The Conundrums in Combating Fake News
June 25, 2020 by Taewon Min
Fake news is spreading all across the world and Korea is no exception. Recently, a news program called Straight from MBC discovered that Korean YouTube channels accused of spreading fake news were ranked second and third among channels all over the world in receiving donations via Super Chat, a tool that allows viewers to pin comments by payment. Moreover, numerous fake news concerning the spread of Covid-19 and the recent general election went viral.
How could we stop fake news and conspiracy theories from spreading all over the world? The simplest and most intuitive answer seems to be showing that the object of the conspiracy actually does not exist. For instance, against those who claim that Covid-19 was originated from a Chinese lab, proving that there was no such lab in China seems to be the most effective solution. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the fact that there is simply no way to prove that something does not exist. This conundrum also termed as “Devil’s Proof,” or “Probatio Diabolica” in Latin, shows the impossibility of proving that something does not exist, such as the devil is nonexistent. If one wants to prove that the devil exists, she simply has to show that the devil exists. On the other hand, arguing that the devil does not exist, simply by showing that there is no evidence of it, may not be valid since there is a possibility that the evidence may have not been discovered. While one may assert that Covid-19 was not generated in a Chinese lab by offering information that those labs did not participate in such activity, this does not exhaust the possibility that the Chinese were successful in hiding their research on Covid-19.
Conspiracy theories also rely on other techniques to evade verification, one of which is known as “The Dragon in My Garage.” Coined by astronomer Carl Sagan, the term is used to portray conspiracy theories making unfalsifiable claims by altering or including an attribute to an argument. For instance, one may argue that there is a dragon in her garage. If a verifier wants to see the dragon to prove that claim, one could dodge the test simply by adding another attribute, such as invisibleness, to the dragon, and say that the dragon cannot be perceived by the human eye. Relentlessly repeating this process would make it impossible to disprove the existence of a dragon in a garage. A good example of this could be found in a cult known as the Seekers. This cult believed that a rapture would occur on December 21st, 1954, which obviously did not happen. Nonetheless, some of the cults maintained their belief by arguing that doomsday did not occur since their prayers were heard by God. Here, the believers evade counter-evidence by adding an element, that God listens to prayers, and thus maintain their belief.
The example of a cult became a subject of research for a psychologist named Leon Festinger, and he concluded that ‘cognitive dissonance’ played a role in enabling members of the cult to maintained their beliefs. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation where one’s belief or action does not match with the presented information or belief. In the case of the cult, the believer’s conviction that the rapture will take place and the actions based on that belief did not match with the information that the rapture did not occur. Individuals face discomfort when facing cognitive dissonance, and try to eliminate the discord in multiple ways, sometimes even by changing their perception of reality and believing only what they want to believe. This tendency still remains true, as conspiracy theorists dismiss counter-evidence to their claim. Some politicians and YouTubers claimed that South Korea’s recent legislative election in April was forged. While there were numerous efforts to debunk that claim, including the National Election Commission reenacting the voting process, many adherents of the rigged election theory dismiss those claims and maintain their beliefs.
Despite these conundrums, efforts have been made to refute fake news. For instance, a politician named Lee Jun-seok from the United Future Party held a debate with individuals claiming that the general election was forged. Debating with conspiracy theorists could be successful in theory if they accept the burden of proof. The aforementioned quandaries, such as the Devil’s Proof and The Dragon in My Garage, could be easily solved if conspiracy theorists could offer valid proof of their argument. If one is arguing that the election is rigged, their arguments would be believable if she comes up with a valid, undeniable proof of a rigged election. However, the debate ended up in a farce, as adherents of the forged election claim refused to accept the burden of proof and opted for changing the subject to inessential quibbles.
A more fundamental problem of debating about fake news is that the debate could serve as a platform for conspiracy theories to spread. Moreover, discussing fake news could suggest that obvious truths, such as the holocaust are actually disputable issues up to debate. This is why a YouTube channel that aims to debunk fake news refused to debate with conspiracy theorists on the Gwangju Democratization Movement, as they also claimed that discussing whether this movement was unjust could be insulting to the victims. This suggests that debate may not necessarily be a successful way to refute fake news and that other measures must be sought to tackle conspiracies.