Fake. The very sound of the word can unnerve us. And we’re getting more accustomed to finding out the sheer enormity of countless fakes out there.
Well, perhaps not quite totally accustomed. A lot of us might have been fooled recently by something or other that was fake – while others might still not realize that they’ve been conned. A recent New York Times story, in fact, detailed how quickly one fake story traveled the day after the election, literally at warp speed.
The words fake and fast are inextricably linked in today’s world.
In the past few decades, we’ve probably grown accustomed to learning about fake artwork, fake Hitler diaries, fake alien autopsies, and, of course, a classic headline about a Titanic survivor. But that one was supposed to be a joke.
Yet all of that was before Photoshop.
But wait, there’s more. Let’s not forget about a fake educational institution, Trump University, where its founder recently paid out $25 million in hush money to silence students who were ripped-off in a scam that continues to raise questions about the seemingly ethically challenged former reality show host whose name and imprimatur are linked to this fake school.
How appropriate that someone identified as a reality show host dabbles not in the real but, to the contrary, what is fake. From fake claims about thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey at the sight of the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11, to other tall tales, Trump has definitely benefited from a plethora of tall, fake tales.
Imagine that you are feasting on an imaginary Trump Steak (they haven’t been available for years) while you’re reading about all things Trump. Trump Shuttle. Trump Winery. Trump Towers. Trump Foundation. Trump University. With this proclivity – an edifice complex, maybe The Donald needs to change his name to Eponymous Rex Trump.
A recent Washington Post story, Mr. Trump’s Fake Charity, put that unnerving word out there for all to see. If Walt Disney showed us that It’s A Small World After All, P.T. Barnum should have taught us it’s also a fake world, where a sucker is duped every minute by a screaming headline.
With the fakery that is the Trump Foundation and Trump University, it only follows that citizens should have been on the alert for fake claims wrapped around a fake campaign. When you stir this amalgam, it’s no surprise that the result is, voila, fake news.
In the last few days, Paul Horner, one of the kingpins of the fake news empire who mostly used Facebook to peddle his craft, stepped forward in an interview with the Washington Post to claim credit for Trump’s election. The CBS News website contains this gem:
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber,” Horner told The Post to explain the popularity of his content, which he suggested he sees as satire akin to The Onion. “Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary.”
Horner’s expert crafting of fake news is confirmed by other sources who found that at the end of the seemingly endless presidential campaign, fake news decisively drowned out real news on Facebook:
“In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others…”
It is indeed breathtaking to realize that perhaps half of this nation is getting its “news” from Facebook.
In the last few days, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has admitted that the company is making an effort to address the issue. Previously, Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook is a technology company and should not be considered a news platform or media outlet. He has announced that the company will no longer accept paid advertising from known purveyors of fake news.
Zuckerberg’s position of abrogating responsibility for the fake news explosion on Facebook was undermined when it was revealed that a story about a dead FBI agent somehow linked to Clinton emails was shared 568,000 times by Facebook users. Technology helps to create news and diffuse information, to be sure, but Facebook is a far more effective vehicle in transmitting carefully crafted fake news than the legacy networks that are still with us from the broadcast age.
Understandably, the spotlight is on fake news that is manufactured for gullible, low-information people who use the Internet as a source for news and information. The new focus on fake news is appropriate, welcome – and overdue.
But the success of Paul Horner, who believes he deserves credit for flipping an election by manipulating voters who are averse to fact-checking, also serves to illuminate the earlier success of Roger Ailes and his creation, Fox News. Almost since its inception, wags have placed the news portion of this network’s title in quotation marks, a mark of derision about the journalism standards of this media behemoth.
Indeed, the network of O’Reilly and Hannity has for years been labeled by its critics as Faux “News” or Fake “News” – titles bestowed before the rise of Facebook and the masters of fakery that seem to inhabit the site. In at least one very important and transformative event, the derogatory titles might be well deserved.
Misperceptions, The Media and The Iraq War, a study conducted in 2003 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, clearly demonstrated that viewers who obtained the bulk of their news and information from Fox News were seriously misinformed about key issues related to the 9/11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq War. Here is a key point:
“Researchers found that the public’s mistaken impressions of three facets of U.S. foreign policy — discovery of alleged WMD in Iraq, alleged Iraqi involvement in 9/11, and international support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq — helped fuel support for the war.”
What exactly created key mistaken impressions in the formation of public opinion, so essential in a nation on the verge of war? This summary from the report is most interesting:
“The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.”
One observer summarized the report’s findings in this way:
“Almost shocking was the extent to which Fox News viewers were mistaken. Those who relied on the conservative network for news, PIPA reported, were “three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions. In the audience for NPR/PBS, however, there was an overwhelming majority who did not have any of the three misperceptions, and hardly any had all three.”
Thirteen years have now passed since the University of Maryland study, which documented how a nation went to war over misinformation, and where Fox News viewers were convinced that most of those involved in the 9/11 hijackings were Iraqis rather than Saudis. Now, many citizens are concerned that misinformation, disinformation and outright fake news might have influenced a presidential election, similar to how public misperceptions helped to influence the decision to go to war in the Middle East over bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi complicity in 9/11.
We need to be concerned about the evidence which demonstrates that untold millions of American citizens are not taking their responsibilities as citizens seriously by being properly informed of the issues that affect all of us. If a citizenry can be manipulated by manufactured and fake news without the discernment necessary for the proper functioning of a republic, we are in deep trouble.
It is indeed time to start thinking about long-term remedies for this, including changes in our educational system, which is currently focused to a large degree on preparing young people for tests and learning test-taking strategies that go with our testing industrial complex. Instead of able test-takers, we need to prepare citizens who are critical thinkers, skeptical of what they read, and who require verification of information obtained and examined from multiple sources so that skilled, knowledgeable, thinking individuals, realizing success in a complex and often contradictory world, are the result of that system.
“An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, so that “democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”
Our republic cannot be stable and resting on a firm foundation unless we address the issue of a properly informed and alert citizenry. We have no alternative but to readdress that Jeffersonian ideal. Fake news and manipulated citizens cannot be our future reality. Determine if your schools are teaching critical thinking skills. Patronize your local library. Support your local newspaper – and, heaven forbid, don’t rely on Facebook and other social media to be your primary source of news and information.