Fake news on a digital tablet
On August 2, 2018, Donald Trump sent out the following tweet: “They asked my daughter Ivanka whether or not the media is the enemy of the people. She correctly said no. It is the FAKE NEWS, which is a large percentage of the media, that is the enemy of the people!”
That’s quite a statement. Could the news outlets we rely on day in and day out actually be an enemy of the people they serve? What is fake news? Together, let’s explore an issue that seems to be more and more pervasive as time goes on.
Fake news is a form of propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation, usually intended to smear someone’s image. Typically, fake news stories are generated to sway people’s views, push a political agenda, or cause confusion around an important issue. This is not a new term. In fact, it’s been around since the birth of the free press. A freedom from censorship opened the door to the promulgation of falsehoods.
However, fake news has never been more sensationalized than in recent times. The spark that lit this fire was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. It polarized the nation, leaving many people to stand firmly on the left or firmly on the right, with very little middle ground.
The introduction (or reintroduction) of fake news into society has had a detrimental impact on Americans’ faith in journalism. As of April 2018, only 41% of adults trust local news to tell the truth. Worse than that, only 27% of adults trust national news to tell the truth. The polarization of the nation during the 2016 election inarguably did a lot of damage.
In fact, many people feared the fake news articles posted on Facebook swayed the results of the election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even had to testify before a joint Senate Committee to answer for these alleged crimes.
Harvard has laid out a set of guidelines that will help you spot a fake news story. It’s very important to form your own opinions, based on your own research. Harvard suggests everyone should vet a publisher’s credibility first and then check all the sources and citations. Another indicator is poor writing quality. If the journalist uses all caps or dramatic punctuation, remember that a reputable outlet would never let something like that fly.
With a firm understanding of fake news, let’s take a look at a few examples.
You’ll notice that some instances are purely comical, like Melania Trump hiring a body double. Other instances could’ve ended in a blood bath, as in the pizzeria in Washington, D.C. that was attacked as a result of a fake news story. Mistruths are never to be taken lightly, especially when they take center stage in the media.
- In November 2016, a Los Angeles-based website reported that Hillary Clinton received 25 million fraudulent votes, thus skewing her win in the popular vote against Donald Trump. They cited NPR as their source when, in reality, NPR never conducted such a study. According to BuzzFeed, this fraudulent story was one of the most shared on Facebook in 2017. It took a bit of time and trouble to stop the rumor mill from churning as a result of these blatant lies.
- In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected, TIME Magazine falsely reported that he deliberately removed the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. Trump went live on national television to dispute this fake news for which the publication went on to apologize.
- In December 2016, a man named Edgar Welch read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C., was harboring young children as part of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. Welch decided to take it upon himself to visit Comet Ping Pong and unleash an AR-15 rifle on the workers there. By some miracle, no one was hurt and the police arrested him.
- In October 2017, news outlets began to report that Melania Trump employed a body double to escape her duties as First Lady. What likely began as a joke morphed into a full-fledged conspiracy that people actually started to believe. As it turns out, this was merely the result of a distorted video, but the moment one person spreads fiction as fact, it grows legs and starts to run.
- On October 18, 2018, U.S. officials rejected claims from Vladimir Putin that ISIS had taken nearly 700 people hostage, including U.S. and European nationals. Meanwhile, a U.S. official went on to label this report as “fake news.” So, who’s telling the truth?
- On October 17, 2018, President Trump slammed the Associated Press as facilitators of fake news. He tweeted, “AP headline was very different from my quote and meaning in the story. They just can’t help themselves. FAKE NEWS!” The AP reported that Trump "won’t accept the blame if his party loses control of the House in November, arguing his campaigning and endorsements have helped Republican candidates.” Unfortunately, fake news becomes a bit of a he said/she said scenario whenever the term is so casually flung about.
One thing to note about fakes news is that you can't label something fake news just because you don’t agree with the story. This is precisely the type of thing that will turn it into a he said/she said match and confuse the public.
Is an entire article subject to the “fake news” label if merely one item of information is incorrect? What about the honest mistakes that journalists fall prey to from time to time? Unfortunately, in the present climate, that’s entirely possible. Even if the intent to mislead the public isn’t present, the fake news term gets flung with such frequency that anyone is likely to get attacked.
As you ingest news from various outlets, be sure to read, watch, or listen widely. Don’t rely solely on one source. Truth is, fake news extends all the way back to the birth of the free press. It’s not something we can characterize by one administration.
However, in this heated climate, the term has moved to the forefront of common vernacular. Together, let’s work to expunge fake news. Study your sources carefully. Question anything you read online. Cross check reports across other outlets.
What do you say we work toward a more respectable society that hinges upon honest reporting? Here are some tips on how to write a news report with honesty and integrity. We hope to “see” you out there.