. We to have a shared goal of quality content that informs people at the local level to make the best choices for themselves and their families.

No one industry or segment will solve the problem. The answer will not be just in a better algorithm or in new business models that supports quality content. It will not simply be in a more media literate population or in serving the needs of local communities more effectively. The answer will be in working on all of these issues, and more that we have not yet thought of.

Each of these challenges is huge and may feel insurmountable. But we cannot give up or give in. The future of our democracy, and of free expression around the world, depends on each of us, to the best of our ability, addressing the polarized, post truth information environments that seem to be winning. Together, we can get on top of the junk news epidemic and learn to consume a varied menu of news and information more responsibly.