Fake News isn’t About the News (with additional commentary)

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Eons ago our ancestors lived in close knit groups who sustained themselves by foraging and hunting their food. It was advantageous to be the leader of that group. Being the leader afforded you access to food  and water first, ensuring you were the least likely to starve or go thirsty. It also afforded you access to more mating opportunities, allowing you to spread your genes far and wide. These factors made it quite desirable to be the leader and humans, no different than other animals, began to fight and compete for the position.

Pretty soon, people started paying attention and emulating the actions of the leader, in a desire to likewise ascend to the leadership position. This worked well enough that it quickly became advantageous to emulate the socially successful. Thus the concept of celebrity was born, albeit in a very nascent form. Fast forward to cities and social leaders commanded the attention of tens of thousands of people instead of tens or at most hundreds of people. This is really where our modern concept of celebrity would have burst into the limelight and explains our infatuation with the successful.

Backtrack to our close knit social groups again and we see another phenomenon that is recognizable today, albeit again in a slightly twisted form. When we were hunters and gatherers we were constantly facing threats from everywhere. Whether it be rival groups, predators, natural disasters, or other threats; we were constantly in danger of injury or death. It was not intelligent to seek different and adventurous circumstances as those were often even more dangerous than ordinary circumstances. As long as our bubble provided us with food, water, and sex we stayed within it and were rewarded for doing so by surviving. This is the concept of the safe zone.

The modern equivalent of this in the news is that we seek out information that validates our world view and shun that which challenges it. It feels good and safe to do so which is our modern reward for doing so. No one likes to have their worldview challenged and their beliefs questioned.  Unfortunately it isn’t sustainable to have a conglomerate of people interacting with one another who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of one another’s world views.  This ultimately leads to violence, chaos, and if not checked social ruin. If we are going to live together, we need to be humble and acknowledge that no single one of us has a complete view.

I recognize that it is quite a stretch to go from prehistoric circumstances to modern social structures. I realize that and I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable with it. “We are much more intelligent than prehistoric man; they didn’t even have the wheel.” “Our society is so much different than their simple groups therefore what applied to them doesn’t apply to us.” Arguments against it can be found just about anywhere but seem to stem mostly from a superiority argument.

The question I would pose to those would be this: We commonly agree that our physiology was shaped in prehistory and before and modernity hasn’t affected it much. Why is psychology any different? This is similar to the arguments posed by evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology. Much of what we know about prehistoric humans indicates that if we were to take a prehistoric baby and drop them into a modern family, they would grow up just fine – indicating we aren’t so much different after all and the superiority argument falls on its face.

It’s my opinion that in order to to understand the ills of modern society such as the spread of fake news we need to look at them from an evolutionary perspective and in doing so they tend to make a lot more sense. The ultimate question becomes, in acknowledging the constraints evolution has put on our psychology,  what do we need to do and how should we structure society in order to live together peacefully into the foreseeable future?

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