Extra! Extra! This is Fake!
March 24, 2017
To illustrate the amount of attention this topic has been receiving lately, you merely need to look at the word the Oxford Dictionaries selected as the word of the year: post truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
Though it has gained increasing impact over the last year, fake news is nothing new. Throughout American history, news has not been impartial towards political factions – the federalist papers, for instance, are a good example of one side broadcasting their ideas. John Jay, John Madison and Alexander Hamilton all wrote under the pseudonym “Publius” and published their articles in newspapers. The news has never truly been free of political bias. However, journalism, as an additional check of government, had proven paramount in the Nixon Watergate Scandal. Thus, the truth is caught somewhere in the in-between.
“Media is constructed by people who bring their bias to the table, in who they hire, what they decide to cover, how stories are framed. It doesn’t mean it’s not truthful. It’s just reported from a point of view,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy, told ATTN, a media company concerned primarily with a mobile-savvy audience. This might lead us to conclude that while news can be influenced by political bias, ultimately it is not censored or closely controlled by the state or current ruling party.
Fake news networks are different. The purpose of fake news is not to misinform people – this is merely a side-effect of the biases that manufacture and reinforce a certain notion within the public opinion in order to undermine the political opposition. For example, Hillary Clinton ran a human trafficking ring from a pizza shop in D.C. or that Donald Trump won the election via some friendly hacking. Exaggeration, the manipulation of facts, and outright undermining the opposing political party have been consistent elements of most elections in the past – yet how can we trust the leaders of this country if we doubt their truthfulness even before they step into the oval office?
Throughout the 2016 campaign, both Presidential candidates were caught proclaiming falsehoods. Between Trump’s exaggerations and Clinton’s parsing of facts, most were left with the distinct feeling that they were watching a political satire rather than being promised any real solutions to current affairs.
We have become more and more aware of the “image” of the politician, but despite this – or, perhaps, because of this – we are unable to judge the politician. This is because when our judgement relies on an image, a possible illusion, our judgement might prove to be a fantasy of equal measure. In this situation, all possibilities gain a grain of truth to them in the minds of the masses – and thus we become more inclined to accept the fake, the ridiculous and the near impossible.
Facebook, which had introduced specific tools explicitly aimed at helping users read and share news during the 2012 election, has become a wasp hive for spreading fake news, with 1.79 billion people around the world checking their social media on a monthly average. Fake news is so widespread and has become so integrated within the press that certain individuals have begun making money by making fake news sites. One such man operating from the Los Angeles suburbs told the National Public Radio that he made as much as $30,000 a month via his fake news sites.
This raises the question of how do we, as average individuals, seek out the truth? Here are a few of your options:
- Cross-reference. Try to find at least two other sources promoting the same story.
- Don’t share a story if you’ve only read the headline and thought it was compelling. If you are interested in the story, read it, think about it, and decide if you’ve enjoyed it to the point you would like others to experience it as well.
- Ask yourself, if you didn’t lean towards any political party, if you weren’t for or against gay marriage or abortion, would you believe what you had just read?
There are certain precautions social media networks could implement, such as a verifying tool that would warn if the story that had been shared to you came from a site known to spread fake news. However, this act may prove to controversial as it would censor the freedom of speech of these sites – despite the content they may promote. This leaves fact-checking as our ultimate defence, but one that is rarely used.
“The fact-checking model presumes that all audiences are equally interested in the truth and all politicians are concerned about being caught lying. But 2016 exploded that,” said Jacob T. Levy, a political scientist at McGill University. “Trump exposed a way in which it can’t work, which is when you overwhelm the system with a repeated refusal to be embarrassed about saying things that are not true. That suggests something new and dangerous.”
Perhaps, then, we should motivate ourselves to seek the reality of the situation more so than to find an outlet channeling our personal opinion into something so akin to a fact it might as well be true. In other words, we might as well admit that the world of bogus and exaggerated stories does very much concern us. We do, after all, live in it.