Fake news can be purely false — for example, the suggestion that Hillary Clinton was operating a paedophile ring out of a pizza shop in North Carolina. That particular story led a gunman to open fire on a Comet Ping Pong restaurant. But more often than not, fake news is decontextualised and distorted pieces of news that are designed to target an individual or an organisation.
Whether it be Facebook’s promise to start flagging false news or Tim Cook’s statement that fake news is “killing people’s minds”, it is clear that the world is waging war on fake news. However, poor journalism is hardly a new concept, and certainly was not born out of the digital revolution.
Although the spread of information online is quicker than ever, be it fact-based or not, there is an upside. Our ability to debunk misinformation has also improved, whether that be strangers operating on the Twittersphere or Apple and Facebook’s vows to make it clear to users that an article is fake news. Despite the fact that fake news is more prevalent, so is our ability to authenticate it.
However, with all our reporting on this “epidemic” we ignore the fact that fake news is merely a symptom of a wider problem.
Rather than listening to the millions of people that are disgruntled, disillusioned and disaffected with an establishment that has forgotten them, we instead blame fake news.
“Chasing after fake news might be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t solve any long-term problems.”
It would be great if everyone was presented with perfect information all of the time, and it would be incredible if people could be made aware of context and bias whichever way they consume their media; however, that isn’t, has never been, and probably won’t be the case for a long time to come.
It certainly does no harm for people to be made aware of these things when they are getting their news. However, this is merely a solution to a symptom.
Self-proclaimed “credible media” can’t just dismiss everyone who voted for Trump or for Brexit as either too lazy to fact check or too stupid to know better. It would also be ridiculous to think that a little red flag at the bottom of your computer screen telling you that this is fake news would change the way we read articles – because the individual who believes fake news isn’t going to stop believing it simply because an established body is telling them not to.
In the same way, some major tabloids are widely disregarded amongst other newspapers, yet people still continue to read them. Sensationalism sells, and people are willing to buy simple narratives that give them a figure to blame. Rather than going after bad journalism, it might be better to consider why a person might be quick to buy a news story that is not rooted in fact or analysis.
Fake news is yet another scapegoat that distracts people from the facts. 43 million Americans live in poverty, and one in eight households is food-insecure. If you are black, you are two and a half times more likely to grow up poor than if you are white, and if you are a man you are still statistically more likely to end up in prison than to receive a university education. There are millions of people who have been failed repeatedly by a system that is meant to protect them. It is no surprise that people don’t trust so-called reputable media that is so closely linked with said established system.
Chasing after fake news might be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t solve any long-term problems. In Britain, scaremongering tactics employed by UKIP and The Sun will still tap into people’s deepest insecurities when they are concerned about whether or not they are going to lose their job or their home. When the political system has failed you time and time again, it is understandable that you would lose faith in it.
“Rather than going after bad journalism, it might be better to consider why a person might be quick to buy a news story that is not rooted in fact or analysis.”
Rumour, hearsay and slander are not new concepts. Nor is large-scale reporting of these. Fake news has existed since the invention of the printing press and probably before. The internet has given a loud voice to populist resurgence groups; however, the way to take away their voice is not to try and shut it down, because prohibition does not work – it makes them talk even louder. We need to address the legitimate fears that fake news and populist rhetoric tap into and exploit to suit their own agendas. Trump and Brexit happened because real people with real lives and real concerns were sick of a homogenous establishment voice that dictated to them what was in their best interests while simultaneously ignoring their plight.
No amount of red flags would have stopped a man from carrying out a shooting in a pizzeria because he thought that Hillary Clinton was trafficking children for the sex industry. Those who don’t trust CNN or the BBC or RTÉ aren’t going to take notice when they are told that their news sources aren’t credible, because they don’t think that any news source is credible. Large broadcasters have vested interests in social elites, politics and big industries.
In the same way the media rejected those that it doesn’t protect, they will reject the system. The only thing that can be done about this is to try and change the system so that people don’t get left behind. Something is broken within society and people justifiably want an outlet for their rage. Fake news gives them someone or something to blame. The solution to the problem can’t simply be to tell people to fact check better; we need to ask people why they are so distrustful of those who are supposed to be helping them, representing them and running for them.
Until this year, fake news didn’t bother legislators. But now that it is thought that it holds sway in elections, things are changing. However, a state that has left so many people behind can’t be the body who authenticates what is true and what is not. Perhaps government and mainstream media should make themselves more transparent, less elitist and more aware of the people that it claims to speak for.