What is truth?
Is truth unchanging law?
We both have truths
Are mine the same as Yours?
– Pilate to Jesus in Jesus Christ, Superstar
This is probably a good place to nail down a definition of fake news, as it’s a fairly recent addition to our vocabulary. While there is (unsurprisingly) a lack of agreement on the Internet as to what exactly fake news is, it’s safe to call it a fictionalized or partially fictionalized story presented as truth and written with the purpose of influencing world leaders, their citizens, or both. Or, as Kellyanne Conway might put it, alternative facts.
Fake news is nothing new. Deceit is as old as the Bible, wherein the serpent uses disinformation to trick Eve into disobeying God (and making Adam complicit in the process). Most examples of it, though, center on newspapers and the practice of yellow journalism, or publishing sensational stories that will sell more papers. This ploy usually worked in terms of increasing circulation, but sometimes the consequences were far more serious.
One of the most glaring examples of fake news can be laid at the feet of one of our country’s founders. In a bogus 1782 issue of a Boston newspaper, Benjamin Franklin published a story about a discovery of bags full of money addressed to King George III. The story went on to say that American forces who made the discovery also made a more gruesome find – a bag of scalps belonging to soldiers and civilians.
It was the letter addressed to King George found with the scalps that touched off a storm of righteous indignation. It invited His Majesty to accept these gifts as an offering of friendship from the thieves and scalpers themselves – Native American Indians.
The Indians had done no such thing, of course, and Franklin thought the joke was funny. So did his friends who saw the paper. They, in turn, forwarded it on to their friends. As the news spread, public fear and anger grew. Trust of Native Americans sank even lower, and it soon became clear that they were the enemies of the new Republic.
The same sort of fear and distrust of groups Americans thought of as the Others came to a boil once again shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Amid rumors of a plot by Japanese-Americans to assist in a West Coast invasion, President Roosevelt ordered persons of Japanese ancestry rounded up and relocated to internment camps throughout the West, their citizenship notwithstanding. Yet even though the U.S. was at war with Germany and Italy, Americans of German or Italian descent – that is, those who didn’t look like the Others – went on with their lives unmolested.
Modern nativism has done much the same with other groups, notably Mexicans and Muslims. In 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump brought American distrust of those south of the border by implying that all immigrants were criminals. At least, he said, the border guards he talked to told him so.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Shortly after the October 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and again a month later, Trump also spoke of a registry or database of Muslims in and Syrian refugees coming to this country. The George W. Bush administration had tried something similar, but Trump went further, suggesting surveillance of all activities, including worship at mosques. Like Roosevelt before him, Trump used fear of the Other to justify the necessity of a program that skirts the edges of legality and civil rights violations.
In response to one of the most recent and egregious example of propaganda and fake news use, the seventeen United States intelligence agencies published a report that concluded Russia had manipulated the 2016 presidential election by hacking the email servers of the Democratic National Committee’s and others involved in the effort to elect former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition to hacking servers, Russia used their state-controlled “news platforms and the extensive use of social media and even ‘trolls’ to amplify voter discord in the United States and encourage opposition to Clinton.” Moreover, the report said, Russia did this “to help elect Donald Trump.”
Trump won the presidency on November 8th, surprising all of the pollsters and most of the electorate. Many concluded that Putin’s intercession helped put Trump in the White House, and Trump may even believe that himself. But even if he and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin are besties, the fact is that Russia interfered in the election because of its government’s belief that a President Clinton “represented a threat” to the former Soviet Union.
Feeding the Fire
Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true. ― Robert Brault
Why does fake news keep spreading? For an answer, go look in the mirror. It’s as simple as that.
Sometimes fake news is funny, as with the satirical website The Onion or supermarket tabloids like The National Inquirer or the Weekly World News (remember Bat Boy?). Recent Onion headlines, such as “Facebook Clarifies Site Not Intended to Be Users’ Primary Information Source” and “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years” amuse us, and we click Share to let our friends in on the joke.
Fake news also spreads because it caters to our sense of pity and desire to help. In 1999, the movie The Blair Witch Project was a spectacular box office success, owing to its presentation as a documentary and its heavy Internet marketing. The movie was billed as the collected found footage made by three film students who had set out to learn more about the legendary Blair Witch. The three were never heard from again until their video equipment and footage were found a year later. As bewildered moviegoers filed out of the theater, they were met by ushers who passed out flyers requesting anyone with information about the missing students to come forward.
