“Fake news” is a buzzword that already seems to have lost all meaning. We heard the term crop up among major media outlets just after the presidential election, often blamed as the reason for their off-base predictions. Fake news was a problem so heinous that it had blindsided the mainstream media. Two months later in his first press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump refused to answer a question from CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, calling the outlet “fake news."
If you ask the mainstream media, the answer to the fake news problem is pretty simple: shut down the websites that publish these reports, or at least make it difficult for them to generate ad revenue. But does false reporting come only from anonymous websites that crop up and then quickly disappear?
Two weeks before Christmas of 2016, a heartbreaking holiday report of a terminally ill boy dying in the arms of a Santa Claus actor went viral, only to be declared unverifiable days later. This sounds like just another made up story we come across online— like the McDonald’s employee who put mixtapes in Happy Meals, or a lottery winning employee who took revenge on her boss — but this Santa’s tale was covered by major media outlets, including an on-air phone interview with CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, and segments with various smaller news channels.
Because mainstream media outlets employ journalists and reporters who we assume are bound by a set of ethics, it’s easy to forget that being owned by massive corporations means they too are motivated by profit.
Much of the “fake news” narrative we’ve heard since president Trump’s victory sets up a dichotomy where “real” news comes from mainstream media outlets dedicated to objectively reporting verified facts and vetted information, or from president Trump himself. A trusting political moderate might argue that while mainstream media outlets like CNN and Fox each feature opinion segments that skew left or right, they operate using truth and honesty to report the “real” news. But just in the last few months of 2016, Fox falsely reported that Hillary Clinton faced pending indictment over her email scandal, while the Podesta emails revealed that the Clinton campaign was given advance knowledge of CNN debate questions, putting a major dent in the network’s claims of impartiality.
Purposefully false stories meant only to generate likes, shares and ad revenue are the extreme side of this story, and the practice is difficult to defend. But in some ways, complete lies, like the one that claimed Donald Trump was endorsed by the Pope, can be considered less dangerous than false reports from mainstream media outlets that command the public’s trust. Anyone remotely media savvy is likely to question the authenticity of a story that is only being reported by a single website with a generic name likenationalreport.net, or a domain that ends inwordpress.com. These websites typically have an amateur looking aesthetic (although this is likely to evolve if they continue to generate ad money) and often feature only one, incredibly explosive report. The number of shares and likes that some of these stories garnered is getting lots of attention from the mainstream media, but as of yet there are no statistics that make direct correlations between reading (or believing) fake news reports and voting for Donald Trump.
“editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper”
Investigations into the sources of fake news sites reveal their creators to be motivated by ad revenue, or a desire to blow up the system of thought that leads people to blindly believe anything they read. Because mainstream media outlets employ journalists and reporters who we assume are bound by a set of ethics, it’s easy to forget that being owned by massive corporations means they too are motivated by profit. When these mainstream outlets report on the effects of “fake” news or propose that Google and Facebook crack down on unauthorized news sites, are they more concerned with saving ethical journalism or their profit margins?
And while reporting false or unverified facts might seem to be the product of such a hyper-partisan election, biased news doesn’t always fit the simple Left vs. Right narrative. In the wake of 9/11 the New York Times (a traditionally liberal paper) published multiple reports supporting the case for war in Iraq, citing Iraqi defectors’ accounts as verified truths. In 2004, the paper issued an apology, conceding that “editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper”. The similarly regarded Washington Post featured more than 140 front page stories promoting the war, and issued their own apology in ’04 for relegating skeptical reports to the paper’s back pages.
Suggesting that the public be shielded from online news that may be false is eerily similar to the impending Trump-era solution to label all voices that question or oppose him as “fake news”.
More recently, the Washington Post ran two stories on Russian interference over a 6-week span that were proven false. The first story dealt with a sophisticated Russian campaign to influence voter perceptions in favour of Donald Trump, while the second story, arguably more serious, claimed that Russian hackers had infiltrated the U.S. electricity grid, linking these activities with the DNC-Podesta email revelations. In both instances, the stories received widespread attention and traffic, supporting Washington Post’s business objectives despite being false.
The idea that media should be impartial has waxed and waned throughout Western history. But whether or not we expect the media to be impartial, a journalistic Archimedean point doesn’t exist. Media organizations along with their individual reporters and editors will always have biases, and may use them as justification to spread lies. The fact that mainstream media outlets are owned by massive corporations with competing business interests gives them as much motivation to publish falsities as the anonymous creators of fake news websites.
Suggesting that the public be shielded from online news that may be false is eerily similar to the impending Trump-era solution to label all voices that question or oppose him as “fake news.” If the Internet has brought us as close to a free exchange of ideas as we’ve ever been, censoring and silencing voices we don’t like seems like taking one giant step backwards. Instead of allowing the government or the mainstream media to decide which voices get to be heard, we can let the knowledge that some reports are false and all reports are biased inspire us to read more stories, ask more questions, and form nuanced opinions that are always open to revision.