Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit

Designed to appeal, without regard to the boring constraints of reality

Have you ever thought about what makes a female cartoon or comic-book character sexy? (I know, I know: sexy animated character and thinking don’t go together. But bear with me on this; I’m going somewhere.) Wonder Woman? Holli Would? Storm of the X-Men?

We can eliminate one factor immediately: realism. Those balloon-like breasts, pencil-thin waists, enormous eyes … I mean, it’s not like anyone has actually had sex with such a woman and come back to tell us how great it was. Real-life movie stars are the kind of people you are unlikely to meet, but the animated characters are outright impossible. 

Hot male comic-book characters — Batman, say, or Thor — are impossible in different ways, with shoulders the size of truck bumpers and jaws drawn with a T-square. As with the women, no one has ever reported back from a date with such a guy, because there are no such guys. So why do with think we know anything about them as lovers?

Obviously, I’m being intentionally obtuse here. Sexual attraction doesn’t work that way. It has very little to do with experience, either our own or anybody else’s. Attraction is based on fantasy rather than reality, and the building blocks of those fantasies have been programmed into us at some very deep level. A lot of it is cultural, and some of it probably even goes back into biology: A stone-age man attracted to perky breasts would be more likely to pursue women of child-bearing age, rather than those who were too old or too young. A broad-shouldered man was probably going to swing a mean club when the wolves come looking for your babies.

But here’s the thing: That programming isn’t complex enough to be subtle. It just pushes you in a direction; it doesn’t tell you how far to go. At some point in evolutionary history, peahens got it into their heads that big peacock tails were sexy. Fast-forward a few thousand generations, and the guys have these ridiculous appendages that interfere with flight and make it nearly impossible to hide from predators. Nowhere in the peabrain programming language is there a command for “That’s enough already.”

It’s the same for us. If the kind of breast development that differentiates child-bearing women from immature girls is good, then ridiculously impossible balloon-breasts are that much better. And so on. Batman and Jessica Rabbit are sexy because they are extreme; they’ve been designed to appeal to our biological/cultural programming without needing to satisfy the constraints reality imposes.

So what’s any of that got to do with news, fake or otherwise?

We may like to think that we pay attention to the news for all kinds of virtuous reasons: It makes us better citizens, we are intellectually curious about our world, and stuff like that. And there are a few ultra-serious news sources that take us at our word, like The Economist or PBS Newshour. In terms of sexiness, the stories you read or watch there are like the people your mother tries to fix you up with: very practical marriage partners and good bets to produce grandchildren Mom could be proud of. But they usually don’t give your lizard brain much to work with.

The reason ultra-serious news doesn’t dominate the market is that we also are interested in news stories for a lot of other reasons: They give us something impressive to tell our friends, they provoke an energizing rush of anger at our enemies, or they prove that we were right all along about something.

That’s why, throughout human history, tales have always grown in the telling. If I tell you that I caught a bigger fish today than I usually do, you might mention it to somebody else if they happen to be talking about fish. But if I caught the biggest fish anybody has ever seen, and I embroider that story with all kinds of remarkable details, then you certainly will retell it. If the truth is that the new parson and the blacksmith’s daughter exchanged what looked like a meaningful glance, that’s kind of interesting. But if the story grows to where they were caught half-naked in the woods, that news will spread all over the county.

Journalists at more ratings-conscious news outlets — CNN, say — have to take more account of those less virtuous factors, so they are constantly repackaging real events to make them compelling. They pick out whatever is remarkable or stunning or infuriating and feed it to us as a concentrate, like the one zinger out of an hour-long speech. The stories they produce are like Kate Upton or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: They appeal to the inner programming that tells us what is interesting, while continuing to respect the constraints of reality. And if a detail gets fudged here or there — think Fox News — it’s like airbrushing or make-up: still real, more or less, just enhanced a little.

But fake news can be Jessica Rabbit. It’s designed to appeal, without regard to reality. And it works.

Did you hear that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump? (He didn’t.) Or that an FBI agent investigating Clinton died in a suspicious murder-suicide? (Untrue.) Or that Mike Pence credits gay conversion therapy with saving his marriage? (Nope.)

I don’t know about you, but when I saw that Pence headline, my first reaction was: “I knew it!” That’s what fake news is designed to evoke.

Real news, especially if it’s told accurately, almost never does that. Real events nearly always include some mitigating detail that disrupts our comic-book reaction of triumph or fear or anger. Even the worst stories about the public figures we dislike usually just show them to be common assholes rather than Dr. Doom style villains. Real reporting nearly always leaves room for doubt; there’s stuff we still don’t know that might change the conclusion.

Real news stories, in other words, are like the real people you might meet for lunch: interesting in some ways but not others, maybe worth spending more time with in the future, but not all like Thor.

