In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, fake news has become a major news topic (note the irony). These are fabricated stories published on the web, designed to stimulate traffic with sensational headlines and claims. The sites presenting fake news resemble traditional media in name and design. Their content is easily shared on social media.
Fake news epitomizes the post-truth era, a social and political climate in which emotion and pre-existing belief outweigh independently collected and verified facts. Amid the victories of Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its international word of the year. Concern over the effect of fake news on public opinion and actions surged when a gunman stormed a pizzeria falsely identified as a front for a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton.
Publishers of fake news have multiple possible motives:
- Earning ad revenue by attracting viewers with provocative content
- Propagandizing to discredit a rival nation, public figure and/or movement
- Promoting theories, often based in conspiracies, to support an agenda
Fake news is not a monolith, nor is it the product of a oligarchy as traditional media companies have been considered. Fake news is a decentralized consequence of the Internet, which has greatly simplified the broadcasting of content and fragmented its consumption. Tabloid stories, propaganda and conspiracy theories are not new. Their presentation and distribution, however, has undergone a revolution in the past two decades. The Internet, the heralded “fact checker,” has become the great source of disinformation.
In their book Media Now, Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport explore the theories that describe the relationship between society and media. The gatekeeping theory establishes the deliberate efforts of editors, producers and journalists in mainstream media outlets to select and shape news stories. New media bypass such gatekeepers who would enforce accuracy and objectivity among their functions. Concurrently, public trust in mass media has hit an all-time low. Detractors of mainstream media consider its gatekeepers fallible and biased, requiring web-based watchdogs for balance. Two landmark cases illustrate this shift:
- 1998: After Newsweek decided not to run the story of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Drudge Report, a digital publication, broke the news. Print media was seen as cautious if not colluding while the young Internet had no problem upsetting the status quo.
- 2004: When Dan Rather and “60 Minutes” presented purported documentation of President George W. Bush shirking his National Guard duty in the early 1970s, critics went online to call out the documents as clumsy forgeries drafted with contemporary word processing software. CBS retracted its story.
Three election cycles after the mainstream media debacle that forced Dan Rather’s retirement, many are rethinking the freewheeling approach of Internet journalism and commentary. Such retrenchment is by no means certain. Mainstream media, and the polling they reported, failed to anticipate Trump’s win. Newspaper editorial boards overwhelmingly denounced Trump, including those of several major conservative publications and the historically neutral USA Today. All this suggests mainstream media being out of step, a perception that will continue to invigorate fake news.
Jeffrey Herbst, president/CEO of Newseum, insists that the media gatekeeper is not extinct; the job has moved from media producers to media consumers, the “demand side.” That means us. Factcheck.org offers guidelines for spotting fake news. It takes some work. The ability to filter, assess, and benefit from media is known as media literacy. Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport make the case for such active involvement with media:
Instead of simply letting media bombard you with a cacophony of messages, you can learn to use different media effectively to obtain the information you need to make productive decisions. You can be an active seeker of information and an active participant, contributing to the market place of ideas and a democratic form of governance.
As the demand side, will we demand enough of our institutions, our leaders, our media old and new, and ourselves to neutralize fake news?