The Bad News about Fake News
On February 24, 2016, after winning the Nevada Republican Caucus, then-candidate Donald J. Trump listed the demographics in the state that carried him to victory: evangelicals, Hispanics, the educated and, finally, the poorly educated. While oversimplification was nothing new for both sides in the 2016 presidential election, the proclamation that followed “poorly educated” was. Mr. Trump declared, in no uncertain terms: “I love the poorly educated.” At that moment, the soon-to-be-president boasted that some of his supporters were poorly educated and misinformed, and that he loved them despite their lack of knowledge or cognizance of truthful information—perhaps even because of it. This lack of factual understanding and susceptibility to propaganda made these particular voters, now-President Trump continued, the “most loyal” of electors. And guess what? The crowd cheered.
At first glance, this soundbite may seem to be nothing more than an unconventional comment delivered by an unconventional, albeit successful, candidate. However, upon further review, the claim reveals itself to be quite troublesome as it completely contradicts the sentiments of America's founders, they who constructed the democratic system that elected President Trump to its highest office. America’s founders understood the instability that innately comes with a democratic republic like ours; a government constructed by and operated for imperfect and self-informing people requires a properly educated, scrupulous citizenry in order to survive. In The Federalist No. 55, James Madison wrote that “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” asserting that the unique existence of this nation’s political structure assumes that, among other things, its people are informed well enough to make educated electoral decisions. Without this proper level of information and basic civic education, the republican system will fail. Both President Trump’s embrace of poor education and the rise of politically polarized news media contradicts this fundamental notion of a rightly informed citizenry, downplaying the importance of distinguishing truth from untruth and objectivity from subjectivity. This combination of polarized, and at times fake, news media and the leaders who are informed by them threatens our democratic principles and undermines the very fabric of our government. We are a self-governing people and, as such, must be rightly educated so as to ensure that our opinions, though they may differ, are informed by truth and accuracy, not by “alternative facts.” President Trump’s professed love for poor education, the esteem in which he seems to hold misinformation, specifically fake news, and the multitude of partisan news outlets that promotes factual ambiguity all lessen our collective ability to perpetuate the republic.
One of the most important duties of constructive citizens, those who work to perpetuate this fragile republic, is the careful processing of information so as to distinguish truth from fiction before heading to the ballot box. The current rise of fake news makes this already difficult task even more challenging. Fake news has been described as everything from the fabricated information that prompted a man to fire a gun inside of a pizza place (see: Pizzagate), to accurate yet unflattering information based in journalistic truth—a term which refers not only to reporting facts truthfully, but also to the discipline of verification and proper contextualization of these facts. Dangerous circumstances, those most detrimental to democracy, arise when the powerful endorse fabricated information over truth, shirk their responsibility to confront facts, and make important decisions based on contorted accounts of actual events.
Although the mission of fake news (i.e. sowing public confusion for personal or political gain) is nothing new, the rise of social media platforms as mediums through which Americans may encounter said information is quite novel. Throughout the 2016 presidential election, 62% of American adults claimed to have gotten most of their news from social media. While this does not mean that 62% of U.S. adults consumed fake news, it does mean that they were at risk of allowing this counterfeit information to alter their political decisions.
Those who promote the consumption of this false information have not halted their efforts since the election’s end. Rather, they have continued to disseminate libelous stories so as to sow further confusion and cement conspiratorial beliefs throughout the American populace. Take, for example, the notorious fake news organization InfoWars (spearheaded by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones), which has a Facebook following of over 850,000. After the Las Vegas shooting that killed over 50 people and injured more than 500 on the night of October 1, a post on InfoWars's Facebook page citing “FBI Sources” claimed that the alleged shooter, Stephen Paddock, was found dead surrounded by ANTIFA literature and pictures from a recent trip to the Middle East. In this way, the site alluded to a possible connection between the shooter, international terrorist organizations, and ideologically liberal Americans, thus bolstering the organization’s anti-immigration, anti-progressive, and pro-force stances. Hours earlier, CBS News, citing an actual FBI official, accurately reported that the alleged shooter had no known connection to any of those organizations. Despite this journalistic truth substantiated by fact and contextual analysis by CBS News, the fabricated story posted by InfoWars received over 1,200 likes and was shared over 1,000 times in the span of an hour, further promoting distrust of the government and inducing confusion among the electorate. While there is no way of knowing how many of those views actually contributed to the formation of readers’ political opinions, it is clear that social media and the internet have given this baseless claim—and many other pieces of fake news—a platform on which to gain great popularity.
