From The Onion to Weekend Update to The Colbert Report, fake news has been a staple of satirical comedy for decades and, I believe, should genuinely be appreciated as an art form. However, not every fake news article has been as harmless or clever as an Onion article titled “Gorilla Sales Skyrocket After Latest Gorilla Attack.” In 1898, for example, papers like Pulitzer’s World ran cover stories accusing the Spanish of sinking the USS Maine, despite a lack of consensus on why the ship had exploded, and ultimately started a war based on misinformation and created the grand tradition of 'yellow journalism.'
Even our founding fathers were guilty of using the press to spread misinformation and gain political points. In one of the best examples of old people arguing outside of the Thanksgiving dinner table, Thomas Jefferson paid off a newspaper editor to write that John Adams- Jefferson’s opponent in the 1800 election- had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” And you guys thought Donald Trump was bad.
Many of the effects of misleading journalism can still be felt today, too. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, was actually quoted as saying “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt these communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Of course, the press would ultimately come back to, shall we say, Deep Throat Nixon (get it?), but the damage was done.
The internet was supposed to bring an end to the abundance of news like this. Sources can be hyperlinked, facts can be Googled and stories can be told from multiple angles. The more information getting passed around, the harder it would be to lie, right?
In the grand tradition of Boaty McBoatface, however, the internet took something with a clear, intended purpose and flipped it on its head. Instead of an abundance of clear, fact-checked data or quality sources, we now have site like InfoWars and Brietbart, which essentially just publish conspiracy theory nonsense in shiny packaging, and personalities like Tomi Lahren or Milo Yiannopoulos, who make no effort to accurately report anything and instead are content to simply shout mildly racist viewpoints at you. This style of ‘reporting’ isn’t just a problem on the right either, although I would argue that it is more rampant among conservative-leaning news outlets. Sources from the left, like The Young Turks or Seriously.TV, create professional-looking videos featuring men and women behind desks “reporting” the news in an absurdly opinionated manner. And, as we saw with the slow-motion train wreck that was the 2016 election, online news has become increasingly popular.
According to a new Pew Research study, 62% of Americans get news from social media, and that number is only going to grow as time goes on. This drastic increase in online news viewership has given birth to a whole new field, creating sources who seem less interested in accurately reporting the news and more interested in whipping up flashy, clickbait headlines. Combine this phenomenon with the Facebook algorithms designed to show you things that you want to see and are more likely to click on, and you create a media landscape designed to tell you want you want to hear, not necessarily what’s true.
Take, for example, President-elect (gag) Donald Trump’s statement that he would be open to the use of a fence, rather than his trademark wall, for some areas along the border. This statement strikes me as a relatively reasonable one, showing Trump’s willingness to compromise on one of his keynote (but totally ridiculous) proposals. NBC and Reuters reported it relatively accurately, using parts of Trump’s quote in their headlines and clearly indicating he was talking about some of his wall, not the entire thing. NBC or CNN, however, are not the sources that popped up in my Facebook newsfeed.
Instead, I saw an article from Mic with the headline “President-elect Donald Trump’s border wall may be just a fence,” which was paired with the caption “Is Trump already backtracking?” Even after clicking on the article itself and being taken to Mic’s site, something many may not do, I had to physically scroll down before reaching an edited version of Trump’s full quote, which made it clear that he was talking about parts of his wall, and not the entire wall. One paragraph later, the article was back to claiming that Trump had ‘walked back his campaign promises.’ If I hadn’t actively looked for other sources, I might not have understood the quote correctly, and would have a very different idea about what Trump said.
I totally get that people have the constitutional right to write whatever they want on Facebook, but the anti-intellectual trend that the popularity of biased news is helping to create really could be a problem for the world. Sure, its relatively harmless when just discussing one quote, but the problem has gone much farther than that. From the anti-vaccine movement to political parties straight-up lying about violence in America to climate-change denial-ism, the idea that we should show people what they want to see, and not what’s true, is a dangerous one. Even this article, which looks all fancy and legit on your Facebook feed, was written in one hour by a hungover college student on a Saturday morning. I stand by everything in it, but still, you shouldn’t just blindly trust me. Go out, do your research, and maybe think about disabling adblock the next time you click on a real newspaper’s website. They could really use some help.