This past election proved a lot of things to a lot of people, and also taught us a lot about how things really are in America. Things like: American voters don’t mind watching the whole ship sink if they find out the captain is being disingenuous. Or that people who are desperate for change — any change — will go to great lengths to achieve it. Or that, quite frankly, the U.S. may very well be a flaming trashcan, and we’re all just little dioxins melting off, floating into the atmosphere and slowly killing everything around us. Ugh.
But, and perhaps most importantly, we learned a lot about our media — and not just our media, but ourselves as media consumers.
We all saw them on our feeds. For months, bullshit news stories, written by bullshit “journalists,” with bullshit clickbait headlines citing bullshit sources. Yet, time after time, story after story, people shared them like wildfire. Why? Because it feels good to share stuff that substantiates the way we’re feeling, despite its lack of factuality or legitimacy. It feels good, in a sea of complete idiots, to be able to say, “HA! YOU STUPID BASTARDS! READ IT AND WEEP!”
But for that momentary vindication, we’re paying a very large price — journalistic integrity. The internet is having a panic attack right now over fake news, so I thought I’d take a moment to give everyone a quick crash course. Let’s begin:
What is Fake News?
Truthfully, fake news is exactly what you think it is, and it’s a tactic old as the written word. Fake news is editorialized content (or even outright lies) presented without corroborating evidence, fact or research, based solely on opinions and hearsay.
Oftentimes, it’s the stuff with the most obnoxious and click-baity headlines.
Some examples would be stuff like, “This High-Profile Celebrity Just Endorsed Hillary Clinton — You’ll Never Guess Who!” or “These Anti-Trump Protesters Messed With The Wrong Guy” or even this gem, which I found after about 30 seconds of digging: “The Liberals Terried [sic] After New Sec. of Defense Stated THESE Thisngs [sic]” — headlines that offer not even the most rudimentary information about what the rest of the story is going to be about, but are designed solely to get you to click on them.
Fake News, But Real Dangerous Implications
Fake news appears harmless. Who cares if the stuff discussed in a story isn’t true? Most of the time, those lies are obvious.
Only, that’s not true at all. In fact, Fake News goes viral all the time. Take, for instance, the case of Eric Tucker, a marketing exec from Austin, Texas, who created a viral news story out of thin air, based on literally nothing more than a single tweet.
On November 9, the morning of Donald Trump’s official presidential win, Tucker saw a massive group of charter buses parked in downtown Austin, a few short blocks from a massive anti-Trump protest. Tucker snapped a quick couple pictures of the buses and posted them on Twitter, accompanied by an accusatory caption: “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the buses they came in. #fakeprotests #trump2016 #austin.”
Tucker posted the tweet to his tiny following of a few dozen people, but it didn’t take long for it to start making the rounds on social media. It eventually made its way to the now-infamous Donald Trump sub-Reddit page, /r/The_Donald, despite absolutely zero supplemental research or investigating, and from there, it spread like absolute wildfire.
So much so that Trump himself got word of and responded to the “news”:
As it turns out, however, the buses were there for a local business conference.
The craziest thing about the story is that both Coach USA North America, the company whose buses were photographed, and Tableau, the company who rented the buses for their conference, both gave interviews and released statements about the actual reason for the presence of the buses. By then, it was already too late. The damage was done.
Tucker’s tweet is just a drop in the bucket as far as the fake news phenomenon goes.
Another Case Study: Breitbart’s Bullshit Election Map
In the days following the election, as the U.S. started fuming over Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, pro-Trump blogs and clickbait news sites flooded the internet with pro-Trump election “results.” Perhaps the most noteworthy of them all was a story released by Breitbart.
Breitbart is a far-right wing news website that rose to prominence throughout the 2016 presidential campaign (and whose executive chair, Steve Bannon, has since been appointed President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist, by the way), claimed that Trump won the popular vote in America’s “Heartland” by a staggering 7.5 million votes.
Aside from being flat out, point blank wrong, the article’s completely fake and totally made up electoral college map, which originally depicted a smidge of blue on the left and right coasts, surrounded by a veritable ocean of red, began spreading across the internet like wildfire.
Even though the map was eventually corrected and replaced with the actual election map, no one seemed to care. The fake map still continued to spread no matter how incredulous it was.
People fell for it hook, line and sinker.
And That’s The Problem — People Can’t Tell The Difference
As it happens, people are having a more and more difficult time differentiating between real news and fake news.
In fact, a study published a couple weeks ago from a team of researchers at Stanford University tested nearly 8,000 students from middle through high schools across 12 states, and found students (particularly middle school aged kids) couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored content and a real news story. Staggeringly enough, less than a third of college students could see the potential media bias in an activate protest group’s very fucking clearly biased tweets.
In case you’re thinking it’s all some kind of fluke, the research group also tested Stanford students — students at a university so prestigious that it typically rejects 94 percent of people who apply. Their findings were equally dismal.
Most Stanford students couldn’t actually identify the difference between a mainstream news media source and a “fringe” source. Other college students — less than a third, total — were adept enough to cite a potential conflict of interest in a political non-profit organization (with a massive federal PAC) like MoveOn.org talking about things like gun violence.
It’s all so fascinating, but only in that special, “Jesus Christ, is this really the beginning of the end?” kind of way.
Fake News Is Ruining Our Information Cycle, and Real News Isn’t Helping
For all the noise people are making about fake news right now, no one is really asking how it came to prominence — and that’s exactly the problem.
The answer is that fake news’ rise to power didn’t happen solely because a bunch of idiots started indiscriminately sharing horrible links on Facebook (although you bastards certainly aren’t helping). Fake news’ prominent foothold is really the result of a perfect storm of both bullshit clickbait news and the diminishing quality and integrity of our own, more legitimate, more established news media.
According to a Gallup poll released just in September, Americans’ trust in popular news media is at an all-time low, with only 32 percent of respondents saying they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their media. That means everybody else — 68 percent — thinks it’s all bullshit.
But who can blame them? Remember that one time those “Russian hackers” over at WikiLeaks proved that the Clinton campaign was colluding with New York Times and Wall Street Journal writers to plant “progressive names” in their stories about Clinton’s economic policies? Or when they worked to plant a positive story with Politico? Or when it was revealed that John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s entire presidential campaign, was flat out reviewing drafts of New York Times articles prior to publication to ensure they were up to snuff?
That wasn’t a nightmare. It was real life.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There — right there — is the question we need to ask ourselves. How do we dig ourselves out of this fake news nightmare? The answer may shock you! (See what I did there?)
First, it starts with us. On the whole, we need to be more discerning media consumers. We need to learn how to spot the difference between real and fake news, but more importantly, we need to stop buying into the bullshit. We need to do something about our media literacy right now. Period. The folks at Forbes recently released a brief — but mostly accurate — guide to learning how to spot fake news websites and stories.
Several media organizations and watchdog groups have printed lists of fake news websites, but in the interest of fairness, I’m not going to publish any of them, lest I accidentally include one with a couple decent resources on it.
Aside from learning how to spot fakes, we need to gather news from different sources — especially ones that typically aren’t agreeable with our points of view. If you want to become an informed media consumer, do what your parents and grandparents used to do when they’d pick up three or four different papers from the news stand every morning. Specifically seek out different takes on the same news story, and then once you’ve seen it from a few different angles and perspectives, formulate your own opinion. That’s how news is supposed to work.
Second, our media conduits like Facebook, Google, Reddit and others need to do a better job of vetting for fake news (without hindering the spreading of legitimate information). It’s a tough row to hoe, but it’s a necessity, given how important they are in the information gathering process.
Following the election debacle, and the scrutiny each company faced for allowing the dissemination of fake news across its content platforms, both Google and Facebook announced that they’d acknowledged the problems and were actively taking steps to prevent fake news sites from doing the only thing they care about — making money.
Finally, our mainstream media — the CNNs, New York Times’, Wall Street Journals, Fox News’, Politicos and so-ons of the world — really needs to get its shit together.
For more in-depth media analysis, read about how tech rumors start.