Fake news has been in the real news frequently lately—and for good reason. Though it seems counterintuitive to chastise fake news networks on legitimate platforms devoid of their readership, such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, national alert comes with warranted concern. Fake news is not a modern dilemma, but through websites and social media, fictional stories guised as “real news” have proliferated through the nation via contemporary means, and are wreaking havoc in the political and private spheres.
It seems too difficult for the casual American reader to accurately interpret a network’s credibility. In addition, readers would rather have their beliefs validated and therefore often depose true news stories opposing their views, discrediting their content as “fake.” This combination of media illiteracy and egocentrism is no accident—it is coming from flawed and heinous leadership.
Newt Gingrich’s embarrassing appearance on CNN in July this year comes to mind. When informed that national violent crime rates were down significantly based on reports and analyses, he begged to differ: “People feel more threatened. I’ll go with what people feel.” Who actually feels threatened? How did he know what the majority of “people” feel? Did he conduct a survey? Or is he only broadcasting his own fears and masquerading them as the voice of the “people”?
We cannot necessarily blame an uneducated and selfish “everyman” when even the president-elect participates in the creation and perpetuation of false news to serve his purposes. Donald Trump’s recent unfounded claim that millions of votes for Hillary Clinton were illegal and fraudulent has Americans scratching their heads. You would think such a breach of our system deserves investigation, but he has scoffed at recount efforts—a classic example of irresponsible speculation guised as news, and a successful effort to fear-monger and mislead the masses.
The effects reverberate beyond Trump’s cringeworthy Twitter account, because when those elected to leadership positions make baseless claims against any entity that opposes them, it permits the American everyman to do the same. Fake news and baseless conspiracies are what led an armed gunman to shoot up a pizzeria in Washington this week. He was said to be “self-investigating” Hillary Clinton’s rumored child sex ring there.
The fact is, though, that the truth is not conditional based on who is hearing it. The truth does not change when we decide we do not want to believe it. It does not go away when we feel uncomfortable or afraid, and we should not be placated by a fictional story in its place. When data is collected and published, when research papers are completed and offered to the public and when the most up-to-date technology is utilized to achieve basic truths or verify what we may have already known, there are methods to track and back-check accuracy, precision and results. There is no way to verify a fake news story which has come to a delusional conspiracy theorist in the middle of the night. Nor is there a way for us to verify “feelings” or wild speculations if we have not properly investigated them.
In May this year, the Pew Research Center published a report that found a majority of American adults—a whopping 62 percent—get their news from social media, such as Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. HBO comedian John Oliver noted this study in his final show of the year, coupling the find with “fake news” to propose the absurd win of Trump. On “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Oliver showed clips of Trump responding to the accusation of misleading and lying to his supporters. He shrugs and asserts that it is not his responsibility to fact check his opinions before sharing them.
If it is not the president-elect’s responsibility, then upon whom can we cast the blame? Some suggest that social media platforms must limit and remove fake news and “clickbait” from their sites, but to what extent does this boundary impinge on freedom of speech? Another concern arises if their own political affiliations or agendas impact what news sources they prosecute.
Our standards for genuine journalism have dropped; fake news, Trump and the everyman are far under the bar. In a public domain where fact and fiction openly commingle as equals, it is important to stay grounded and maintain personal merit. Don’t share a story if it is not true. Invest in journals and authentic news sources. When in doubt, refer to the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, who used the “three sieves” to determine if a piece was newsworthy: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful?