The Fake News We Want

In the beginning of Anna Karenina, Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, sits down to read his morning paper:

Stepan Arkadyevitch subscribed to a liberal paper, and read it. It was not extreme in its views, but advocated those principles which the majority held. And though he was not really interested in science or art or politics, he strongly adhered to such views on all these subjects as the majority, including his paper, advocated, and he changed them only when the majority changed them ; or more correctly, he did not change them, but they themselves imperceptibly changed in him.

Stepan Arkadyevitch never chose principles or opinions, but these principles and opinions came to him, just as he never chose the shape of a hat or coat, but took
those that others wore. And, living as he did in fashionable society, through the necessity of some mental activity, developing generally in a man’s best years, it was as indispensable for him to have views as to have a hat. If there was any reason why he preferred liberal views rather than the conservative direction which many of his circle followed, it was not because he found a liberal tendency more rational, but because he found it better suited to his mode of life.

The liberal party declared that everything in Russia was wretched; and the fact was that Stepan Arkadyevitch had a good many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage was a defunct institution and that it needed to be remodeled, and in fact domestic life afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch very
little pleasure, and compelled him to lie, and to pretend what was contrary to his nature. The liberal party said, or rather took it for granted, that religion is only a curb on the barbarous portion of the community, and in fact Stepan Arkadyevitch could not bear the shortest prayer, without pain in his knees, and he could not comprehend the necessity of all these awful and high-sounding words about the other world when it is so very pleasant to live in this. Moreover, Stepan Arkadyevitch, who liked a merry jest, was sometimes fond of scandalizing a quiet man by saying that any one who was proud of his origin
ought not to stop at Rurik and deny his earliest ancestor — the monkey.

Thus the liberal tendency had become a habit with Stepan Arkadyevitch, and he liked his paper, just as he liked his cigar after dinner, because of the slight haziness which it caused in his brain.

Tolstoy paints a picture here reminiscent of the argument Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban make in their recent book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind, which argues that political behavior is in large part driven by broad sociocultural self-interest, rather than by  narrow economic interests or abstract ideology unmoored from individual incentives. Stepan Arkedyevich (the brother of the title character Anna Karenina, and the genial devil who sets much of the plot in motion) not only chooses his beliefs out of conformity with his fellows but congruence with the life he would like to live, and chooses the newspaper that will flatter his lifestyle and the secret and open wishes of his erring soul.

Democrats eager for a villain to blame for the election first settled on “fake news,” and conservative complaints about media bias have only intensified in recent years, with Steve Bannon labeling the media the real opposition party to Trump earlier this week. Fair enough- people choose to believe a lot of false things and the media really is increasingly ideological. But it’s also true that as for Stepan Arkedyevich, the media answers desires as much as creates them, that the median commenter on a New York Times article is often well to the left of the editorial slant of the paper, that Vox has triumphed in an age of collapsing media revenue by shouting “racism!” and “sexism!” in just the right tones, and that Alex Jones has two million weekly listeners.

I’d like to say that the answer to fake news is local news, that media that deals with the familiar and tangible and immediately relevant is less susceptible to ideological polarization and specious claims. But then again, the New York Times has no trouble publishing internally incoherent articles raging against middle class parents, many of them New York Times readers, in the New York City schools, and Sabrina Erderly’s confabulated “A Rape on Campus” found eager readers among faculty and students at UVA.

So it seems news we get is the news we want, suited to our mode of life and flattering to our preferences and beliefs if not always our material interests, pleasant as a cigar after dinner was in an earlier age.



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