Is All News “Fake”?
People who get their news from traditional sources, whether delivered by legacy media or online means, have been surprised with Trump’s ability to hijack the “Fake News” news cycle by making the term his own and brandishing it against any agency he disagrees with.
Progressives and liberals and activists who still rely on the mainstream media didn’t realize they were marching into alt-right conspiracy territory when they took up the rallying cry of, “Fake News!” Many Trump supporters responded with a resounding, “Yep, that’s what we’ve been trying to tell you!”
Journalists meant the term to distinguish their work from fabricated political stories, and used it to dismiss the flood of bad memes from imposter websites that specialize in public deceit for profit. A variety of fake news was used to great effect during the last election. Problem is, conspiracy theorists and conservative hacks already believed most mainstream news to be manufactured by the liberal media, and therefore fake. Turns out, so did Trump.
BOYS IN THE FALSEHOOD
Recently, the Republican intelligence chairman stated, “We cannot go on witch hunts against the American people just because their name ends up in a newspaper story, because look, we know this, all newspapers are biased.” Many on the Trump team seem eager to delegitimizing the role of journalism as the watchdog of government, but the sentiment is not new.
Decades ago, this sort of deep rooted mistrust motivated the surge of conspiracy peddlers flying the flag of alternative news. They protested that paid corporate messages implanted in traditional news make them all untrustworthy. Traditional journalism came to be considered critical for programming a matrix of lies to control unaware citizens. With this logic base, anyone that disagrees with an alternative worldviews gets accused of being an emotional puppet manipulated by those nefarious media forces. But it’s not just the news media people stopped believing. Any science or fact or government agency that disagrees is also “fake” by default and part of the greater conspiracy.
Trump’s take on what is fake news, and the consistency which he defines CNN as defining it, carries extra weight with his supporters because he has first-hand experience of mainstream media at the highest levels. The proof is in the pudding. It was his understanding of the corporate news structure and their inclination for pursuing easy and profitable stories instead of substantive journalism that allowed him to commandeer for himself millions of dollars’ worth of airtime during his campaign. Trump knew what was good for ratings — controversy and drama. He provided a boost to ratings numbers, and cable news obliged with extended coverage.
CBS chairman Les Moonves said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
The fiscal reality of television programming necessitates a dependence on advertising revenue for the U.S. news media. About 69% “of all domestic news revenue is derived from advertising” according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Many reports confirmed the bump the 2016 election gave to cable news viewership and revenue.
If the news is just an entertainment product, why trust it?
YOU DON’T REALLY BELIEVE THAT, DO YOU?
Even as ratings soared, the media seemed unaware of its failing credibility. A casual dismissal was made of the mistrust as belonging to fringe extremists populating internet comments sections, when it’s actually a popular opinion on all sides of the political argument. Liberals don’t trust conservative media. Conservatives don’t trust liberal media.
Democratic societies have grown numb to politicians willing to mislead the very public they claim to be worthy of leading. Civilized discourse was replaced with an outright rejection of all ideas and any data that doesn’t originate from within one’s own the party.
This struggle for veracity goes much further back than last year’s election, perhaps a problem as old as democracy itself, but as s Paul Resnick, professor of information at the University of Michigan, told the BBC, “the internet has made it possible for many voices to be heard that could not make it through the bottleneck that controlled what would be distributed before.”
The effect on a fragmented political landscape results in bubbles of information people voluntarily populate according to their prejudices, biases, and beliefs. A general sense of objective reality has been replaced with self-affirming cults of consensus.
A BBC article on fake news included this statement from Professor Lewandowsky, the current chair of cognitive psychology at the University Of Bristol, “There is a large proportion of the population in the US living in what we would regard as an alternative reality. They share things with each other that are completely false. Any attempt to break through these bubbles is fraught with difficulty as you are being dismissed as being part of a conspiracy simply for trying to correct what people believe. It is why you have Republicans and Democrats disagreeing over something as fundamental as how many people appear in a photograph.”
