So we’re all revved up about fake news churned out by Ruskies trying to get Trump elected. I’m sure that story will continue to unfold and will undoubtedly fuel a flood of more fake news.
I have news for you. There is nothing new about fake news. Stand in the checkout line of most supermarkets and you’ll see headlines that are more outrageous than anything being manufactured out there in cyberspace. But we all know it’s a joke, right?
“Looky here, Maude! Says here Kate Middleton was abducted by space aliens and will be having Brad Pitt’s Christmas baby!”
“Shush, Alvin! How can you believe such nonsense. This one says it was Taylor Swift and she gonna have twins!”
Well, maybe not that couple, but this news isn’t going to start World War III. These are celebrities and that’s the price they pay for being rich and famous. Or is it? I don’t know if the people who read this stuff are doing it for entertainment value, a few laughs, or if they really believe this stuff. There are people — a small percentage, I pray— who regard this as their chief source of news. In fact, it may be the only thing they read beside the funnies. Some of them even vote, but most wouldn’t know where or how to register.
The most famous source of fake news proudly labeled itself as such. That, of course, was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and claimed more viewers than the network nightly news shows and anything on FOX, CNN or MSNBC. Maybe not so much now with Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, which bills itself as looking at the news “through a sharp reality-based lens.”
So fake is reality-based. That’s the key, because fake news doesn’t work if it is not believable. In the case of The Daily Show and its kin, the premise is that the world has reached such a state that even the most absurd events and comments are believable. This is all about entertainment mixed with political commentary.
There is a saying when reality seems unreal that “you can’t make this stuff up.” Yet there is apparently a whole industry out there that does. This is not about tabloids and entertainment shows. I’m talking about fake news that may not only influence elections but alter the course of world events.
The Spanish American War may never have happened without a whole bunch of fake news to stir up the American people and then keep them in a high state of anxiety with colorful newspaper coverage. News publisher William Randolph Hearst, when told by a correspondent, reporting from Havana, that there was no war to cover there, is quoted as saying, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” And that included illustrations of fictional atrocities and abuses.
Yes, there was a time when even newspapers produced fake news. Today the ethics of journalism may allow an occasional foray on April Fool’s Day, but even then the reader will eventually be let in on the joke. I plead guilty to that in the distant past, and it drew some protest that I was tainting the sanctity of the news. When was the last time you saw news and sanctity in the same sentence?
Today’s news coverage, it seems, is obsessed with giving both sides of every story without challenging the “facts” presented, leaving readers to fact check for themselves. The opinion stays on the op-ed page, whose editorials and commentaries require attention spans and more complex thought processes. Forget about it! Skip to the sports page. The social media, on the other hand, has become a wilderness of falsehoods and fictions, with most of us preferring to get our news and opinions from sources that reflect our own beliefs.
We’re all being spoon-fed fake news, with its chefs assured of an audience hungry for what they have on the menu. The distinction is that you believe your fake news and I’ll believe mine. It has played a big role in the widening gap that divides us.
The Nazis of Hitler and the Communists of Stalin, Khrushchev and now Putin have created propaganda machines that rely on distortion and false news to keep the allegiance of their citizenry and even convince them to support unjust wars. The U.S. government has not been exempt from propaganda, a.k.a. disseminating misinformation, especially in time of war. We have what they don’t have, however— our First Amendment freedoms.
Facebook is trying to put the horse back in the barn, probably too late, by labeling or excluding false news through a combination of filters and fact checking.
“Facebook has a fake news problem. And some of its users are fed up with it,” USA Today reported in a Sunday article. “They’re not sure if the solution is to let the social network, with its own biases, decide what’s true. Or whether they themselves should become better fact-checkers.”
The same source reports that some 170 million Americans use Facebook every day, with a Pew Research Center survey concluding that almost half of the adults in this country rely on Facebook for their news. And almost half of that number admit sharing what turned out to be a fake news story along the way.