Originally published in California Publisher, Winter 2017
By Jason Shepard
Oxford Dictionaries commemorated 2016 by naming “post-truth” the word of year, in part because our new American president operates in a post-truth world.
To many, Donald Trump’s post-truth world poses some existential questions for journalists and democracy.
A master marketer and reality TV star, Trump shrewdly holstered “alternative facts” throughout his presidential campaign. In 2015, Politifact named “the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump” the “lie of the year.”
The false facts continued after the November election. Trump said millions of people voting illegally for Hillary Clinton. He said he won the electoral college in a landslide. And he said a record number of people attended his inauguration.
Fittingly, Politifact’s “lie of the year” for 2016 was “fake news.”
Used to describe made-up fiction written, packaged and received as real journalism, “fake news” stories had people believing that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered on the 9/11 attacks, and that the Pope endorsed Trump for president.
Some fake news had serious consequences. The false conspiracy theory that Clinton aide John Podesta’s leaked emails contained coded sex trafficking evidence sparked threats against a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, culminating in a man showing up and firing a gun. The man later said he wished he handled things differently, but he didn’t disavow the debunked story.
“Fake news” gained so much traction that on Facebook, stories identified as “fake news” had more shares, links and comments in the three final three months of the 2016 presidential election than stories from real news outlets, one study found.
The irony is not lost when President Trump now has weaponized the term “fake news” to attack the nation’s leading news organizations. He has interrupted reporters at press conferences by heckling them as “fake news,” and has used the term in tweets more than a dozen times to describe news organizations offering unfavorable coverage.
And to his 25 million Twitter followers, Trump labeled the “fake news” journalists of the New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS as “the enemy of the American People!”
Republican Senator John McCain said those words have given birth to dictators.
Already in the infancy of his presidency, Trump has waged the “harshest, most sustained, most extraordinary attack on the media ever unleashed by a president of the United States,” said Fox News’ media reporter Howard Kurtz.
And it’s just begun.
Presidents have criticized journalists since the Founding. John Adams jailed editors from partisan newspapers that attacked him. Richard Nixon famously loathed the press’s investigations into his administration. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, says Trump’s attacks are already worse than Nixon’s.
Trump has amassed decades of examples of going after his critics, using lawsuit threats, leaks and lies to silence opponents. His post-truth presidency may test the institutions of journalism and the First Amendment like none other in the modern era. Already facing existential threats from economic and technological forces, journalists are struggling to understand the implications.
After Trump’s election, President Barack Obama told the New Yorker that the polarization of the country has created a media environment where “everything is true and nothing is true.”
What does it mean to live in a post-truth world? What are the causes of the post-truth era? What are the dangers to our democracy when citizens don’t discern fact from fiction? What can journalists and citizens do?
The ability of people to live in media bubbles, with the ubiquity of social media and the decline of journalistic institutions, has helped drive the post-truth era. Citizens are much more likely view facts through their partisan and emotional lenses, leading them to believe or discount facts based on the perceived reliability of their favored information sources.
Trump masterfully has exploited these new trends.
His political rise was rooted in the “birther” movement, as he championed for five years the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim. As Trump clinched the Republican Party nomination in May 2016, a Public Policy Polling survey found that 59 percent of those who viewed Trump favorably believed Obama was not born in the United States and two-thirds believed Obama was Muslim.
A more aggressively partisan press, especially on talk radio and cable news and now increasingly on the fringes of the Internet, has helped fuel this environment.
In an op-ed titled “Why Nobody Cares the President Lying,” Charlie Sykes, a conservative who left his talk-radio job last year, lamented in the New York Times how facts often lost out to conspiracy theories among Trump supporters, including stories pushed by right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones that 9/11 and the Sandy Hook school shootings were faked by the government.
“The conservative media ecosystem — like the rest of us — has to recognize how critical, but also how fragile, credibility is in the Orwellian age of Donald Trump,” Sykes wrote.
With more and more people getting their news on Facebook and Twitter, social media networks are also under pressure to respond.
The website LibertyWritersNews.com brought in as much as $40,000 a month in advertising revenue for their right-wing website that embraces fake news stories. The website uses Facebook to drive page views but is now combatting algorithms aimed to flag and block “fake news” and spam-like stories.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to better police fake news.
“We don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook in the days following the November election. But, he said Facebook needs to move carefully.
“Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
Among Facebook’s strategies includes making it easier for users to report hoaxes, partnering with fact-checking organizations to review stories, tweaking algorithms to spot fake news in sharing habits, and disrupting financial incentives for fake news purveyors.
Teaching citizens how to become better consumers of news is becoming an important point for discussion among academics and practitioners.
In California, two lawmakers introduced bills to strengthen media literacy in public schools as a result of the fake news problem. “Recently, we have seen the corrupting effects of a deliberate propaganda campaign driven by fake news,” Assemblymen Jimmy Gomez said in a statement. “When fake news is repeated, it becomes difficult for the public to discern what’s real. These attempts to mislead readers pose a direct threat to our democracy.”
Mainstream journalists are also fighting back against the fake news label — and even threatening to file libel lawsuits against those who falsely label them “fake news.”
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado is threatening a libel lawsuit against a state senator who tweeted that an editorial about reforms to the state’s open records laws was “fake news.” Public figures should be allowed to get away with false statements intended to destroy the credibility of journalists, Publisher Jay Seaton wrote in an editorial. The senator’s tweet “is patently, probably false,” Seaton wrote. “Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.”
Suing politicians who accuse journalists of engaging in fake news may be a risky strategy.
Journalists may be better off combating the fake news phenomenon by concentrating on the core tenets of journalism — digging for facts, asking tough questions, presenting truths in compelling stories — and by better engaging the public in the understanding the importance of quality, independent journalism.
The Twitter hashtags #presson and #nottheenemy are good examples of online campaigns to draw attention to good journalism. So too is the Washington Post’s new tagline, Democracy Dies in Darkness.
The antidote to Trump’s fake news may be newfound respect for real journalism.
Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. His primary research expertise is in media law, and he teaches courses in journalism, and media law, history and ethics. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jasonmshepard.