In the last several months, the term “fake news” has gone from a rarely-used phrase to a concept that seemingly everyone had run into and had an opinion on. And with a President who casually throws the phrase around in an attempt to discredit media organizations, it certainly seems that the notion of fake news isn’t going away anytime soon. The term has evolved from describing articles that are factually inaccurate to encompass any media that has a distinct partisan bias. On the one hand, you have Trump supporters using it to claim liberal bias in news reporting while on the other hand you have the US Intelligence Community describing a deliberate Russian “influence campaign” to sway the 2016 Presidential Election. Regardless of political leaning or party affiliation, it seems that everyone is at least aware of fake news, and has an opinion on what should be done in response. Though there are disagreements over what actually constitutes fakes news, universally fake news is seen as a problem that must somehow be “fixed.”
So naturally, a handful of solutions have been proposed that aim to solve the problem of fake news once and for all. Generally these solutions have offered a “top-down” approach—attempting to cut off fake news from the source, and prevent it from ever reaching an audience. This has taken many forms, including blaming the media corporations who published the content, holding social media services responsible for their platforms role in spreading the content, or even suggesting that the government take a more active regulatory role in journalism. However, hardly any so-called “fixes” for this problem get at the root of what’s really causing the proliferation of fake news––us. We can attempt to blame media outlets, social media services, or even the government for the problem that fake news has become, but the common factor in it all remains the same: those who read, watch, listen to, and otherwise consume media in their day to day lives. We, the audience, are ultimately responsible for the rampant spread of fake news.
It is worth mentioning that the phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. Since the early beginning days of journalism and the eventual growth of mass media industries, there have always been publishers printing content that is not entirely accurate. In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of articles claiming to have found evidence of life on the Moon. Readers initially believed the newspaper, not realizing they had been duped until The Sun admitted the hoax later that year. Striving for objectivity and seeking the truth has always been an important trait that audiences have demanded from the media they consume. Perhaps it is partially because of this initial trust in publishers that has lead to the misguided response to today’s fake news problem. Fake news is significantly more widespread in the 21st century than it has ever been before, and it response most consumers have generally accepted that the best solution is to assign responsibility to large media outlets and providers that really should not have the power that we are handing them.
In effect we have chosen to give up our individual ability to assess the media we consume and decide whether or not it is the truth. Rather than rely on our own critical thinking and judgement, we’d rather rely on some large media organization to assess content and make decisions on our behalf of what is or isn’t fake news. For instance, social media giant and corporate overlord Facebook has begun a new policy of marking fake news stories and alerting users that posted content is not credible. Using a combination of 3rd party fact checkers and user reports, Facebook now flags any posts with links to articles that likely are fake news.
These actions certainly seem like the right direction to be moving in, and might actually serve to address the fake news issue. But they actually may do more harm than good. Though they likely arose from the best of intentions, they will ultimately represent media consumers voluntarily giving up their own freedom to think critically and make decisions about the things they read. Why waste time assessing whether or not a link your friend shared is credible if Facebook is just going to do the heavy lifting for you? It trains us to become dependent on an outside entity to make those assessments on our behalf. If we become acclimated to seeing Facebook’s warning on fake news links, it is entirely possible that we will begin automatically accepting any articles that aren’t flagged – even if they still do contain misinformation. We run the risk of becoming fully reliant on someone else to do the fact checking for us, and lose our own ability to think critically. To put it another way, we have led ourselves into a situation in which large corporations are the sole arbiters of the truth. Already we have grown incredibly accustomed to the notion that media corporations curate and filter the content that reaches us. The New York Times is under fire for allegedly modifying its search results to exclude a certain group–The World Socialist Website. Whether or not the claims are true is irrelevant; they still underscore the harsh reality that a media corporation has the power to control what we see and read. Perhaps more frightening is that when it comes to fake news, we seem more than willing to voluntarily hand this power over to them. This is especially concerning because no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, large media corporations simply do not have our best interests at hand.
It may come across as overly cynical, but the reality is that the goal of media corporations is to make money. If they are unable to generate revenue and create value for shareholders, they will not last long. We trust these media corporations to determine what is true for us, but also accept the fact that they are motived and driven by monetary factors. These contradicting factors are fundamentally why all current efforts to combat fake news have been largely ineffective. Until we are willing to take responsibility as media consumers for the role that each of us play in perpetuating the spread of fake news, the problem is going to remain. The reality is that advertising revenue—no matter what the source may be—is what keeps Facebook’s doors open, so even if foreign agents are paying to promote certain articles they will still be reluctant to cut off that funding sources. No surprise then to discover Facebook was reluctant to take any action whatsoever in response to the Obama Administration’s specific warnings about foreign interference and fake news.
Even in his response to recent reports on Facebook’s role in the Russian influence campaign, Zuckerberg still opted for a moderate tone and attempted to avoid alienating any one political group. He not only specifically mentioned both liberals and conservatives, but seemingly hand-waved away any potential issues that Facebook might have represented in terms of fake news.
“That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”
– Mark Zuckerberg
Rather than turning to the large media corporations to save us from the sudden onslaught of fake news, we must instead be willing to admit our own responsibility for allowing the scale and scope of fake news that has occurred. As media consumers, we are to blame for fake news unfolding the way that it has. We have seen it in our news feeds and timelines, but have simply let it pass without taking any action–perhaps in hopes of avoiding confrontation with a friend or family member. We have stood by silently (and sometimes contributed) as national conversation regarding the proliferation of fake news rapidly devolved into a shouting match of “us versus them” between liberals and conservatives, even though we are now finding out that in many cases it should have been a matter of Americans versus Russians. We have naively held onto the notion that objective journalism not only is possible, but exists from certain news outlets–all while quickly dismissing anything that we don’t recognize as mainstream news sources.
But, in my mind, there is one primary cause that weighs more heavily than all the others—the manner in which most media consumers choose to get their news. Few of us take a significant portion of the day to sit down with a newspaper—whether print or digital—to actively read and engage with the day’s news. Instead, we catch snippets and headlines here and there throughout the day. Scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and receiving occasional “breaking news” push notifications is how most of us assemble our understanding of what all happened that day. Technological developments have enabled us to quickly ask a question and receive an answer, and as such we’ve lost any incentive to spend significant time diving into the complexity or nuance of any given issue. We read news passively, and no longer take an active role in our media consumption.
But this doesn’t have to be a mere indictment of our guilt in enabling the spread of fake news. We as media consumers are largely responsible for allowing it to take place, but we also have the capability of combatting it. The first important thing is to admit that fake news is not a simple problem that is going to go away quickly, nor will it go away easily. There is no “silver bullet” solution that will immediately rid us of the fake news problem. The aggregate activity of all media consumers is what enabled fake news, and so too it will require a critical mass of consumers to modify their behavior in order to create change.
To put it simply, we need to all endeavor to become better media consumers. We must take an active role in choosing what we read, watch, and listen to. We must put in the effort to think critically about the media we encounter, and not just passively consume it. When it comes to news, we must move beyond simply reading and taking at face-value the first thing we read. Or the second thing. Or the third. We have to read a variety of news sources (and actually read them too–not just skim headlines) and make assessments based on what we see. Who wrote it? Who paid for it? What motivations do they have? Where did I hear about it? Have I seen it anywhere else?
In other words we have to stop reading casually and passively, and start reading once again as if it were for a school assignment. In order to fight fake news, we have to treat our media consumption as an active task, and not merely something we do passively. Yes, it’s a tall order. Certainly difficult and easier said than done, but ultimately it is necessary. If we truly care about the problem of fake news, we need to take the steps to make this happen.
We must start to accept the facts of the situation that we have somehow found ourselves in. There is significant evidence pointing toward a largescale, strategically designed, highly targeted social media campaign meant to misinform the American electorate and sway the 2016 Election. More importantly, it seems that such a campaign actually worked and was effective at influencing American citizens. Democracy cannot survive in this environment. We can speculate endlessly as to the role that specific companies, corporations, and foreign states played but will not come any closer to ending the problem once and for all until we admit the common factor in all of it: the millions of Americans who believed it and were influenced by misinformation. We should be outraged that outside forces attempted to sow misinformation and distrust, but we should be even more enraged that it was effective.
If we cannot get a handle on media misinformation, it is impossible to have a functioning democracy. If our voters can be successfully fooled into believing blatant lies, and begin distrusting one another, the power of our vote is greatly diminished. Democracy can survive uninformed voters, but it cannot survive intentionally misinformed voters.
The future of the nation relies on solving this problem.