The United Nations launched a Global Call Out To Creatives in response to widespread misinformation about COVID-19. Fake news had risen to relevance as nonfactual information about coronavirus has spread. (United Nations COVID-19 Response/Unsplash)
During most of the 20th century, Americans could generally trust news reports to relay factual material without partiality. Standards of journalistic objectivity and professionalism demanded this accuracy. During the 2016 presidential campaign, however, several liberal publications began railing against “fake news” that allegedly emanated from conservative sources. This development begged an important question: if news is factual, how can it be fake?
What is fake news?
Dictionary.com defines “fake news” as “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.” Additionally, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines “misinformation” as “wrong information about something.” Misinformation does not deliberately deceive, but does seek to affect public opinion. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a related concept, “disinformation,” as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”
The term “fake news” may have originated in 1895, when Electricity: A Popular Electrical Journal boasted it never would “copy fake news.” That said, the phrase appeared rarely, if at all, until the 2016 presidential campaign.
Fake news sites look like legitimate news media sources but do not adhere to journalistic standards. Instead, they broadcast disinformation.
Fake news can be thoroughly nonfactual material or a mix of factual and nonfactual claims. Disinformation can include opinions, exaggerations, and value judgments. Fake news can be about any topic, but the greatest contemporary concern involves disinformation political in nature. Political disinformation has become convoluted ― one can even find fake news about fake news. Fallacious claims asserting the value of fake news sources over “mainstream media” constitute one example. Biased “fact checking” sites are another example.
Why do some sources propagate fake news?
A source might spread false information for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, fake news is propaganda intended to confuse or mislead news consumers about serious issues or to persuade them to take certain uncharacteristic actions. In other instances, fake news might be “clickbait” seeking attention from an advertiser’s potential customers. Occasionally, journalists skew the truth to entertain readers, create hubbub, or boost news sales; this specific phenomenon is called yellow journalism.
Is fake news harmful?
Consumers rely on news reports to help them make decisions. People may use news to help them determine whether to leave the house with an umbrella, or whether to travel to a certain country for a vacation. Some individuals count on news reports to help them decide whether to buy or sell a certain stock. And some citizens depend on the news to help them decide how to vote in an election. When fake news floods social media sites and other information sources, people become confused or misinformed — they either don’t know what to believe, or adopt positions that ultimately are at odds with their beliefs. Decisions based upon disinformation may harm one’s political, social, financial, professional, or even penal interests.
Like a virus, fake news can spread easily and quickly. As fake news becomes more and more common, people get used to hearing outlandish nonfactual claims and become increasingly susceptible to them. In other words, fake news becomes more easily accepted as truth. Over time, people become unable to distinguish between fake news and reality. And when people believe incredulous claims to be true, they are more likely to share them. Thanks to social media, an individual can share disinformation with just a few clicks. Once fake news is posted, social media algorithms prioritize relevant or popular posts. Consequently, fake news frequently ends up at the top of news feeds.
Nazi Germany’s Use of Fake News
In 1919, the new German government commenced a reeducation program which, among other things, sought to place the blame for Germany’s World War I loss. Adolf Hitler soon became a lead propagandist. Hitler’s persuasive technique involved the creation of a myth and a nationwide chase for a scapegoat. Accordingly, by September 1919, Hitler openly blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat and discussed solutions to “the Jewish problem.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler advised that propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Hitler employed this repetition when targeting the Jews. The historical record demonstrates that Hitler’s technique worked.
Fake News in Contemporary Politics
Most professional fact checkers agree that former President Trump has been a purveyor of fake news over the last six years. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, similar techniques were employed: a myth was created (i.e., fraudulent voting enabling the appearance of a Biden victory), a scapegoat established (i.e., Democrats), and fraudulent claims were reiterated. On numerous occasions, in speeches and through social media, Trump asserted he won the 2020 presidential election by a landslide. In public statements and in at least one Tweet, Trump claimed, “This was a RIGGED ELECTION!” In the same Tweet, Trump railed that, “[Biden] only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA.” His ardent supporters accepted and disseminated these claims. Due to Trump’s repeated use of Twitter for relaying fake news, Twitter eventually imposed a permanent suspension of Trump’s account.
Disinformation tends to take over supporters’ views and ideas about politicians and politics. As a direct and foreseeable result of Trump’s insistent, oft-declared fake news regarding the 2020 election result, and his corresponding demands for his supporters to take action, enraged Trump supporters besieged the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, intent upon interrupting the certification of the Electoral College vote. Due to riot-related activities, at least five people died, and more than 140 people suffered injuries. Many break-in participants were fired from their jobs because of their allegedly seditious acts. To date, federal officials have arrested over 250 people for crimes associated with the Capitol breach.
Solutions for Fake News
The House of Representatives is currently holding hearings regarding fake news and is asking satellite and cable services why they offer known sources of disinformation. The First Amendment, however, limits what can be done to outlaw fake news. Therefore, Americans must rely on other laws and mechanisms to curb fake news.
Defamation lawsuits provide an important way to make fake news purveyors pay for the damages caused by their disinformation campaigns. To that end, Dominion Voting Systems has sued Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for defamation; Dominion alleges the defendants’ false statements about purported voting machine irregularities caused $1.3 billion in harm to Dominion. Smartmatic has filed a similar suit against Giuliani, Fox News, and others.
To help stem fake news, social media platforms can self-police. For example, Facebook routinely removes unproven political allegations or notes the claims as unproven. The downside: fake news adherents have gone underground to platforms like Gab and Rumble. While these alternative sites limit fake news dissemination to like-minded individuals, these platforms also create a form of synergy and an opportunity for conspiracy, as in the case of the Capitol break-in.
People can play an active role in addressing fake news by researching claims that seem dubious. Fact-checking sites provide a user-friendly means of verifying allegations. While fake news believers discount these resources as biased, several organizations — such as the International Society of Technology in Education, Media Bias Fact Check, and the International Fact-Checking Network — strive for nonpartisanship, adhere to scrupulous principles, and attempt to vet the value and bias of fact-checking sources. These organizations, plus fact checking resources, empower each of us to play a role in defeating fake news.