Remember when The Onion, which calls itself “America’s finest news site,” was the premier fake news publication full of preposterous stories that aimed to be funny because they couldn’t really be real?

So when a new Stanford University study of middle school students revealed that 82 percent weren’t able to figure out the difference between sponsored content and a real news article, should that really be a shocking revelation?

The Wall Street Journal article, “Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake,” says “Teens absorb social media news without considering the source,” then suggests “parents can teach research skills and skepticism.

The era of fake news beyond The Onion is upon us, bigly. The Onion now has competition from the likes of Breitbart News and scads of other websites that appear to make gobs of money from pushing fake news that goes viral on Facebook or Twitter, digital platforms that give everyone an equal shot at confusing and misleading the unwashed, and apparently uncritical thinking masses. It would be wonderful if parents can teach their children the research skills and skepticism the Stanford study say they need. But those same parents seem to be lacking in that same skill set, so how can they pass it along if they don’t have it to begin with?

Sue Shellenbarger writes in her WSJ article, “Preteens and teens may appear dazzlingly fluent, flitting among social-media sites, uploading selfies and texting friends. But they’re often clueless about evaluating the accuracy and trustworthiness of what they find.” About 6,400 out 7,804 students ranging from middle-schoolers through college couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website. Many students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source, Shellenbarger wrote.

“Media literacy” appears to be a new skill set, as is “deep thinking” in an age when texting, reading and watching video all at once is the modern skill set needed to flitter to and through the internet, where truth and post-truth equally coexist.

In “The Cure for Fake News Is Worse Than the Disease,” Jack Shafer at Politico says people like fake news because being fooled is always in vogue. Shafer says the audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. “Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled.”

Shafer’s recipe to avoid fakery is applying reason. “People throw their money away on get-rich schemes, play three-card monte, correspond with Nigerian scamsters and get fleeced, even though they know better,” he opines. “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived. We may never end fake news, but arresting the current moral panic is a simple matter of applying small doses of reason to our media diet.”

For PB’s more studious readers, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, warns that the rewards delivered by authoritarians to journalists doesn’t end well over time. “First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating — until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison — and then who knows?” Amanpour sounded the alarm in her acceptance remarks following being awarded the Committee to Project Journalists’ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom Tuesday night in New York.

Part of her cure is to “recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear nor favor — on the issues. Don’t stand for being labeled crooked or lying or failing. Do stand up together — for divided we will all fall.” She believe in being truthful, not neutral. “I believe we must stop banalizing the truth. And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: “post-truth. We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us by the very same social media that we’ve so slavishly been devoted to.”

She also demands that journalists “fight against normalization of the unacceptable.” She calls on media to contribute to a more functional system instead of deepening the political dysfunction. She also decries the weaponization of journalism. “We have to stop it. We all have a huge amount of work to do, investigating wrongdoing, holding power accountable, enabling decent government, defending basic rights, actually covering the world — Russia, Syria, North Korean nukes. Can’t we have differences without killing each other off? As a profession, let’s fight for what is right. Let’s fight for our values Bad things do happen when good people do nothing.”


In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, Winston Smith’s job was to produce fake news and rewrite history so it justified the total authoritarian rule Orwell envisioned in 1948 that would be the norm in 1984. Thirty-two years later, Winston Smith could be a regular contributor to Breitbart’s news of the day.

One of Orwell’s most famous quotes about the importance fake news played in Winston Smith’s world of tomorrow was this: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Add that one to this one, The best books… are those that tell you what you know already,” and 1984 is alive and well today.


  • sufferingsuccatash

    The fake news problem has been the amount of nonsensical data that permeated the news stream of this election cycle. How many polls were cited with Hillary far ahead?? How often were we told the economy was growing based on twisted data? How often were told that employment was recovering and fed bogus convoluted data to justify conditions that are clearly a mirage? This election cycle killed the MSM as an agent of truth telling and on election day the narrative along with the data died.

  • clambake

    Perhaps the writer needs to take a class in media literacy if he believes that the WSJ and CNN are not spewing propaganda. Or that Politico has something to do with journalism.
    When a news organization has a stable of “defense analysts” with ties to military contractors do you think that they aren’t spreading propaganda?
    The Orwell reference really classed up this article though– nice touch. Very erudite.

  • clambake
  • sufferingsuccatash

    Especially convincing was the lamenting speech of Amanpour, who never met a war she didn’t like and is married to James Rubin who served in Bill Clinton’s DOS.

  • clambake

    Well, the “appeal to authority” argument is time tested.
    I love the idea that some line has been crossed. Like journalism did not meld with public relations a long time ago.
    I guess for those who get choked up by the middlebrow cheese of Aaron Sorkin…

  • RohoSombrero

    I’m afraid I don’t understood analysis at all. Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million votes, pretty much exactly what was predicted. The NYT gave Trump a 35% chance of winning which is hardly long odds. Flip a coin 10 times. If it comes up heads 7 times, which it will 1/3 of the time, congratulations, you’ve just pulled off a Trumpian victory. The economy *has* been growing according to virtually every economic metric we have. The mainstream media has plenty of flaws, but it is hardly the problem. Distrust of our institutions comes from watching money continually flowing from the coffers of the poor and middle class to the very richest people that need it least. This is the result of having hundreds of thousands of lobbyists in Washington, none of whom care much about the poor or middle class. Our institutions are just fine. Votes are accurately counted. The press does a decent job (it’s certainly the freest press in the world. ) Its our politicians that are failing us by doing the bidding of their corporate masters. Their constituency is money and the people who wield it, and they simply don’t have time for the poor or middle class. There’s too much money that needs to be raised for the next election cycle.

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