In other areas of life, we eventually get good at recognizing the fantasies people construct to manipulate us, appealing as they might be: that Nigerian prince who wants to give you a pile of money in exchange for an insignificant amount of help; the titanium designer watch you can buy on a street corner for twenty bucks; the celebrity you can see naked if you just open this attachment. We’re onto that stuff now. Some offers are just too good to be true; learning to accept that they almost certainly aren’t true is part of growing up.

Fake news that goes viral on social media, that you hear about because it’s already been shared by somebody you know — that’s new enough that most of us don’t have a too-good-to-be-true filter yet. But that 100% pure news satisfaction feeling, that “I knew it!” or “Those bastards!” or “Everybody needs to hear about this!”, it’s too good to be true. It’s a sign of fakery and manipulation, not a ring of truth.

I’m not saying you need to give up your news fantasy life; just respect the line that separates it from reality. Similarly, you can, if you want, go on fantasizing about Storm or Thor or even Jessica Rabbit. There’s no harm in it. But if you come home from lunch believing that you’ve met one of them, you need to think again.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • cgordon  On December 5, 2016 at 9:47 am

    My take on fake news is more mundane – it’s so much easier to create a fake story than to debunk one that the fakers can create dozens before the good guys can debunk the first one. Basically, the only defense is have a good bullshit detector. Unfortunately…

    • Anonymous Poster  On December 5, 2016 at 9:50 am

      It’s a kind of Gish Gallop, really. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop

      • Anonymous  On December 5, 2016 at 11:09 am

        Kellyanne Conway is a master at the Gish Gallop.

    • Larry Benjamin  On December 5, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” – Winston Churchill

  • lhart1612  On December 5, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Here’s another consequence of fake news. These are businesses I frequent. Thank God no one was hurt.
    “N.C. man told police he went to D.C. pizzeria with gun to investigate conspiracy theory”

  • Bob Doolittle  On December 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    I know otherwise intelligent people who unfortunately refuse to fact-check what they share. They’ll argue “I’m on Facebook for fun”, and it’s not fun to fact-check things you want to believe.

    Facebook occupies this grey-area of sometimes-just-fun and sometimes-information-source for people, where pictures of cats are posted along-side serious news stories about our Presidential candidates, which makes it problematic. We don’t really have good skills to deal with this medium.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 5, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    Fake news is also like the Gish Gallop, an arguing technique made famous by Creationist Duane Gish. Basically, if you string enough non-factual, crazy, outrageous things together, and maybe throw in a few verbs to indicate cause and effect, you can talk a long string of nonsense that’s really difficult to refute, because there are so many different ways in which the speaker’s nonsense is wrong that a sane person doesn’t even know where to start. Fake news is like that. Throw enough non-factual, totally made up entertaining stories out there, and a sane opponent doesn’t know where to start.

    • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Add to this, a population that doesn’t really care if it is true or not……..

  • Abby Hafer  On December 5, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    Gobs of fake news can also overstimulate your brain, leaving it so distracted as to be unable to respond quickly or sensibly to real problems. I can’t help thinking that this may be a strategy on the part of the far right.

    When I talk about brain overstimulation, I’m NOT indulging in anecdote. This is what I did my Ph.D. dissertation on. I worked with animals, but I read lots of research that had been done on humans.

    • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 7:10 pm

      I’d be willing to bet the animals are much more honest than the humans…….

  • philipfinn  On December 5, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    I think a lot of it, also, is how much someone wants to follow a “narrative” rather than reality. The more a story fits their existing narrative, the more likely they are to want to believe what they’re reading is true. Most instances of quantifiable “liberal bias” are a result of falling into the narrative trap.

    • Ken Rhodes  On December 6, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      Yes, and there’s a well known name for that–“confirmation bias.”

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On December 6, 2016 at 11:18 am

    One of the huge problems of fake news, and lies by politicians, celebrities, and now lately celebrity politicians. Once uttered, and injected into the mediasphere, it takes up bandwidth and headspace. It’s more noise less signal, in and already crowded and muddy media environment. Furthermore, checking on the veracity of stories is tedious and boring, and a relatively thankless task for doing so. And if you’re the target or victim (pizzagate!) of a fake news story or spectacular lie, it takes a disporportunate amount of time, energy and resources (private email server) to disprove, debunk, or counter it, than the relatively trivial effort in dropping the pile of horsepuckey in the first place.

    Sometimes, even the 30 seconds to fire off a tweet (hello, President Elect) results in days, weeks, or months of flapwaddle and spew in the both traditional and social media.

  • Loren F. File  On December 6, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Seems like this might explain the battle for attention that led to the outrageously incorrect polling analysis done by Huffpost and Upshot among others – trying to get a jump on Nate Silver. Wonder if any of those analysts lost their jobs?



  • By News War | The Weekly Sift on December 5, 2016 at 11:49 am

    […] week’s featured posts are “Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit” and “No facts? What does that […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: