In recent months the term “fake news” has been thrown around a lot, particularly in the weeks building up to and following the contentious and highly controversial election of Donald Trump and the subsequent aftermath that has manifested as a result. While the phenomenon has received quite a bit of attention in the public eye and media as a result, it is important to note this trend of clickbait, misleading or all-out fabricated news stories have existed long before the 2016 presidential election cycle and the advent of the internet and various social media platforms that have proliferated in a relatively short amount of time. However, properly identifying such journalism and calling it out from both the public and journalists themselves will be pivotal henceforth and be of the utmost importance in the coming years to maintain not only a healthy and properly informed public, but avoid the troubling and potentially dangerous consequences of allowing misleading and false information to be passed off as fact and find mainstream public acceptance amongst different facets of society.
With the advent of the internet and the explosive proliferation of social media over the past 15 years or so, the proverbial floodgates to ideological actors of almost any persuasion no matter how mainstream or niche is now wide open, and it now seems that the responsibility to seek truth and report it is less practiced more than ever before. Now, perhaps more than ever before, with the tremendous growth of predatory second market publishers on social media networks who prey on the benighted and ignorant; the lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies has been blurred in the public sphere and doubt casted on the integrity of journalists and media as a whole as information both true and false travel the globe with ever-increasing speed and efficiency. First, it’s important to carefully and properly label and categorize exactly what it is we are talking about and trying to combat when we discuss “fake news” and be able to differentiate what it is and what is not. The term “fake news” is a broad and ambiguous term in and of itself, that robs the public of the nuance and complexity that surrounds this murky grey area that consists of a myriad of misinformation and propaganda spread through both traditional legacy media outlets as well as virally online which has progressively crept into U.S. news media and journalism more and more in the 21st century.
Misinformation, which Oxford Dictionary defines as: “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive”, is utilized through a variety of both mainstream and independent online outlets which are far too numerous to list all right here. It is by far, the most abundant and prolific type of deceitful reporting given its very nature and exceptionally broad definition because it can literally be spread by anyone whether it be legacy media outlets such as CNN or Fox News or any number of countless websites or Facebook pages eager to capitalize on an overzealous fan base that is dying to have it’s world views validated, who in turn further propagate flimsy and misleading material. Take for example Paris Wade and Ben Goldman, two 26-year old college graduates who run and write for the site LibertyWritersNews.com, which is dedicated to peddling conspiracy theories, misinformation, and other deceitful news stories and reporting. Wade and Goldman both graduated from the University of Tennessee; Wade in 2012 with an advertising degree and Goldman in 2013 with a business degree respectively. Both moved out to California after only being able to find unpaid internships and ended up working minimum wage jobs. Wade and Goldman attempted to start an advertising business that quickly failed but did attract one client who ran multiple alt-right Facebook pages. (The ‘alt-right’ is a racist, white supremacist, neo-nazi, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist. It is highly decentralized but, has a wide online presence. Followers rail against multiculturalism and what they see as “political correctness.” Openly spouting messages of white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, and other extreme far-right ideologies). In 2015, the client needed more writers, so both Wade and Goldman started writing articles for the various pages. On the first story Wade ever wrote, he made $120 off of just 10 minutes of work. Fast forward to 2017, Liberty Writers News has just over 900,000 followers on Facebook as of 1/11. (Nearly 300,000 which were gained last October alone). In an interview conducted by The Orange County Register, both Wade and Goldman described the tactics and prejudices they regularly utilize and prey upon to appease their base and target new followers. Wade casually stated “violence and chaos, and aggressive wording is what people are attracted to”, with Goldman adding “our audience does not trust the mainstream media, it’s definitely easier to hook them with that”. Wade also went on to say in regards to their recent newfound careers: “We’re the new yellow journalist, we’re the people on the side of the street yelling that the world is about to end, you have to trick people into reading the news” with Goldman adding “all successful journalism has shock value”. Wade and Goldman are far from being the only individuals attempting to pass off and peddle purposely deceitful and wildly inaccurate material as legitimate news reporting.
Another prominent example is Breitbart News, a website closely associated with the white nationalist ‘alt-right’, an avid champion of misleading and inaccurate reporting that supports far-right-wing beliefs. Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart, who now serves as one of Donald Trump’s top advisers as White House strategist and counselor, has drawn no shortage of criticism from anti-discrimination groups for Brietbart’s malevolent and often racist content targeting minorities, immigrants, women, and the LGBT community. Some of Breitbart’s many offenses include, but are by no means limited to running:
- A fake news story claiming a Muslim mob set fire to a church in Germany.
- Publishing a story in 2016 labeling Republican Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” for his efforts in opposing Trump’s presidential campaign.
- Numerous erroneous attacks on the Black Lives Matter Movement even going as far to say “#BlackLivesMatter Stokes Global Chaos”.
- Attacking the racial identity of activist and New York Daily News writer Shaun King in an effort to attack and delegitimize the Black Lives Matter Movement.
These are just a few of the many, many fabricated and malicious stories that Brietbart has gained a reputation for publishing and will undoubtedly continue to do especially given the outlets close proximity to the president elect’s chief White House Strategist. Even the hate-watch group The Southern Poverty Law Center has even called Bannon the “main driver behind Breitbart becoming an ethno-nationalist propaganda mill”.
Misinformation can take a variety of other forms as well, not just regulated to websites or articles that go to great lengths to embellish facts and craft intricate false narratives. In fact, some of the most deceitful and insidious forms of misinformation are those that are not only astonishingly brief but easy to create and even easier to share, especially through social media platforms online by regular everyday users. One particular popular format is through internet memes. A meme is essentially a photo, video or catchphrase that goes viral; meaning that people who find humor and cultural relevancy in it and share it in mass through social media. Memes can be found and are widely shared on practically any given social media platform. Memes are essentially the 21st century online equivalent to editorial and political cartoons of the past, with the exception of being created by far less talented and funny people. While memes can cover topics from practically any denotation from mainstream pop cultures to niche obscure internet cultures and trends or practically anything else in-between, political memes can offer social commentary on elected officials, current events or a variety of topical political issues and can be shared quite easily and quickly through social media. However, they can be very misleading and particularly harmful when used to propagate false and downright wildly fallacious data and statistics. This leads to our next category which is propaganda.
Propaganda, which Merriam-Webster defines as: “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; or the public action of spreading ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause”, is perhaps the most dangerous because it is most often perpetuated and utilized by the state itself. Propaganda can include art, films, music, literature or often times can simply just be public speech made by officials and leaders. Needless to say, one of the most obvious and without a doubt dangerous actors and perpetrators of this tactic is president-elect Donald Trump. After all, Donald Trump’s first misguided and bumbling foray into the political arena is forever cemented in his stubborn insistence that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to hold office as president, albeit without a single shred of legitimate tangible proof. Notwithstanding, this hasn’t stopped countless numbers of his supporters from buying into and perpetuating this fallacy. However, time and experience on the campaign trail hasn’t stopped Trump from perpetuating dozens of egregiously false statements and statistics in his speeches, interviews or comments made from his twitter account. In fact, back in November of 2015 Trump unapologetically tweeted fabricated murder statistics that originated from a Neo-Nazi Twitter account. ThinkProgress reported that Trump tweeted the series of fabricated murder statistics which cited the “Crime Statistics Bureau — San Francisco”; a bureau that doesn’t exist. The numbers were purposely manipulated and grossly misleading to perpetuate racism against African Americans. For example, the graphic claims that 81% of whites are killed by blacks. The actual percentage, based on data from the FBI is 14%. In truth, 82% of murders involving white victims were committed by other white people, according to the FBI’s 2014 crime data. To add insult to injury Trump feebly attempted to defend his retweet of the racist, fabricated crime statistics on the show, The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News stating dismissively, “Hey Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?”. This is just one of the many, many outright lies Trump has been caught making during and after the election.
In another instance, on November 27th at 12:30PM, Trump tweeted “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”. Trump, who won the election via the electoral college lost the national popular vote by a margin of almost three million votes to Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham-Clinton. Despite there being a complete, total lack of actual evidence pointing toward any meaningful voter fraud in California or anywhere else in the country for that matter, Trump has continued to take to social media to sow seeds of propaganda and create a cesspool of utter nonsense to protect his incredibly fragile ego. Trump’s penchant to peddle wildly unfounded and debunked conspiracy theories during and following the election is not just irresponsible, but is downright dangerous! It sets a dangerous precedent that serves not only to create more confusion and division amongst the public but also emboldens future leaders to weaponize propaganda to distract not only the public but overwhelm and desensitize them to the media coverage it elicits which will no doubt be a form of diversion and deflection utilized by a Trump administration.
Needless to say, all of this is quite a bit to take in and process. It is easy to get lost in semantics, superfluous labels, and other fancy, confusing jargon. But at the end of the day, simply put in the past most of this content would have been referred to as yellow journalism. Prior to the digital age, much of what is touted as “fake news” would have been considered yellow journalism. Yellow journalism, journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration or today any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion, has existed as long as the press. A variety of groups and individuals as explored earlier have taken advantage of what they see as a prime financial opportunity and resorted to a type of journalism that presents little or absolutely no legitimate well-researched reporting and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers or in today’s modern times get more clicks and views on a website. Techniques of today are not much different than those of yesteryear, relying on exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, and gross vapid sensationalism. In fact, if anything, no time period in human history between technological advancements and political extremism has ever lent itself more to the practice. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, most of this type of journalism was regulated to tabloids and other satirical or fabricated news publications such as the National Enquirer, World Weekly News, etc. and viewed as the sensationalist nonsense that it is, catering to an audience in search of cheap laughs, zany stories or conspiracy theorist desperate for any outlet willing to publish outlandish material. However, with the rise of the internet and its ever-increasing prevalence in our everyday lives due to the tremendous growth of social media over the past 15 years or so, almost anybody with an opinion and an internet connection can draft up their own opinions, brand them as ‘truth’ and peddle it to a niche audience that is already wary of mainstream media who will fall hook, line and sinker for any coverage that validates their own world view.
Traditionally, the press has been held to certain standards, there are checks and balances set in place in most ‘old media’ or ‘legacy media’ publications and outlets to ensure that the most accurate news available at the time is reported. So, even if journalists get something wrong, between editors, fact-checkers, and publishers hopefully in theory that error will be spotted before the story goes to print and is published. Or, if a particularly erroneous error is made there is some type of protocol resulting in discipline or sometimes even termination of the individual/’s who acted irresponsibly. The truth of the matter is some newer outlets simply don’t have a hierarchical system of checks and balances like older publications do. And it certainly doesn’t exist for organizations that purposely publish false and shamefully exaggerated stories for the sole purpose of increasing viewership and driving up ad revenue. At the point we currently are now, platforms such as Google and Facebook have a moral, as well as an ethical obligation to regulate and label “fake news” that is shared through their platform. Both Facebook and Google have recently announced plans to go after the revenue of fallacious news sites, effectively cutting off their ad networks in an attempt to prevent misleading the public from being profitable on their platforms. Google has specifically announced a policy update that restricts its advertising from being placed on fake news sites. With a spokesman stating “We will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose of the web property” on The Guardian. While Facebook has announced plans as well on The Guardian, with a spokesperson stating, “Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance”. While policies such as this are a step in the right direction as The Guardian article stated “Facebook, in particular, faces a more fundamental issue given the ways in which its algorithm selects posts: if users engage more with fake news than real news, as seems possible, then Facebook’s algorithm will promote the fake news. Even if sites can’t make revenue through advertising, the possibility of other revenue sources, or even just notoriety, may serve to provide enough motivation”.
Likewise, in a Vice News article Washington State University professor Mike Caufield stated, “By design, Facebook emphasizes the sharing aspects of the site — sharing, liking, commenting, and so forth. It deemphasizes sorts of activity that doesn’t happen on Facebook, like reading the article. At some level it becomes about, ‘How fast do people share this?’ So to expedite sharing, you do have to plug in the anger and the outrage. And sites have learned to design around that.” Caufield went on to say “The entire structure of Facebook is not set up as a news-sharing platform, but as a headline and image-rating platform”. Furthermore, Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, also expanded on this topic in an excerpt published in The New Ethics of Journalism saying, “the observation that news consumers are replacing professional editors with our friends as arbiters of news, and frustrated wonderment that so many Americans have been willing to make, and so many outlets willing to report, basic error of fact, like the notion that President Obama is a Muslim”. In essence, Shirky suggested that the internet, by allowing us to pick and choose what we listen to, is corroding or shared a commitment to facts. Even going as far as to say “the internet is changing the conditions under which ordinary citizens are willing to regard any given statement as true”. Essentially, the internet is allowing people to craft their news experience to operate as their own personalized newspaper. This brings us back to our current dilemma.
