What’s not fake about fake news

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It seems as if fake news has become a catchphrase for dismissing and objecting to inconvenient news reports. By merely calling it ‘fake,’ news becomes not only worthless in terms of informational value, but it is also considered the poisoned fruit of a conspiracy.

The underlying assumption in calling news ‘fake’ is that someone has maliciously designed it to spread false information and deceive the audience. In other words, as if it is designed to look like a real genuine thing, but it is not. We only find out that it is fake, and we were misled after the fact — like Snow White’s bite from the poisoned apple.

Unlike lies or biased reports, fake news is false information that was processed within professional journalistic work and is presented as credible, whether the falsity is intentional or not.

The concept of ‘fake news’ places mass media at the center of society’s control of information. It assumes the media should be responsible and accountable for their reports. At the same time, that mass media should act as society’s gatekeepers, guarding the sacred gates of wisdom. In that view, it is the mass media that governs and sustains the notion of legitimate and valuable information. Without it, society will lose its source of credible trust and will be left to search for scraps of information.

The popular use of ‘fake news’ contains a negative argument calling out wrongdoing, but at the same time, it assumes the media’s noble, traditional role of supplying information. The criticism is, therefore, that in sharing fake information, the media betrays its genuine role.

But the quality of being fake is not considered automatically negative for certain audiences. Many artifacts, objects, or things that are considered ‘fake’ are loved and consumed. For example, fake fur or faux leather. These are objects that enjoy a positive image and successfully attract customers. The same goes for fake gemstones for jewelry. Magazine articles compare expensive brands and their common or popular counterparts, creating a sense of authorized fakeness in the name of consumer frugality.

What is common in these authorized fakes is that they do not try to hide the fact that they imitate the real product and offer a competing version of it, unlike fake news that hides its falsehood — Moreover, many of these items enjoying the image of being the better, more moral option. Fur and leather production and diamond mining are considered to be problematic. They are morally tainted for some audiences. The current self-aware and environmentally conscious public discourse views the exploitation of animals or other humans for other people’s leisure as wrong and immoral. Therefore, the production of fake products in these cases is offering the public the pleasure of enjoying similar products without paying the moral price.

I thought about the nature of fake news and products, and our ability to enjoy them to the full when I read Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and The Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (2008). The book chronicles the summer of 1835 when the penny newspaper the Sun published a series of six articles reporting about fake ‘scientific discoveries,’ purporting to reveal the existence of life on the moon — including unicorns and beavers that walked upright on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats. This fantasy news reporting described supposed scientific breakthroughs, and it spread through the city like wildfire. It became the most widely circulated newspaper story of the era, and the Sun became the most widely read newspaper in the world.

It is unclear why these stories were published in the first place. Whether they were intended to deceive the audience and trick them into believing the fantasy, while selling more copies and increasing profits, or they were never intended to be accepted as fact, but rather were meant as satire — as claimed by their author, Richard Adam Locke, years later. Nevertheless, the articles had a substantial financial and cultural impact.

The huge circulation of the “moon stories” in the mid-1830s attests to the audience’s desire for amusement and enjoyment. These ends were achieved by fantastic stories that offered escapism and relief from everyday life in the noisy, busy New York of 1835. In retrospect, looking at the process of news consumption, it is not surprising that the audience enjoyed such magnificent stories, nor does it matter whether they consumed the stories as truth or fantasy disguised as news. In both cases, the audience’s gratification was real, and without that, the stories wouldn’t have succeeded.

Even Locke’s most significant critic was in awe of the series and of Locke’s expertise in crafting such a compelling story. James Gordon Bennet Sr., the founder, editor, and publisher of the New York Herald and a significant figure in the history of American newspapers wrote in his newspaper:

Mr. Locke, however, deserves great credit for his ingenuity — his learning — and his irresistible drollery. He is an original genius, and very gentlemanly in his manners. If he would come out and tell the public frankly the whole secret history of the hoax, he would lose nothing in character or in talents.” (The Sun and The Moon, page 211)

It seems that these words could be easily applied to today’s false news stories, as well.

Audiences enjoy this kind of fake news stories because they offer them fantasy. They offer them gratifying pleasure and an escape from their daily routine. More than new revelations about the world, fake news offers a window to fantastic stories that may or may not have happened. The theory of uses and gratifications assumes that the audience is aware of their own needs and use the media rationally. In their seminal work, Katz, Gurevitch, and Haas (1973) showed how the audience viewed the media as a means by which individuals connect/disconnect themselves with/from others. The audience is using the media to fulfill their needs. Among those, the audience uses media consumption to gratify its tension-release needs, and as an escape and diversion. Fake news, in that way, offers the perfect getaway.

The question of veracity is irrelevant to their consumption of fake news. Much like ‘the moon stories,’ modern fake news stories offer dark, fantastical tales of greed and lust, of hidden desires that are beyond the audience’s reach. In that realm, it does not matter if these stories are true or false; they exist and gratify the public, and this is what matters.

To that end, the audience’s satisfaction from fake news could be similar to the satisfaction of buying faux fur or fake diamonds. It is derived from pleasure, and not from the moral questions of who initiated the process and created both fake news and fake diamonds in the first place. Both products are designed to intrigue us, catch our attention, and offer simple pleasure.

That window to the fantastical possible world out there, filled with repressed desires and fears, is real. It is not fake. In this sense, fake news offers a genuine understanding of human nature and people’s desire to read fantasies.

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