Have you heard the term “fake news” yet? If you haven’t, then believe me, you will. It will become as ubiquitous and misused as such stalwarts like “hate speech” and “terrorism” are. It will be thrown around as generously as the others, and not because it lacks a definition. Just as each of those terms is easily definable, misusing them helps advance political agendas. The proliferation of fake news threatens to misinform the American public, and that is a cause for concern. However, the backlash could be deadly to our free society.
Fake News Defined
Post-election analysis has of Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss to Donald Trump has thrust this issue into the forefront. Instead of an honest look at her as a candidate, the policies she espoused, and the strategies she and the Democrats employed, it has become a blame game. One of the several reasons identified for her loss is a new phenomenon of online fake news.
America has become a content-driven society, and our news sources and social media services feed that beast. However, given the polarizing nature of the election and the perception of bias in the mainstream media, more and more people have shunned formerly reputable news sources for the sensational (and often questionable) headlines shared on social media. A BuzzFeed News article found that, “in the three months before the 2016 election, fake news stories surpassed real news stories in popularity and engagement on Facebook.”
A Mainstream Problem
It’s not just the American people that are getting caught in the web of fake news mania. Kurt Eichenwald, a reporter for Newsweek, attended a Trump rally in Iowa Thursday evening. He accused the audience of booing when the president-elect began to eulogize recently deceased American hero John Glenn. He later retracted the accusation.
Now, this could be an honest mistake, but Eichenwald was criticized during the election season for repeatedly making false claims. As reported by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, he was one of several prominent journalists who repeated false claims last October that documents from WikiLeaks had been altered by the Russian government.
It goes much deeper than that. InfoWars reports:
One of the most egregious examples was the recent Washington Post article hyping a new anonymous group and its disgusting blacklist of supposedly pro-Russia news outlets – a shameful article mindlessly spread by countless journalists who love to decry Fake News, despite the Post article itself being centrally based on Fake News. (The Post this week finally added a lame editor’s note acknowledging these critiques; the Post editors absurdly claimed that they did not mean to “vouch for the validity” of the blacklist even though the article’s key claims were based on doing exactly that).
Yes, that ran in the venerable Washington Post, one of the pillars of the mainstream print media.
The March Against Fake News
Hillary Clinton, in a rare public engagement on Thursday at the unveiling of a portrait of outgoing minority leader Senator Harry Reid, characterized the spread of fake news as “an epidemic.” She went on to say that they “can have real world consequences.” And she’s right.
However, in the push to fix the problem, those most desperately seeking a solution have managed to confuse themselves over what fake news is. Remember when I said it was clearly defined? It is. Fake news is news that is not grounded in actual fact. The only problem is, that isn’t the only definition people are using, and even more disconcerting is who gets to determine what is actually a fact?
As the Washington Post illustrates, every outlet can be considered fake news. Conservatives are quick to decry what they consider a liberal media, but a quick search on Twitter will find no shortage of those on the left accusing right-wing leaning outlets like Fox News and Breitbart of the same skullduggery.
The line of what is real verses what is fake in the Information Age has been blurred beyond recognition. So how do you combat the problem?
Social Media Response
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come out not once, but twice, to address the issue of fake news. The first was at the Techonomy 16 media conference, followed by a post on his Facebook page. He has previously said that the notion of fake news on his platform influencing the result of the 2016 election is “a pretty crazy idea.”
According to NPR, “Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.”
How they will do this is subject to speculation, but as AnneMarie Dooling explains in a New York Times opinion piece, “If users were trained to identify fake or incendiary posts, including that which isn’t truly news, it might be possible for platforms to break this cycle. A simple warning that labels content from a suspicious URL or source as untrustworthy could be the first line of education for those who want to help stop the spread of fake news.”
Sure, what could possibly go wrong with that?
The End Result: Two Things That Can Destroy America
Will social media outlets and other purveyors of information be able to develop a practical solution to fake news? What would something like that even look like if they did/ I honestly have no idea if an algorithm or some other mechanism can ever be 100% effective in filtering propaganda and fake news while not suppressing honest opinion. And the therein lies the problem.
Make no mistake that a backlash is coming, and it will take two distinct forms: the suppression of dissenting voices and a further withdrawal of the people from the information they need to make informed decisions. In short, we are in jeopardy of losing the two things any thriving democracy relies upon most.
Information Censorship – Whose Voice Will We Hear?
This new phase of the information war will result in a cry to eliminate fake news before it reaches the American public. To do that, the most likely approach is filtering. Unlike those already in place to ban pornographic content or prevent harassment, these could easily seek to eliminate viewpoints that are in conflict with established interests.
Don’t think this is already happening?
“Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, aka “spez,” has admitted to editing posts on a subreddit dedicated to President-Elect Donald Trump after “fake news” claims on a subreddit tied Hillary Clinton and John Podesta to an alleged child abuse ring.” – Heavy (fake news?)
“Most of the mainstream media and the tech journalism world celebrated Twitter’s decision to ban Breitbart News tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter on Tuesday evening, after complaints from Ghostbusters co-star Leslie Jones.” – Breitbart (fake news?)
“Facebook is already blocking links to so-called “fake news” stories, despite the Washington Post being forced to admit that its own definitive article on “fake news” was based on shoddy research.” – Infowars (fake news?)
Fake News and We the People
This isn’t a problem delimited by ideology. It isn’t even a uniquely American problem. It’s a world problem that will create a new reality. Autocratic and suppressive regimes will love it as they already heavily censor their people. For the world’s democracies, the result could be catastrophic. The public will further barricade themselves in the sites they use most and never seek to challenge their preconceived opinions.
To a certain extent, this is already the case – how many viewers of CNN watch Fox News, or how many Breitbart readers click over to the Huffington Post? Americans have become allergic to a difference of opinion. We are calloused from grappling with a biased media and gravitate to the outlets that mirror our own ideological leanings. Fake news sites articles are so widely circulated because they have fed into that trend.
America the Uninformed
The casualties in the war against fake news will be honest debate and the free exchange of ideas. Social media censors run amok could serve as a control over what you are allowed to see. Dissenting opinion could be stifled by nameless, faceless computers fed by humans with a political ax to grind. So much for living in a free country. Tell me that doesn’t scare the hell out of you.
And what if a site doesn’t jibe with the political leanings or one social media or another? Would it be inconceivable for Reddit to ban Breitbart or Facebook to ban The Huffington Post if they make a mistake in an article that gets labeled “fake news?” What will our world look like if suppression of honest dissent becomes a new norm?
The days of getting news from a trusted source are gone. Americans have lost faith in journalists. Now, many rely on those sources that serve to validate their opinions, regardless if they are fake or not. The war on fake news could backfire spectacularly. If it doesn’t, we could be subjecting ourselves even more to the whims of computer algorithms.
Maybe SkyNet is coming…