Howell Essay Submission: Fake News and the Media

On January 20, 2017, the United States of America entered what seemed like, for many, a parallel universe. Our country had officially entered the Twilight Zone. There were many questions that people from all walks of life had, especially those who were not a member of the majority party. It was hard for many people to accept: Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, television personality and producer, is now the President of the United States of America.

Within the first week of Trump taking office, he signed six executive orders, including his highly debated immigration ban of seven Middle-Eastern, primarily Muslim countries. The media was having a field day with his administration; every day there was something new to write about. But it’s no secret that Trump isn’t exactly a fan of the national media. After all, he did single out CNN’s Jim Acosta, calling him “fake news” as if he were a story written by a group of Macedonian teenagers.

On one hand, I can sympathize with President Trump. He was being badgered by a reporter, and it can be frustrating and overwhelming. However, to call someone “fake news” is completely absurd, especially considering Trump is one of the most powerful men in the world. I would expect President Trump to have the decency to address Acosta respectfully and not in that manner.

Fake news has become one of the hottest topics since November 2016. On November 16, Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed founding editor, posted a graph which showed fake news was being viewed more than real news on Facebook. There’s something to be said about this, but there’s a lot more to be said about what exactly fake news is. To me, it’s essentially what it is: news that isn’t real. But many other people have many different definitions, and this can be problematic when it comes to certain articles or sources.

Fact-checking is one of, if not the most important part of any story. If you don’t fact check and your sources aren’t credible, your credibility as a writer will be severely tarnished. On the contrary, fake news is fake because there are no facts to check. It’s fraudulent information posted by “click-bait” websites that are trying to make money from uninformed viewers. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post, interviewed Nikki Usher, a professor at George Washington University. In the interview, Usher said, “Fake news means different things to different people. Is it satire? Comedy news? Partisan conspiracy? Partisan journalism? Big mistakes reliable news institutions have made, or hoaxes they fell for?” (Sullivan).

There’s a distinction that needs to be made here, which is between “mistakes” and “hoaxes.” Mistakes are more or less fact-checking errors made by journalists. Hoaxes, on the other hand, are deliberately fabricated stories posing as articles that have the sole purpose of swaying voters in politics. Hoaxes are fake news stories that cause people to walk into a pizzeria with a fully-loaded assault rifle, looking to “self-investigate” a non-existent human trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. It would’ve been one thing if CNN originally broke the Pizzagate story, but it was a combination of sources that aren’t necessarily credible.

The bottom line is this: Human nature is doing things to benefit ourselves, and that’s exactly what some news organizations are doing. The only consequence is that fake news stories are making people dumber, less informed, or in extreme cases, ruining people’s lives.

Human beings today are so reliant on technology that kids will read from an iPad instead of the hard copy form of a book. As Americans, we take the internet for granted, and because of that, we have become an ignorant group of people as a whole. The internet makes our lives move at a million miles a minute, and we can’t keep up with everything that goes on in the world; we might know that something happened, but we rarely have the time or the inquiry to ask why something happened or how something happened.

Amy Webb, a writer for Mother Jones, recalls a story written by RT.com, or Russia Today, about cats wearing helmets and how they were the pets of Viking warriors. That story was shared on Facebook by a large number of people, but the problem is that RT.com is Kremlin-funded propaganda operation. Once you share a story from their publication, Facebook has algorithms that will filter your timeline to show more content from RT.com. Most people don’t realize this when sharing a story, but it’s just another form of how propaganda, fake news and computer sciences give us fake news from sources that “often rely on fringe experts and dubious evidence” (Webb).

Now some of RT’s stories might not completely be fake news. Webb mentions a story which made the case that the CIA failed to prove that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee servers prior to the election. While RT used real quotes and real information, it was deliberately distorted to prioritize the political position of the Russian government. Is this fake news? To some, maybe. But the problem lies with the people who share this over and over again on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

On Twitter, breaking news stories will pop up on the “explore” tab, and it will show trending stories from news, sports, entertainment, or just plain fun. Here’s the issue: If 5000 people share a fake news story about Hillary Clinton operating an underground sex trafficking ring, it will go viral and be picked up by verified accounts of celebrities and political figures. Once the story gets retweeted, the story will become more prominent in news feeds based on who interacts with it. This makes the lives of people who create fake Twitter accounts simple; they create an account that looks exactly like a verified account, tweet the story, and it will be retweeted by thousands of people. However, if people took the time to check what they were retweeting, they would see that the fake account isn’t verified by a small blue check mark next to the accounts name. When a celebrity or political figure has enough followers, they become “verified,” or official, which is symbolized by a blue checkmark next to their name. Simple things like this amplify fake news and create a systemic problem for organizations like Twitter.

I thought Webb had an interesting idea to help filter the false content on social media: “It’s also high time for news organizations and other content distributors to join forces and build an international, nonpartisan verification body for credible sources” (Webb). Though Webb acknowledged this could be a controversial idea, it would cause stories with verified sources to be viewed more widely. This would be great for all journalists across the world, but especially for credible, independent sources who are losing their voice because of fake news.

The spreading of fake news can be contained by doing one thing: reading. If people take their time, slow down, pay attention and turn their minds off of autopilot, we might see a change in our newsfeeds. I think we also need to be more informed on what is considered a “reliable news source.” Publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times are reliable, and while most people may know this, many people may not know that publications like RT.com are far from reliable.

The New York Times published an article titled, “White House Pushes ‘Alternative Facts.’ Here Are the Real Ones,” and it essentially debunked many of the lies Trump told during his campaign. The scary thing to me isn’t the story, but the fact the story had to be written because Trump and his administration have lied so much. Once someone tells the same lie enough, people will start believing it. That’s how Trump was elected. Once his lies were verified to be false statements, people were too set in their ways to change their views and continued to accept the “alternative facts.”

In a New York Times article written by Roger Cohen, he talks with Paul Horner, who runs a fake news Facebook operation, and, in my opinion, he said what many people are too afraid to say: “Honestly people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected” (Cohen). People don’t want to believe that, as a whole, we’ve become dumber because of our recent technological innovations. We have phones that can use the internet, touch-screen TV’s and even cars that drive themselves. That’s all good and well, but we’re relying too much on technology nowadays, and because of the ease of access that technology allows, it’s biting us in the butt.

Cohen goes on in his article to mention the Reichstag fire, a fire that burned the Berlin parliament building just after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Trump’s election was the beginning of journalism’s Reichstag fire. Fake news and alternative facts are burning our stories, crafts and credibility to the ground, and it’s truly an act of arson on the part of President Trump.

Kellyanne Conway became a household name earlier this month when she mentioned the “Bowling Green Massacre” which never happened. Conway later went on Twitter and acknowledged her mistake, but this was after the damage had been done. Even though MSNBC’s Chris Matthews missed the slip-up, the rest of the internet didn’t.

Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times says that something like this is a huge red flag for many Americans: “The Bowling Green episode made such a splash because it played directly into concerns that the Trump administration would use untrue assertions to rally support for its agenda while denigrating as ‘dishonest’ all the valid reporting pointing out the falsehoods” (Rutenberg). It would’ve been one thing if Kellyanne Conway unintentionally misspoke or stumbled over her words, but she didn’t. Instead, she alleged something that had no basis in reality and spread it to help justify the so-called “Muslim travel ban.” I think Rutenberg hit the nail right on the head.

Fake news will always be around. There’s no getting around it or eliminating it from our lives because there will always be people who are looking to create a buzz. With that, there are a few things we can do to limit the amount of fake news we see. Firstly, we can hold ourselves, journalists and publications accountable for everything we see and read. We can also talk to each other. If someone hears of an article from RT.com, but another read that the article was fake in the New York Times, those people can engage in face-to-face dialogue and discuss the matter; these dialogues should not be conducted over twitter. I would also say to limit the use of the phrase “fake news.” Call it a lie, a hoax, a dishonest publication or writer, or something of that nature, but we need to limit what we call “fake news.” Lastly, we need to be careful with our words. Whether it’s just the average Joe or Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC, we need to be conscious, careful and courteous of our words, both live and in print.

Here’s a rather radical experiment I propose for the next election: Cut off Facebook and Twitter from the political spectrum entirely. Have the companies come up with an algorithm to filter out problematic tweets and delete them as soon as they’re online. What would this force people to do? I think it would cause them to go to credible news sources that verify the information they publish, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. During the election, I saw more articles from fake news sites than I did from credible sources, and that bothered me because people were going to unreliable sources before the reliable ones. If someone isn’t sure about the story they’re reading, they can go to Google or Yahoo! and verify for the sources for themselves, or they can search for reliable news sources on their own. People can Google all they want on the election, but if Google is doing their job and filtering out fake news and using fact-checking algorithms, there’s no reason why credible sources shouldn’t pop up first.

Politics are a sensitive topic today. So is fake news.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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