The War On ‘Fake News’ Is A Danger To Us All

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‘Fake news’ fallout is delegitimizing independent media when we need it most.

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed on the bus when I came across a post from a friend that said “I hope this isn’t true.” It linked to an article from WorldNewsDailyReport about a white coal miner being shot by police who mistook him for a Black man. I did a quick Google search and posted the Snopes blog debunking it in the comments thread, along with the note “it’s not.”

In the current political and media climate, this kind of thing happens almost every day.

Indeed, it’s hard to think about news today without thinking about its buzzy, less illustrious counterpart — fake news. Discussion over the legitimate spread of misinformation during the 2016 election season gave way to the president himself adopting “fake news” as a way to describe any media presenting him in an unflattering light.

This uptick in factually inaccurate news, combined with a White House that regularly claims journalists are lying, has caused many Americans to simply stop trusting media altogether. A poll released this month found that millennials believe nearly half of the news they see in their Facebook feeds is fake — even though, according to The Washington Post, the actual figure is likely much lower.

Millennials believe nearly half of the news they see in their Facebook feeds is fake.

In particular, many have started viewing any partisan publication with skepticism — the idea being that any site peddling right- or left-wing views will use falsehoods to further their agenda.

It’s gotten to the point where people are even questioning publications aligned with their own views, as I’ve seen liberals do with progressive outlets like Occupy Democrats and The Huffington Post. Last week, for example, a friend on Facebook posted an article from The Huffington Post about the incredible story of Trump’s “Armada” heading in the wrong direction. In response, another friend posted that they didn’t know what “credible” sources they could even trust anymore (their quote, not mine). Even though that particular story was very much true, backed up by reputable publications and sources, it was dismissed offhand simply because it was associated with a left-leaning site.

We need to be having a much more complex conversation about media accuracy.

I’ve been a media literacy educator my entire adult life, so don’t get me wrong — I think information quality is important. I know that sites like The Huffington Post have not always abided by the highest editorial standards, and I believe we should be doing a better job holding journalists accountable. But I also think we need to be having a much more complex conversation about media accuracy than the one we’re currently having.

Because as it is, the war on “fake news” is delegitimizing independent media at a time when it is needed most.

What Even Is Fake News?

Depending on who’s wielding it, the term “fake news” is often used in wildly different ways. To Trump, any story or poll that disagrees with him is “fake news”; to journalists, stories that fail to meet specific standards of integrity and honesty are “fake news”; to many Americans, almost any story on any outlet can be classified as “fake news,” depending on existing biases and suppositions.

So what is fake news, really? I’d break it down into three categories:

1. Satire

Best known as the domain of The Onion, satire has been thriving in the Trump age on other sites as well, including the explicitly feminist Reductress (“Twitter Scholar Helpfully Points out Logical Fallacy in Meghan’s Joke”) and Buzzfeed parody site Clickhole (“A Commitment To Justice: Jeff Sessions Is Currently Chasing A High School Senior Who Got High At Prom Across The Roof Of A Siberian Train”).

Unlike with stories in the other two categories, satire can and should be shared with your friends. While indeed fake, this fakeness is used deliberately and transparently to make a point about reality — and there is real value to this.

If someone seems outraged, note to them that it is a joke, or consider commenting about it up front in your post. The Borowitz Report is helpfully labeled Satire now when shared to Facebook because we live in a world where “Jared Kushner says he read up on Middle East during minutes waiting for ski lift” could definitely be real life. On the flipside, when you share a real-life headline that seems like it could be satire — but actually, alarmingly, is not — you can post something like “not the Onion” or “this seems fake, but it’s definitely real.”

2. Fabricated Clickbait

By this I don’t mean any story designed to drive clicks, but media that expressly uses lies to generate traffic. This kind of journalism — if one can even call it that — is primarily financially motivated. If people can drive lots of clicks to dummy sites they’ve set up to look like real news sites, then they can make money on a pay-per-click model.

These sites have outrageous headlines, prey on your confirmation bias, and often look at least semi-legitimate. One from a fake paper called the Baltimore Gazette recently shared the story of a Black mother shot by police while breastfeeding. I know some friends in Baltimore and knew of the Sun, but not the Gazette. Wikipedia told me that the Gazette was a paper — in the 1800s. People sadly used to sharing real stories about police brutality passed it on without double checking.

As evidenced by the shady paper in which it appeared, and the lack of coverage on legitimate sites, this story indeed seems to be made up. But it fueled anger and undermined the credibility of actual cases of police murder for a quick buck. There are consequences to stories like this, because they make it harder for real news about important issues to be taken seriously — but if we are more critical in making sure we read something before we share it, a lot of this traffic can get cut down.

3. Propaganda

This refers to any story that is designed explicitly to mislead with the goal of a political outcome. So a piece is not propaganda simply for expressing an opinion—regardless of common wisdom that holds otherwise. But when a story intentionally leaves out information, draws radical conclusions that are not tied to evidence, or otherwise manipulates the reader to reach a specific conclusion, that is propaganda.

This propaganda is often, but not always, provably false. One famous example is that 3 million undocumented people voted in California in the 2016 election. Purveyors of lies like Alex Jones have not only shared this untruth, but bent over backwards to come up with some sort of math to justify it.

Unfortunately, our president’s timeline is a pretty good place to start if you’re looking for this kind of fake news. Back in 2015, Trump famously shared an infographic credited to a neo-Nazi site claiming that 81% of white homicide victims were killed by Black people (a blatant lie, per all available evidence). It’s easy to dismiss such lazy racism as so over-the-top that people will see right through it, but it’s designed to confirm what racists already believe. And the deeper, underlying intention is to confuse the notion of whether or not something is knowable, so as to undermine legitimate facts.

To protect against propaganda, we all need to develop our own gut checks. If something seems off, get a second opinion. Look for original sources and use them to determine your own understanding of the claims being made. And never share links to this stuff, even if it’s to shame or warn.

Our President’s timeline is a pretty good place to start if you’re looking for propaganda.

Note that what I don’t include among any of these examples of fake news are opinion columns or stories on partisan sites. Op-eds are transparently expressing an opinion, and so — while they can and sometimes do peddle falsehoods to make their point, which is problematic — they are not necessarily “fake news,” even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Partisan sites, too, can spread misinformation, but they can also argue a specific point using factually sound logic.

The conflation of partisanship with fakeness is perhaps the most damning part of the whole “fake news” debate. Too often, even major thought leaders are reinforcing one of the most infuriating myths of our time — that divisiveness is our most significant hindrance to progress.

The Truth About ‘Objectivity’

Too often, we think that for something to be true, it must be “objective” — that is, not expressing any particular perspective. In reality, just because a story is arguing a partisan thesis does not mean it’s necessarily “fake.”

Even explicitly partisan sites labeled fake news can bring receipts and link to their sources. On the far-right side, The National Review is clearly conservative, and I find its opinions deplorable — but it doesn’t typically make up facts or information when arguing points. I as a reader have a right to disagree with how information is being presented and argued, but this doesn’t make its stories “fake.”

On the left-leaning side of the spectrum, the list Harvard hosts of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources” includes multiple members from The Media Consortium, as well as Jacobin, The Intercept, and ThinkProgress. As a Board member and fiscal sponsor of another Media Consortium member (BINJ), this is especially concerning to me, as I know what kind of editorial standards are in place at these publications, including rigorous fact-checking and sourcing.

One of my absolute favorite long reads of all time, “Got Dough,” from Dissent Magazine, is a masterful example of how to hold an explicit and transparent bias (or theoretical orientation, for you fellow nerds) and compile an exhaustively resourced, well-connected piece on a topic virtually no mainstream papers at the time would touch — the enormous amount of funding getting dumped into education by billionaires. The piece brought to light something many more mainstream publications are finally beginning to recognize — that private foundations and interests have far too much influence on the policy and outcomes of public education. Dissent was bringing the receipts on this back in 2011; to dismiss it as “fake” simple because it was arguing an ostensibly progressive thesis would be to lose out on a vital story.

This example helps highlight another crucial point: Not only is the news not fake at these independent sites, but you’re unlikely to find it other places. Dismissing such content outright shuts down conversations that, especially now, we need to be having.

These conversations are particularly important in a “fake news” environment where — it turns out — viewpoints that are damaging to human rights and democratic ideals are being allowed to thrive.

Not All Perspectives Are Created Equal

In his recent reemergence to public life, Barack Obama told an audience of young civic leaders at the University of Chicago, “Everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them, further and further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality.” His words touched on a false equivalency, popularized by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, with dangerous ramifications: that all viewpoints are created equal.

Indeed, these constant calls to reach across the aisle and hear each other out cover up a very important fact — that some people are right and some people are wrong.

Surely, for instance, only the egregiously racist would argue that if one person thinks slavery should be brought back, and another that it shouldn’t, that each side is expressing an equally credible view everyone should pay attention to. Some perspectives deserve a platform for argument; some do not. The importance of this distinction became clear when, late last year, the LA Times published two letters arguing that Japanese internment camps were justified, relying on racist stereotypes to make their point. The publication ended up, correctly, apologizing for the letters, on the grounds that they didn’t represent “civil, fact-based discourse.”

At the same time, confirmation bias is especially pronounced among those who hold the most dangerous views: Trump supporters who believe, for example, that immigrants are criminals, U.S.-based Muslims are terrorists, and white people are superior to black people.

A recent study in the Columbia Journalism Review examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day, and found that, as journalism professor Dan Kennedy put it:

“Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.”

The authors of the study referred to this as “asymmetrical polarization.” As Kennedy noted, “The left and the center avail themselves of real journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is essentially political propaganda — all the while denigrating anything that contradicts their worldview as ‘fake news.”

Unfortunately, in a bid to somehow balance the scales and avoid the perception of *gasp* liberal bias, publications that are branded by the right with this red letter too often fall over themselves trying to give equal weight to nonsense. Enter Bret Stephens, whose maiden voyage in the New York Times — an inelegant op-ed arguing that maybe climate change isn’t the all-encompassing threat to our future that we know it to be — has scientists calling for a boycott.

A publication like the New York Times lending its credibility to this quixotic campaign is a threat to the future of an informed society, and shows once again the double standard in place. The left must prove correctness beyond a shadow of a doubt, but all the right needs to do is poke holes of uncertainty in even the most indisputable of arguments. Here, fake news is masquerading as a worthwhile argument in what is seen by many as our national paper of record.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by our modern media environment, and to simply label all news as “fake” in response. But doing so is not only lazy, but dangerous. Instead, we must re-frame the discussion so people can better discern what’s of value and what’s not.

Despite frequent posts from high school friends on celebrity death hoaxes or widely debunked urban legends, I am also inclined to believe we should be giving audiences more credit to make up their own mind. And as for actual “fake news,” it’s one of three things — satire, fabricated clickbait, or propaganda. And we should call those things what they are.

If we continue to paint this discussion in only the broadest of strokes, we will continue to cede ground to dangerous ideas — while giving more power to an administration that would like nothing more than for critical, independent media to disappear altogether.

And there’s nothing fake about how scary that is.

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