Let’s Talk: Why You Should Care About “Fake News”

So what’s up with this “fake news” thing?

You’ve heard about it. Probably a lot. Probably a whole hell of a lot. Over the last year or so the term has exploded into the American lexicon, showing up on our televisions, on our social media feeds and even in the mouths of our leaders. It is now an inescapable meme that has been used as a tool to make money and influence opinion.

But what actually is “fake news?”

Great question!

The reality is that “fake news” refers to objectively untrue information that is conceived of, crafted, and disseminated with the sole purpose of deceiving its audience for one reason or another.

That seems pretty obvious.

It sure does!

So what’s the problem?

Well, to answer that you need to understand how the term morphed over the last election cycle.

What was before a concept defining obviously satirical media outlets like The Onion and The Colbert Report, “fake news” took on a whole new meaning when internet-savvy opportunists realized they could make a ton of money by writing completely fictional, sensational stories about prominent politicians that would attract a lot of viewers. You might have heard about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop, or how thousands of ballots were found written in Clinton’s name well before the election.

These stories were eventually disproved by some very basic fact-checking. But before that was the case they received hundreds of thousands of views on websites all over the internet, delivering massive advertisement revenues to the creators and operators of the sites they were published on.

So people were profiting every time someone read one of these stories?

Big time. It was all about the money.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that ridiculous headlines grab attention. And while our country has a long history of sensationalist journalism affecting public opinion, in this instantaneous digital-information age it was easier than ever to promote these bogus stories to audiences naturally responsive to scandalous claims. In fact, even though most of these “fake news” stories pertained to the hot-button American Presidential election, many of them were successfully peddled across the internet by people living in other countries!

Wow. So it was all about the money.

Exactly. Well, kind of.

While many people were simply interested in making money by promoting “fake news” on their sites, a Buzzfeed investigation led by Craig Silverman revealed that much of the actual content that made up these stories was being recycled from ultra-partisan social media groups and sites with clear political agendas. The ones who were making money by getting these stories lots of views weren’t necessarily the ones creating the lies themselves; they were simply better at manipulating existing conspiracy theories and dubious claims into high-traffic “fake news” stories.

So while the spread of “fake news” is certainly a product of greed, the origins of the sentiment behind the stories seems clearly rooted in politically motivated smear campaigns.

Ok. So people made up stories to hurt their political opponents, and unscrupulous social media experts made money off of spreading them to massive audiences?

Exactly.

But if these stories are untrue, why is “fake news” a problem?

Another good question.

In theory, any rational reader of these stories would do their homework and follow up on the claims made in these “fake news” pieces. But in reality, it seems that “fake news” indeed affects Americans’ opinions quite significantly. A Yougov.com poll highlighted in a clip on MSNBC illustrates that in the wake of the aforementioned Pizzagate scandal, 49% of republicans and 24% of democrats believed that the story was true!

There are many speculations about why this is the case. Many of them are rooted in the idea that human confirmation bias, the concept that we selectively attend to and remember information that confirms existing beliefs, has ample room to operate in a media landscape filled with hundreds of thousands of diverse headlines available at the click of a mouse. There is evidence that on Facebook this leads to a polarization of ideology amplified by our tendencies to share and post ideas we agree with, within digital communities that share our opinions.

It becomes easier to accept and believe what we see all around us. When “fake news” is spread among our friends and colleagues, we are more likely to believe it, especially when the consequences of the alleged story confirm a world that we would like to believe exists.

Source: Statista

Yeah, that’s definitely not good.

I know, right. But it gets worse.

Oh boy. How?

Remember when I said the term “fake news” has morphed over time? Well, it didn’t just stop after it no longer simply referred to Stephen Colbert’s unique brand of sarcasm.

Once the phenomenon had become widely recognized by media and the general population alike, the concept of “fake news” became almost poisonous. It had a negative connotation. While we aren’t always good at recognizing it, in general people are opposed to the idea that misinformation is disseminated for shady purposes.

That actually sounds like a good thing.

It would be! Except for the fact that certain leaders and influencers have learned to use the term for extremely manipulative reasons.

As Slate’s Will Oremus points out, it’s super important to recognize how the term seems to have gotten away from its original definition over the last few months. While no one would argue the fact that easily disprovable stories of scandal or misconduct should be called “fake news,” many people are now using the term to refer to any article or opinion they simply disagree with on an ideological level as a way to trigger a visceral reaction that delegitimizes the source.

