What Game of Thrones teaches us about fake news
By: Kate Lechtenberg
With the final season of Game of Thrones concluded, I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit immersed in the land of Westeros and the lives of all my favorite characters. But it hasn’t been entirely wasted: while I’ve been watching, I’ve been thinking a lot about fake news, and I’ve realized that watching the Starks, Lannisters, and all their allies and enemies scheme, maneuver, and strategize has helped me understand how and why people make decisions about which people and information to believe and which to reject.
In short, getting into the minds of my favorite Westerosi has made me realize that whether we believe or distrust outsiders, whether we embrace or disdain challenging information has a lot to do with two main questions: Do I believe this person is honorable? How does this information make me vulnerable?
The importance of honor
There’s something beautiful and almost quaint about the importance that honor holds in Westeros. News is delivered in sealed scrolls by ravens, and there’s no way to verify it online or triangulate sources: the arriving news is worth the honor of the sender. In today’s world of the 24-hour news cycle and alternative facts, it’s hard to believe that a system can work on just ink, wax, birds–and honor. We can learn a lot from watching the Westerosi stand up with honor.
Learning from Jon Snow: Commitment to the truth can bring power.
Jon Snow has taken some crap over the seasons for not knowing when to tell a lie. In season 7, he tells Cersei “”When enough people make enough false promises, words stop meaning anything. And then there are no more answers, just better and better lies. And lies won’t help us in this fight.” Later, Theon tells him, “You risked everything to tell an enemy the truth,” and Jon Snow replies, “It seems to me we need to be honest with each other if we’re going to fight together.”
Telling the truth even when it hurts him is why we love Jon Snow–and it’s what got him murdered. Telling the truth even to our own detriment may not get us a knife (of six) in the chest, but I can’t help but see Jon Snow’s unwavering honor as a reminder that it is possible to gain strength, popularity, and power through a commitment to honor and honesty.
Briene’s lesson: Honor spreads.
Although Catlyn Stark calls Jaime Lannister “a man without honor” in season 1, this season, we see Brienne of Tarth attest to his honor in one of the most moving and honorable scenes of the series. Brienne has showed nothing but honor since we met her in season 2, and when she vouches for Jaime, Sansa Stark immediately believes her–despite all the horrible things Jaime has previously done to her family. Yes, I know Jaime called himself “hateful” episode 4 of this last season, and I know he returned to awful Cersei, but I do think his actions have been guided by an evolving sense of honor.
Like Jon Snow, Brienne and Jaime remind us that honor still matters. What’s more, honor begets honor, and honor recognizes honor. Brienne’s personal commitment to honor, her rejection of cynicism and negativity, remind me that even in a world filled with schemes, manipulation, and lies (yes, I’m talking about both Westeros and the U.S.), it is still possible to hold fast to honor and even to help others reclaim their honor.
Why we believe fake news
But it’s not all about honor. Even the most honorable people in Westeros and the U.S. still have to make hard choices about when to believe new information and when to disbelieve. And often, honor mixes with vulnerability to determine whether a person believes or disbelieves.
Information that threatens a person’s physical safety or way of viewing the world presents a complicated moment of decision. These information crises ask us to weigh our physical and philosophical vulnerability (and that of our loved ones) against the honor of the information giver. Being people of honor doesn’t mean we always make the right choices, though. Sometimes, we believe fake news or reject the truth. And a close look at why some Westerosi believe lies or reject the truth gives us some important insights into how and why fake news spreads and the truth is ignored.
Littlefinger’s lesson of distraction
Catlyn Stark erroneously believes Littlefinger’s lie that Tyrion Lannister owned the dagger that was meant to kill her son because when her child’s life is threatened, she takes Littlefinger’s word for it. Though Cat never finds out about his dishonesty, we do–and that Littlefinger was behind the death of John Arryn, another crime that Cat attributed to the Lannisters in a time of personal vulnerability for her family.
Littlefinger probably intentionally used Cat’s distrust of the Lannisters as a distraction from his own lies. Lesson learned: Assuming the worst of our adversaries can be helpful to the adversaries we didn’t know we had.
Tyrion’s folly: Clever (and honorable) people underestimate their enemies.
How many times has Tyrion believed that he could bring his father or Cersei to the truth as he understands it? We have come to know Tyrion as an honorable man, but as with Jon Snow, honor and a commitment to truth don’t make him immune to believing false information. Cersei tells Tyrion she’ll help defeat the White Walkers, and Tyrion believes her. Why? Because he believes in logic and truth, and he assumes Cersei does as well. He underestimates her priorities because he values truth and honor over power, but that’s not the game Cersei is playing.
What Tyrion and Cersei teach us is that it’s easy for people who don’t value the truth to fool those who do. The depressing part is that it may mean that the only way to outsmart the Cerseis of the world is to ratchet up our cynicism and skepticism. But that’s no way to live, is it? And anyway, Cersei is a fictional character, so do we really need to worry about power-hungry leaders who don’t care about the truth? (Maybe that’s another blog post.)
Why we reject the truth
When physical and emotional stakes are high, sometimes people reject the truth for the same reasons they believe lies: because vulnerability pushes us to take the seemingly safe route, or because it leaves us unable to see beyond our established worldviews and assumptions about honor.
Why Sansa & Arya reject Brienne: Weighing immediate comfort vs. the unknown
In season 4, Brienne, the epitome of honor, offers to protect both Sansa and Arya Stark, and they both turn her down. Both Starks were wary, on guard, and they didn’t know Brienne, so they chose to stay in their relative safety with Littlefinger and The Hound, respectively. The audience knows of Brienne’s honor, but in their moments of vulnerability, Sansa and Arya don’t have the time or the means to assess Brienne’s motivations–and so it takes another two seasons before Brienne is able to prove herself to Sansa, and later Arya.
They couldn’t have known at the time that Brienne was telling the truth, that she was an honorable person who could have protected them. Assessing the credibility of a source, the honor of a person takes time–and sometimes we get it wrong in the moment.
The Maesters: Education doesn’t make us immune to rejecting the truth
The maesters, the most learned men in the realm, discount Bran Stark’s and Samwell Tarley’s warnings about the White Walkers because they cannot fathom a challenge to their fundamental belief in a world that has been rid of White Walkers for thousands of years. They weigh the established truths in their libraries against a very real but new threat, and they choose tradition over novelty.
Even the most educated people make mistakes born out of foolish adherence to common knowledge. So how can we know when to reject established truths in favor of seemingly unlikely new information? Well, I didn’t say that Game of Thrones would give us that answers to infallibly discerning a source’s honor or knowing when to reject fake news and embrace the truth. All these characters and stories can help us do is think about why they made the choices they did, and how these human reactions might be present in our own interactions with new people and information. In addition being great entertainment, these characters’ blind spots can help us prepare for our own battles with truth, honor, and new information.
I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.
I have never watched an episode, and now I am sure that I missed nothing.
That was a great look at GOT and tie-in to fake news! Excellent job!