I regard fake news as I do junk food: it’s comfort news. I feel more comfortable the more people around me consume it. And like junk food, the more I eat, the less I think about it.
It came to me last night when my partner caught me at 2:00 a.m. with my laptop open in the dark, my guilty face illuminated solely by the light emanating from The Huffington Post sidebar of shame. It struck me as reminiscent of the time my partner caught me at 2:00 a.m. in the dark illuminated only by the fridge light, eating ketchup on a slice of cheddar with a look on my face that read “only God can judge me.”
I love junk food. It feels like a perversion of nutrition; like “this was supposed to be fuel, but I have used this fuel to write YOLO in fire across my lower intestine.” With every bite, I descend deeper into a fantasy world where a lifetime of immediate gratification has no consequences; a world where I can ignore difficult emotions by papering over them with sodium and HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Where my loved ones give up and endorse my fiction by congratulating me on eating Nutella straight from the jar because it’s a step up from eating mayonnaise straight from the jar.
I feel like this delusional and compulsive behavior disqualifies me from judging people who treat information the way I treat food. Or at least that it forces me to have empathy for their process of consumption. I also consume cheap, addictive, and overstimulating crap that rots me from the inside out to deal with terrifying emotions, then lay back and smugly think of all those poor suckers trying so hard to be responsible while I reach for the antacids to take the burn out of the orange sludge being incrementally regurgitated into my mouth. In other words, I think fake news is a misnomer. I think the way it is consumed makes it “junk news.”
I think their basic ingredients are similar. Conflict, superiority, comfort, and rebellion are the addictive sodium, trans fats, and HFCS of information.
Conflict and Superiority
As an ancestral survival mechanism, our brains are wired to be constantly on the lookout for conflict. Junk news is full of conflict. Socialists/Fascists everywhere are trying to kill you, be afraid, be angry. Angry people click more, so do scared people. You click, get scared, need reassurance, click more. I eat Doritos, I feel gross, I eat more Doritos to forget how gross I feel.
Then there is superiority. As social animals, we are always looking for cues to let us know where we stand relative to others in our society. (Hopefully, above them.) The psychological reward we get from feeling superior to others is what makes us laugh at mean jokes about rich sexy celebrities and watch reality TV. You don’t need to change your life when it’s easier to go out there and find someone definitely worse than you. If it’s people you already didn’t like, you get the added bonus of being comforted in your views.
If junk food is comfort food, then junk news is comfort news. It comforts you by reinforcing your existing opinions. It comforts you even more when people around you are consuming it. This is what you all used to do 20 years ago, you all got together at parties around festive crispy grease lard. Aunt Maude made it herself. Are you saying Aunt Maude is a bad person?
Also, I find excess reassuring. I want to be reassured that I can eat whatever I want and do whatever I want in a consequence-free environment. Excess is reassuring that way: it has the idea of consequences taken out. When I eat a burger, I worry a little. But when I eat a Cthulhu-esque junk monster of cookie dough crammed into a donut crammed into a chocolate covered ice-cream cone, I am not thinking about consequences at all. All responsibility goes out the window. I think that thrill carries over when reading The National Enquirer, itself a publication widely regarded as a Cthulhu-esque monster of interlocking layers of misinformation.
I get the same feeling reading The New Yorker as I do suffering through a vegan Marie-Antoinette’s “Let Them Eat Quinoa” lecture. The vegan may be right, but the vegan has a degree of intake sophistication I have neither the time nor the money to achieve. Marie-Antoinette doesn’t seem to realize that, though she just thinks I’m stupid or lazy, stuffing my face with Doritos while watching her face twist in terror becomes a powerful tool of rebellion. I think informed, politically-correct discourse is the information equivalent of a vegan diet. It is most ethical and beneficial in the long run, but it is hard to achieve if you don’t live in a big city and have money and time to dedicate to it. It’s so sophisticated it’s almost it’s own language. If you forget that and turn around and shame those who don’t have the means to do the same, they’re gonna delight in making you squirm on purpose.
My family tried to force a macrobiotic diet on me as a toddler. They stigmatized what I thought was an innocent comforting desire to eat sweets. I felt invalidated for no reason, so I decided to destroy my body out of rebellion, as a way to say it’s mine, not yours; also I need you to change my diaper, because carob is a powerful diuretic.
These are all deep-seated impulses being satiated by the constituent ingredients of both junk food and junk news. That would explain why tilting an entire tray of 7-Eleven cookies into my mouth feels like it’s firing off thousands of ancient neurons deep within my brain—neurons that really weren’t meant to be fired that often. But the firing is addictive. And what used to be a snack between meals is now the meal. Until one day you find yourself eating flavored cream from a jar, thinking: Dip, yes … I used to call this dip, it’s all coming back to me now. This used to come with other things …