Opinion: Can You Really Tell if You’re Reading Fake News?

The homepage of a genuine fake news website intended to mimic ABC News. The site posted bizarre false headlines about both candidates throughout election season, many of which caught traction on social media. Photo Courtesy of William Sease.The homepage of a genuine fake news website intended to mimic ABC News. The site posted bizarre false headlines about both candidates throughout election season, many of which caught traction on social media. Photo Courtesy of William Sease.

Where were you when Hillary Clinton died in September? Or when Obama banned the pledge of Allegiance in December? How about when Lindsay Lohan joined ISIS to fight Donald Trump recently?

Fake news, as it’s come to be called, is a cultural phenomenon which was simply impossible before the free and open internet. Although most dialogue concerning fake news surrounded the impact it may have had on the election, the principal cause of fake news is our disinterest in real news, which often proves too boring for our tastes in excitement. The vast majority of fake news comes in the form of silly celebrity rumors, doctored images, or lame conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve. However, it is fair to say that the most important fake news is that which exerts influence over our collective politics.

Perhaps the most worrying thing about fake news is that anything published online could be false. No matter how official or genuine a source seems, you can’t be sure something is true until you’ve verified it yourself. When then President-Elect Trump called a reporter from CNN “fake news” during a press conference, D.C. was knocked back. All the reporter could offer at the time was “Mr. President-Elect, that’s not appropriate.” This moment marked the end of Trump’s cordial relationship with the press, which was already in shambles. Over the course of the campaign, it became normal to see headlines from various sources use the words “Trump Wrongly Claims” right next to each other. Those trends have only intensified since the election.

But the CNN debacle isn’t some freak incident only Trump could have cooked up. The old guard of America’s newspapers could have seen it coming– it’s been almost 8 years since Sarah Palin coined the term “Lame-Stream Media”, asserting that the values of the 60 million voters John McCain actually won were simply not represented by America’s most reputable sources. When Sarah Palin first uttered those words, it came across as a sore loser marching their party into irrelevancy. Now that mindset resides in the President of the United States, who won more electoral votes than any Republican since 1988.

One of the subtexts of the election was that 62 million Americans apparently don’t care what the New York Times recommends, to the horror of the editors. And why should they? The Times themselves have a fun interactive page where you can see they have endorsed every Democratic candidate since 1960. When Trump accuses the legacy media of gross dishonesty, lots of people probably agree with him. The legacy media should have focused less on the fact that fake news exists and more on the fact that many, many people were ready, willing, even anxious to believe that Obama really did ban the pledge of Allegiance, proving their suspicions. fake news does not propagate itself because people are too lazy to think critically. It propagates itself because the only requirement for something to be true is for you to believe it is.

Trump has claimed that his loss in the popular vote is due to millions of votes cast by non-eligible residents. This claim was battered by the legacy media as “debunked”, “bogus”, and “false”. But if Trump’s supporters (his approval rating is either 55% or 39%— choose the number you prefer to be true) believe that tougher voter ID laws could have made three or four million Clinton votes disappear, what proof do they need for themselves?

Fake news isn’t a one-dimensional or simple problem. It’s not something that some decisive action by Twitter or Facebook can alleviate. Based on who you ask, the rise of “Alternative” news sources is either a maelstrom of malicious intent feeding on gullible minds, or a heroic resistance to the “reputable” sources who never cared what some people thought. As far as the reader is concerned, reputable media is that media which the reader prefers. It’s also probably the one that tends to agree with them.

We all have preconceived notions of what sources we consider reputable and which ones we consider biased or propagandist. As our country has become more partisan, more and more individuals find themselves thinking of the legacy media as an ideological opponent. Today, so many people feel this way that the relevance of the opinions espoused by America’s highest editorial boards seems minute. A nation where the most highly respected are not believed by a large population is not acceptable. Both sides of the issue, the old media and the millions of Americans who have come to distrust it, need to begin a lengthy process of reconciliation that requires soul-searching on both sides. Having a common source of information and educated opinion for all Americans is the first step to reuniting our highly politicized nation.

Note: Hillary Clinton is probably alive, but I only ever saw her on TV, so I guess I don’t know. Furthermore, I suppose it’s possible Obama banned the pledge and then un-banned it before school the next day. Lastly, It seems “out there” that Lindsay Lohan would defect to ISIS, but I can hardly remember who she is, so I really can’t say.

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