Can you give examples?

Yes.

Our President Donald Trump has been one of the worst perpetrators of this manipulation. He has taken to Twitter, press conferences, and any other platform he can find to try and label legitimate media who criticizes him as “fake news.” In one tweet he called the New York Times, one of the most reputable newspapers in the country “fake news.” During another press conference he called CNN “fake news” and declined to answer their reporter’s question. Time and time again Trump has responded to well-founded criticism and accusations not with reasoned defenses, but by slamming his accusers with the label of simply being “fake news.”

In one particularly troubling tweet, Trump even went so far as to say that any poll reflecting a generally negative opinion of his administration must be “fake news.”

Source: Twitter

Ok that’s not really fair.

No it’s not. And more than that it’s dangerous.

Trump, and his cabinet of advisors, seem complicit and willing to move away from reality and towards a world of alternative facts. Over and over, they have given statements and assertions that simply have no basis in factual reality. And when journalists rise to debunk these claims the Trump administration effectively hurls insults and claims of “fake news” to limit the power of those criticisms.

By discrediting legitimate media that opposes their policies they are consciously censoring the press, in so many words.

That’s a bold claim.

Yes, and no.

In the United States, a country that relies on debate and civil negotiation to drive our politics, the flow of objective information is essential to understanding and discussing the issues we face. What is supposed to happen is that citizens inform themselves on issues, and form opinions that get reflected in the policies created by their representatives. Strong, independent journalism is an important keystone to a healthy democracy because it allows citizens to see what is going on in our country and abroad. It is a fundamental American value that we retain the right to free speech and free press in order to prevent the undue influence of power over truth.

But Trump isn’t actually censoring the media, just calling it fake.

Maybe not explicitly.

But by using the noxious label of “fake news,” to discredit media outlets the Trump administration is chipping away at this right without physically censoring a single paper. Their end goal is simply to create a chaotic intellectual climate where folks have a hard time discerning what is real and what is fiction.

How does he benefit from that?

Trump is the President of the United States. He has a powerful voice. And in the absence of clear, objective truth people tend to listen to the loudest voice in the room. It is a trick that has been used by dictators throughout time. The scary truth is that it seems to be working too. A recent poll revealed that among republicans registered to vote people found the Trump administration more truthful than the news media.

Are you calling Donald Trump a dictator?

No. Not yet at least.

But I am pointing out that he is undeniably wielding the conniving term “fake news” to slowly eat away at one of the most important cornerstones of our democracy in order to create an environment where his power as President will be harder to put into check. That is simply un-American.

But I love America!

Me too! That’s why you have to educate yourself on how to take action against this slippery slope.

What can I do?

First and foremost, keep reading the news!

Consume as many articles from as many different sources as you can when you want to learn about an issue. Attack it from all sides. It’s never been good enough to simply hear one story and make up your opinion, but now more than ever it’s essential that we learn to be critical and thorough in our citizenry.

On top of that you should support sources that you know to be valid with financial support, if you can afford it, or at the very least frequent their sites to help them continue to do the work they do.

But how can I know what is a good source of news information?

As I said before, the best source is always a combination of many sources. But there are some good tools you can use to learn which media outlets do a good job of reporting honestly and unbiasedly.

Fact checking sites like FactCheck.org or Politifact.org are a good place to start if you want to see who is telling the truth and who is not. Some websites have created crowdsourcing campaigns to flag and expose blatantly fake stories: Slate has a plugin for google chrome that can make it easy to participate in this process.

But perhaps the most important way to discern what is real and what is not is to simply be critical of the news that you take in. Learn to follow up on journalists’ sources. Trace claims made in articles back to their roots. Investigate how different organizations report differently on the same subject. Use your head, and if something smells fishy dig through the dumpsters until you find your rotten anchovy.

As the Daily Dot’s Amrita Khalid writes, “A fact is still a fact in 2017. It’s just gotten more difficult to discern who’s telling the truth and what sources you can consider reputable.”

Do your homework, and take nothing at face value. It is both a privilege and responsibility to live in this free country. We must all do our part to fight for the values that make us great.

I need a beer.

I’ll buy.