Worsening this debacle, many Americans admit to being ill-prepared to combat this rise of misinformation. Among U.S. adults, only 39% consider themselves confident in their ability to recognize fake news, while 16% admitted to sharing news articles on social media that they later discovered to contain fake or false information. Furthermore, according to a study performed by Monmouth University in March of 2017, 60% of respondents believed that traditional news outlets reported fake news either regularly or occasionally. This means that traditional news outlets have driven the American populace to distrust their reporting because of the ways in which they present and comment on important political issues. The root of America’s lack of news literacy, then, is not only the rise of fake news, but also the politically polarized presentation of the news that has led many Americans to question what traditional news outlets tell them. Increasingly, these news outlets have pushed Americans to pledge blind allegiance to a single source of partisan information, which poses a danger to the American populace and the future of our democracy equal to that of fake news.
In the final months of the 2016 campaign season, during the major-party conventions, Fox News, the “fair and balanced” conservative news outlet, positively covered “conservative” President Trump 33% of the time. Conversely, CNN, which is definitively more liberal, only gave President Trump positive coverage 16% of the time. Coverage of Secretary Clinton was also divided along this ideological line: 59% of CNN’s coverage of Secretary Clinton was positive while only 40% of Fox News’s information was deemed “pro-Clinton.” Evidently, the way in which content is presented to the public differs greatly depending on the sources that readers select, each with its own political tendencies and agenda. As such, the industry of Walter Cronkite, America’s “most trusted man,” that once reported objective fact now offers an array of information from which the public can choose based on their ideological preferences.
From the stereotypical American perspective of “more choices means more freedom,” this expansion of the polarized news industry seems beneficial. As CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer told me in a March 2017 interview, “you can get your news like you can get your eggs: any way you want.” Unfortunately, as he later pointed out, this choice has consequences. According to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, the news industry has abandoned its central mission of informing the public, opting for partisan-based, negative coverage. Thomas Patterson, Acting Director of the Shorenstein Center, points out that “the press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.” It no longer serves to inform accurately, but rather entrenches polarized ideals and factional support, and draws greater attention to less-consequential issues.
This phenomenon has only pushed the political poles of this nation even farther apart, causing those on each side not to believe the news that the other side reports. Even more shocking, from the perspective of 60% of American adults, the news presented by these mainstream, yet polarized, outlets was not only biased at times, but completely fake. With this mindset, a portion of American voters have turned away from mainstream sources simply because of their ideological slant and have instead focused their attention on fabricated reports or misleading stories. According to Google Trends, between October 2015 and October 2016, interest in both Breitbart Media and InfoWars nearly doubled. Furthermore, according to NewsWhip, on November 8, 2016, Election Day, Breitbart's Facebook posts were the fourth-most engaged posts (i.e. liked, commented on, or shared) throughout the entire social network, beating out more traditional outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and Fox News.
It is not unreasonable to assume that some of the President’s "poorly educated" were among those who turned to Breitbart and other unconventional, if not misleading, sources of information on Election Day. However, this trend in news consumption is not limited to those of one party or ideology as many Americans on all sides of the political spectrum have decidedly replaced responsible conventions and with faulty and dangerous habits. While politically polarized, the mainstream media, demonized by many including President Trump, are far more likely to enforce journalistic truth and factual sourcing than those that have traditionally promoted misinformation or conspiracy (i.e. Brietbart and InfoWars). Yet, almost a year after the 2016 Presidential Election, many Americans continue to distrust orthodox news outlets and instead opt to inform their political decisions in haphazard ways. This trend must be reversed.
At one point during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what they were left with at the end of the convention's grueling debate and nation building. He responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Like many of those with whom he signed the Constitution, Franklin was ever wary of the possibility of the nation’s demise at the hands of its people if they neglected their civic responsibilities. Part of the maintenance of our republic involves making informed decisions based in accurate information and earnest civic education. This is an ability we have evidently lost.
Centuries after our nation’s founding, Cronkite declared to his audience, “We are not educated well enough to perform the necessary act of intelligently selecting our leaders.” Today, despite the greater body of information available to us, this sentiment still holds true. We must demand better of ourselves and the sources from which we get our information, or face a future in which we struggle to keep the republic.
(Overhead Picture: An ad celebrating President Trump's 100 days in office calls the mainstream media “fake news.” Source: DonaldJTrump.com)