The Blair Witch Project was a masterpiece of fake news. There was no Blair Witch, no found footage, and there were no missing students. The film’s success owed everything to falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo, and the eagerness of people to be deceived.
But most of the time, fake news spreads because it caters to our beliefs and the fact that we want to believe what we’re told. If we are Republicans, for example, we are more likely to believe stories that make Democrats look bad, as in the fictional account of President Obama outlawing the Pledge of Allegiance with an executive order.
Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better
All humans have the desire to feel important, needed, and accepted. It is as powerful as our need to eat, drink, or breathe, and like all those things, we take often take the easiest way to satisfy them.
Businesses have similar needs. Just as a newspaper is eager to scoop the competition to secure its place of importance in society, so we want to be the first to share an incredible story. We get rewards – retweets, likes, and shares – and those tiny digital rewards reinforce our sense of self-worth. We feel important: we are somebody. We get the endorphin rush. Our stock goes up.
But have we, in our pursuit of pumping up our own egos, simply stopped bothering to care about what we read or share?
Americans spend nearly an hour of their waking lives on Facebook and its associated apps in a never-ending quest for that endorphin rush, so it’s highly probable that we would see that post about those bothersome Mexicans or those perverted California Democrats, offer a perfunctory tsk-tsk, and scroll on. More might even offer the digital version of tsk-tsk by liking it or sharing it along with a #smh before scrolling on. By day’s end, these bits of information that are fake news stories blend in with the real, both floating away from our focus and into the flotsam and jetsam of other trivia for which we have no further use. So why does this matter?
The danger is that these floating bits of information do not belong to just us once we read them. They belong to everyone, to the collective consciousness of the world, and they make their way into our history. They become the equivalent of cerebral cholesterol, clogging up our ability to discern the truth. Over time, fake news chips away at the truth, eventually replacing it. It isn’t far-fetched to consider that history books two hundred years from now could tell the story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s hand in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 (especially when one stops to consider the staying power of the conspiracy theories surrounding the civil rights leader’s death). If the decline of truth is left unchecked, the final casualty fake news will claim is the trust we have in each other and our institutions.
Why would we let this happen? Do we not know how to stop it, or do we just not care? Or worse, have we become so saturated with social media and fake news that we’ve given up and now just let it wash over us, powerless to stop the tide?
The Truth Is In the Network
The truth will set you free.
– John 8:32
Assuming that we care enough to do whatever we can to stop the spread of fake news, exactly what is it that we need to do?
First, we need to admit we’re addicted, that we love to share gossip and that we thrive on the rush those likes and retweets give us. Then we need to follow the simple steps outlined in Anya Kamenetz’s “Learning to Spot Fake News: Start With a Gut Check.” (Note: Kamenetz’s primary source for her article, Mike Caulfield, has written a free e-book called Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers. Read it here.)
Many of us who care about repairing the damage caused by fake news already check Snopes. That’s fine, but the fine folks who work there can only go so fast so you may not find what you’re looking for right away. Besides, Snopes isn’t the only fact check site on the Internet. Others include FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, and Open Secrets. (You can find a list of more fact check sites here.) Keep in mind that even a fact check site will have some bias; the Washington Post’s fact check site leans left, for example, so it’s wise to check the same fact across two or three sites.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to call out fake news when we find it. It is useless to go to the trouble of researching a claim and not report the finding. If you see false information on Facebook or Twitter, reply to the poster with links to the contradictory evidence you found. Call or write your elected representatives when you catch them using information that is wrong and tell them you won’t tolerate lawmakers who promulgate alternative facts. Get the word out about such abuses of the truth, and encourage your friends to do the same. And keep calling it out.
No one can stop the spread of fake news; it is, in fact, cancer that can never be stopped, yet try we must. We can start by calling it what it is: a poison to our history, our country, and our civilization. If we can acknowledge its existence, understand what it looks like, and care enough to cry foul when we see it, we can serve as ambassadors of truth to our children, our friends, and our coworkers. Working together, we can slow its growth to a crawl and get one step closer to overcoming our willingness to be deceived.
Note: This post was originally published on January 4, 2017, and was updated on April 4, 2018, to reflect recent events.