Unfortunately, in this country, over time, news and entertainment have seemingly become one and the same and appears to be a trend that won’t be reversed if left unchallenged. We are in an era where a significant amount of groups and individuals have realized they can make a great deal of money relatively easily and quickly in a media ecosystem where verification by both writers and the audience simply doesn’t exist. Essentially people believe what they want to believe (facts be damned), thus creating an audience that can be turned into major advertising dollars. Now do groups like Facebook, Google or platforms elsewhere on the net have an ethical responsibility to police fake news and label it as such? Of course, they do. As times progress and the platforms grow, their share in the responsibility for the content shared through their platforms will grow as well, but that responsibility does not solely fall on them alone either. We as well have to not only call out media platforms that are willing to publish false and misleading material but demand curators such as Google and Facebook take serious steps to address the issue as well. We wouldn’t accept a library that purposely mixes fiction and nonfiction literature together and we certainly wouldn’t allow them to put publications like the World Weekly News in the same one as encyclopedias or scientific journals; so why do we allow it to happen online? Is this acceptable? Of course not, we don’t allow curators of information to act so negligently and irresponsibly nor should we. The internet is no longer a dark, secluded realm regulated to just hackers, awkward geeks, angry loners and those with fringe radical political views. Everyday regular people get their news and information in ever-increasing frequency from online sources and it’s time we stopped treating the internet like the Wild West or a fantasy island where the rules don’t apply. The internet and social media are perhaps one the greatest technological achievements in the history of mankind and are immensely valuable tools that have not only democratized the sharing of information but have been instrumental in giving a voice to the voiceless, historically disenfranchised communities in this country and in many instances gave a platform to cases and stories that normally in the past would have been either ignored by mainstream news media and fell through cracks. But there must be an oversight, and a system of checks and balances. A sea of misinformation and half-truths can be just as dangerous if not more so than a desert devoid of any news, and currently, we are drowning in an ocean of highly sensationalized and inaccurate publishing that is specifically manufactured for shock value, not to educate and inform the community. A well-informed public is the backbone of any strong democracy, and the state of the country just goes to show how strong our collective ignorance truly is. From this point on, it will be pivotal that journalists and news organizations actively and vocally call out other organizations and individuals (public and private) who repeatedly make false statements and purposely publish false and misleading information under the guise of legitimate reporting and journalism. The sensationalist, reactionary responses and vitriol that this type of yellow journalism elicits rarely work out positively and history has shown just how quickly and dangerously things can get out of hand if left unchecked. Indeed journalists and news organizations both professional and independent will have to remain on their guard for the foreseeable future. It will be pivotal, especially in the coming years that we remain vigilant and fight off propaganda, misinformation and ignorance at every turn and corner, never allow it a safe quarter, and not a moment’s rest.
On Jan. 11th in his first press conference since July, president-elect Donald Trump shouted down and refused to answer questions from CNN reporter Jim Acosta stating, “Not you, not you, your organization is terrible. I am not going to give you a question, you are fake news.” Trump then went on to take a question from a Breitbart journalist who asked: “With all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media over the course of the election, what reforms do you recommend for this industry here?”. This is where we need to draw the line between just deceitful, disingenuous, greedy yellow journalism and address the real dangers of when an incoming administration who has no problem shamelessly spewing lies and propaganda allows these type of news outlets (such as Breitbart and other similar entities) to be in his ear and to essentially weaponize them to operate as an extended arm of the state. The point of modern-day propaganda in the 21st century isn’t to just misinform or push an agenda. It is designed to also exhaust the public’s critical thinking on a mass and individual level, to muddy waters and to annihilate truth. Misinformation and propaganda are designed not only to obliterate truth but to destroy any sense of belief or confidence in any sort of journalistic practice whatsoever. It is meant to sow and spread the seeds of confusion and chaos, so that even when the truth is reported it is almost always surely lost and swallowed up in a sea of half-truths, lies, fabrications, hoaxes and baseless, flagrant conspiracy theories that are tailor-made to be peddled and cater to the fearful, the ignorant and agent provocateurs who serve as cogs that continually turn a wheel of perpetual confusion and disillusionment. These actors, whether it’s the incoming president-elect or yellow journalist and the entities that employ them, aid in the systemic failure and destruction of principled journalism and reporting by feeding into and giving legitimacy to outlets and platforms that revel in the act of purposely spreading lies to create confusion, as well as manufacture artificial outrage and stoking fear amongst their base to keep their income flowing unabated. A functioning democracy requires that citizens are able to make informed choices and draw accurate conclusions from a free, and uncompromised press. Journalists, who are genuinely dedicated to the truth, accuracy, and justice need to be able to distinguish between “fake news” and propaganda. Because political lies, propaganda, conspiracy theories and other falsehoods spouted by politicians and platforms that serve as their mouthpiece to sow confusion that impacts people’s lives are more than just “fake news”. They are purposely deceitful and malicious statements, that while false still nonetheless have real-world consequences and ramifications and should be treated as such. To simply brush them off and lazily conflate these transgressions in vague terms and hazy undefined categories not only serves to further confuse and mislead the public but gives ammunition to the elite and powerful to disregard any legitimate reporting and spotlighting of their errors and misdeeds and shirk accountability. Historically, the free press has been one of the most powerful weapons the public has to reign in and hold the powerful and elite accountable. This is why it is more important now than ever to protect it and not allow groups nor individuals to subvert and muzzle its effectiveness in an effort to hide under the cover of ignorance and confusion.
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