A flood of disinformation is drowning social networks online and supplanting quality journalism as primary news sources for many Americans, risking the country’s future as a free republic.
The stratospheric rise of fake news – false information specifically presented as real journalism to deceive the audience – is an emerging crisis, compelling Oxford Dictionaries to christen 2016 the “year of post-truth”1 and triggering panic among pundits over whether America’s consumption of blatant lies in their media diet swayed the presidential election.
Countless articles have been written about this troubling phenomenon, though few solutions have been proposed or implemented.
But if tech giants are to blame for the spread of fake news, it’s the readers of these websites – like InfoWars, Breitbart News, Natural News, End the Fed, US Uncut or the slew of other news-ish seeming blogs – who have created a niche market for information that confirms their biases as they increasingly distrust and feel unrepresented by what’s nebulously referred to as “the media.”4.
Of course, fake news isn’t a new phenomenon5 by any stretch and yellow journalism used to run through the mainstream media’s veins6. But as journalism changed and matured, fake news was pushed to the fringes.
But those fringes have gained a bigger microphone in the digital age, as the one-time media consumer has become a content creator and then a pundit as the web mutated primarily into a vast chain of social networks. Fake news publishers would have remained underground and extremely niche in the previous media landscape. But now every conspiratorial screed can find its audience and expand its reach to the point where fact-checkers like Snopes7 and others struggle to keep up with debunking the endless influx of baseless, paranoid, exploitative rubbish.
As America’s obsession with conspiracy theories spreads across the Internet, fake news has taken on a distinctly politically partisan turn, deepening the ideological rift between red and blue America. Insane nonsense like claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta run a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlour8, Bernie Sanders still has secret ways to become president, birther conspiracies and other garbage pollutes people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, ones each user often curates to their own to their political bend9.
People are desperately clinging to their confirmation bias while seeking information supporting their preconceived worldview rather than going to the trouble to learn from legitimate journalistic or academic sources with an open mind, and it’s further poisoning online discourse as users retreat to their bubbles10.
Fake news, as a result, became a huge industry amid a particularly divisive and disgusting presidential election year. It doesn’t take a deep dive to discover the motive driving most fake news publishers is purely financial rather than ideological, with Macedonian teens targeting Trump supporters with fake news stories echoing what they want to hear11. Fake news mavens readily admit in interviews that their stories are completely fabricated and aimed at a specific audience’s beliefs to rake in advertising dollars. It’s the free market in action.
But there are plenty of ideological players as well. Breitbart News and InfoWars are run by personalities trying to push narratives directly in opposition to established fact. Political partisans too have jumped into this cesspool12, wielding websites that look like news publications to the untrained eye as weapons of party propaganda to wage war against their enemies across the aisle. And of course, foreign powers like Russia have long waged information warfare against the United States and were particularly active in 201613 as they attempted to affect the presidential race.
Information warfare and political propaganda aren’t anything new, but there was a time when even the most ghastly lies were more often simply distorted pictures of the facts, where politicians relied on spinning a grain of truth to promote their agendas.
But we’ve entered an era that’s not only post-truth or postmodern, but post-spin as well. Primary or even secondary sources don’t even seem to matter to the most ideological of those pushing fake news stories as they create narratives from whole cloth.
Digital news consumers are being victimized by misinformation mongers all too willing feed off their clicks. It’s gone beyond the mere mindless fluff of clickbait and entered a realm of exploitation.
While older, more conservative and less Internet literate Americans are those traditionally seen as most vulnerable to online hoaxes, teenagers also struggle to tell the difference between legitimate and false information sources14 and there’s been a rise in fake news tailored to liberal tastes. Nobody is truly exempt from being affected.
So while the fringe rightwing definitely has a fake news problem, it’s not a crisis uniquely belonging to them, as their far left counterparts and everyone else in between also can fall into the same trap.
Media literacy is at dangerously low levels in the United States and anyone can be taken for a fool. (full disclosure: I once fell for an abcnews.com.co story because I wasn’t careful and the headline very much spoke to my interests).
We seem to have crossed a dystopian threshold where even our leaders can’t tell or respect the difference between facts and lies and actively tries to blur the lines between them, where the head of Breitbart News can step into the national policy adviser’s chair15 and the ramblings of InfoWars frequently end up in news aggregators and social media feeds as if they are rooted in facts.
And worse, it’s spreading beyond America’s borders and into Europe16, threatening to engulf the planet in a blanket of noise where finding the truth becomes increasingly difficult for the average individual.
As a result, the confusion has deepened to the point where defining fake news has become distorted17, with people on both sides – and even fake news pushers themselves18 – misusing the term to discredit reports and publications they don’t like, regardless of their legitimacy, in a truly Orwellian fashion.
While stories from real news sources can have inaccuracies – reporters are only human – those instances can’t be considered “fake news” in the same way. There have also been times news organizations are deceived by official sources, but that’s not really fake news either, even if the story is demonstrably false, like many reports leading up to the Iraq War. Nor do websites that seem news-like but are clearly promoting satire like Clickhole or The Onion fit the narrowly tailored definition I’m seeking to highlight. Similarly, opinion websites with a liberal or conservative viewpoint, like DailyKos or National Review aren’t fake news either. But this hasn’t stopped people on both sides from trying to taint partisan or hyperpartisan websites as “fake” for simply espousing different worldviews.
It’s important to combat the propagation of fake news while respecting diversity of thought and to avoid using the label as a weapon to discredit political opponents19.
But what BuzzFeed News recently did when publishing an unverified intelligence dossier full of allegations about blackmail material against President Trump collected by Russia is very dismaying, and could certainly be considered fake news. I’m finding it hard to spot the difference between the unverified information posted by BuzzFeed and the metric ton of rubbish posted by InfoWars.
This only underscores the importance for journalists decrying the rise of fake news to value accuracy, integrity and nonpartisanship themselves20 to give their critique more weight in the eyes of a public that simply doesn’t trust the amorphous news ecosystem of radio, television, newspapers and the Internet commonly known as “the mainstream media.”
Though Facebook and Google are trying to crackdown on ad revenue streams that fuel fake news sites on their networks22, and Google just banned 200 fake news publishers from its AdSense services23, it’s important for the public to take the promotion of real news and media literacy into their own hands.
As we shift from an administration concerned about fake news24 to one that actively embraces it, it’s vital to support trustworthy journalism25 and promote our First Amendment rights of press and speech.