THE PRICE OF TRUTH
The perceived absence of unbiased reporting in favor of ratings and ad revenue only made the underlining problem more glaringly apparent to those who gave up on trusting mainstream news: Whoever pays for the news, controls the news.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a bad case of paranoia. The financial giants and advertisers that pay the bills for corporate news outlets often exercise a control over the very nature of what is allowed to be reported.
One obvious example is the correlation between Rupert Murdock’s personal opinions and the viewpoints championed by his Fox News. A trickle of speculation that the 24 hour news cycle turns into a steady stream. Under Murdoch’s reign, “Editors stripped out liberal sources or framed passages in ways that some reporters felt were unfair.”
Another valid example would be the absolute lack of reporting on Bernie Sanders as a serious challenger at the beginning of the election cycle, something those on the far left did not perceive as mere coincidence. The manner which corporate sponsored news chose to cover the democratic primaries made it seem like those in charge of CNN and MSNBC wanted Clinton’s nomination accepted as a forgone conclusion. Mainstream media sources ignored the populist movements occurring on the left and the right in favor of their own storylines — and those on the far right and far left took note.
Many millions of voters are still licking their wounds from an election process that left them feeling abused by corporate media — and many consider that corporate level of abuse the most devious aspect of the “fake news” epidemic.
DON’T TELL ME WHAT IS WHAT
This is a public that doesn’t want to be told what is real and what is fake. Ben Fletcher, of the IBM Watson Research team working on automated fact-checking systems said, “We got a lot of feedback that people did not want to be told what was true or not. At the heart of what they want, was actually the ability to see all sides and make the decision for themselves.”
They want to see all sides of the story and decide for themselves. When traditional news sources fails to cover a favorite pet theory, it’s a cause for suspicion. But how do they then decide what sources to trust? Instinct? Gut feelings? Unfortunately, that approach only makes someone more susceptible to believing bad information, especially when it’s packaged with the appropriate emotional appeal.
Unfortunately, without a developed epistemology, or a dependable ontological database of misinformation, we’re only left with primitive faculties for discerning complex truths from dense packages of propaganda.
KEEPING IT REAL
Misinformation and bad information can take many forms, manipulating its audience by various means and for various end results. But, it’s interesting that when exploring the various categories of what to consider fake news, sponsored content is often overlooked.
Sites like Stopfake.org do a great job of identifying types of deception — Satire or Parody, False Connections, Misleading Content, False Context, Imposter Content, Manipulated Content, Fabricated Content. But it’s more important to identify the reasons for employing such tactics, which can range from pure propaganda to old fashioned exploitation. When sponsored content is overlook as “Fake News” it only stokes the mistrust.
Advertisements are disguised as real news, and it’s painfully obvious. Inspired by the success and the low overhead of reality tv, news segments and entire special reports often take on the form of infotainment, which insults its viewers’ intelligence.
The prevalence of sponsored content only strengthens the argument that corporate media is an elaborate hoax. Years of fomented distrust encourages a cult like following of those out to reveal the truth. Self-styled “truthers.”
When critical thinking is crippled by that sort of anti-media bias, it’s easy to be convinced that big events are well orchestrated hoaxes featuring “crisis actors” and advance special effects to manipulate those still plugged into the corporate media matrix. The ability to discern what is factual has eroded to a point where people honestly believe there was no mass shooting at Sandy Hook or that the earth is flat.
Trump is especially susceptible to such flawed conclusions, and spent years supporting the birther conspiracy, which demanded Obama’s birth certificate even after he provided it, because obviously it was “fake” just like the news that reported it.
A BBC special series called Future Now asked a panel of experts about the grand challenges we face in the 21st Century — and many named the breakdown of trusted sources of information as one of the most pressing problems today.
Of course, maybe they just made it all up.
There seems to be no end to the “Fake News” dilemma in site. The accusations are lobbied by all sides. And the average citizen is more confused about what to trust than ever.