I know a little something about fake news. I manufactured a news article years ago in an April 1st issue of another newspaper and stirred up a storm of controversy. Anyone who read beyond the headline and the introductory paragraphs would recognize that it was not on the up and up. That’s on the up and up, as in factual and legitimate, and the article had become so outrageous by the final sentence, concluding, of course, with “April Fool!” that it seemed a harmless diversion from the usual stilted and sobering front-page stuff.
Well, I learned that some people do not like their news tampered with, and there was a petition sent to my publisher calling for somebody’s head to roll. Specifically, the head they wanted lopped off was the author of the article, one Jeremy Weskill. That, of course, was me, borrowing my son’s name for the first name and the combination of my first and last as the surname. I managed to save my job, though it was noted for posterity in my personnel file that I had run afoul of some sacred rule of journalism.
I bring this up because fake news is rampant these days, and nobody seems to care about the harm it does to public figures and its distortion of critical issues. There are websites and publications like the The Onion, Huzlers and Snark.com that specialize in making things up, some of which finds itself being passed along as real news. Politicians pick up some of this fake stuff and quote it as fact. The Onion states up front that is “a farcical newspaper.” The Huzlers website looks pretty legitimate, except for a brief “About Us” disclaimer on the bottom of the home page stating that it is “the most notorious urban entertainment website in the world.”
They are many other sources of fake news— some of it mean-spirited and dangerous— that is created on social media and kept alive even after it has been debunked. Social media is crowded with people looking for fodder to bolster their distorted views on both the right and the left, contributing to the entrenchment of political opinion.
One of the fake news stories of this past week proclaimed in its headline: “Tony Romo Arrested in North Carolina for Using Men’s Bathroom.” Romo, the macho quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, was supposedly arrested because of a transgender issue, and it happens to be in North Carolina, currently a hotbed of transgender discrimination. This piece of fiction originated on Snark.com and made it to the pages of other news sources and, of course, the social media.
It’s no exaggeration to say we’re being flooded by fake news, and people are forming opinions based on some of this stuff. The Onion does not try to fool anybody, because you know none of its contents are real and, like The Daily Show on television, it can be very entertaining.
For example, in recent political coverage, there were side-by-side photos of Trump and Clinton with the following caption: “Poll finds many voters would support equally unlikeable third-party candidate.” And you don’t have to go beyond the headline to know that this story is a tease: “Heroic Police Officer Talks Man Down from Edge of Purchasing Subway Foot-long Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki.”
The biggest generator or fake news is the social media, much of it with a political agenda that may go viral and become accepted as fact. Michelle Obama is frequently characterized as both transgender and manly on Facebook and other social media. It is more about racism, in my opinion, as are many of the cruel comments and images about the Obamas as a family.
Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking website, keeps a discerning eye on social media. Hillary Clinton is a favorite target, and she never said, as has become gospel on the social media: “I will get the NRA shut down for good if I become President. If we can ban handguns, we will do it.”
This originated in a blog post, according to Politifact, and was picked up on Facebook. Gun rights adherents have plenty of other good reasons not to like Hillary without relying on fake news reports.
Donald Trump, too, has been the recent subject of fake news, regarding a quote from his book, The Art of the Deal: “You tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything. You tell people what they want to hear…” It wasn’t in the book, and fact-finders could not verify he ever said it. However, Trump himself is good at cranking out his own fake news. Remember the Muslims in Jersey City cheering the collapse of the Twin Towers and linking Ted Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK?