With the rise of the Internet and social media, the ability to authenticate the accuracy of information is surprisingly becoming harder to determine with the upsurge in alternative media, individual contributors, and bloggers with often times slanted agenda, and outrageously biased reporting. It has become a fake news free for all. The influence of the fake news one our democracy will have profound consequences if not mitigated soon enough.
Make no mistake, mainstream media is not without its flaws. While there is some bias, major American news outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, The Washington Post, Fox News, MSBC and CNN are held in check by other creditable, mainstream news outlets. They might slant their reporting one way or another, but they don’t invent stories the way online fake news outlets do.
When fake news is conflated with real news that becomes a significant problem. Take, for example, when Fox News conservative commentator Sean Hannity misreported to millions that First Lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaObama to travel to South Pacific island to work on memoir: report Obama and Trump haven’t talked since inauguration For Democrats, no clear leader MORE was deleting tweets referencing Mrs. Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSpicer: Trump will 'help the team' if needed in Georgia special election Former DNC chair: Russian election hacking an ‘act of war’ Chelsea Clinton dismisses rumors she'll run for public office: report MORE after an FBI probe was launched. This turned out to be fabricated. However, Hannity was held in check by other news outlets and eventually apologized, something you’d never see from a fake news website
The proliferation of hoax news sources makes reporting verifiable facts increasingly impossible. While it is much easier to hold major news corporations like Fox News accountable for inaccuracy, it is near impossible to effectively hold websites that seemingly spring up overnight to the same standard. In the digital age, conspiracy driven paranoia can be easily reinforced with the click of a mouse button.
Pundits deserve some blame for the ascension of fake news. A typical tactic of pundits of all political stripes has been to attack the source they disagree with as biased. This helped give rise to alternative, far less credible sources of news through the Internet, and social media. Even now, non-partisan, credible websites like Politifact are being attacked for an alleged liberal slant because it keeps ‘correcting’ conservatives. While mainstream media has its flaws, it is far more reliable than many of the websites, completely void of standards,
Some in the media do dispute this. Conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say the entire mainstream media is ‘fake news’ because of the alleged faulty polling in the last presidential election. I should note, fellow conservative commentator Sean Hannity caused problems for Fox News when cited polls that lacked editorial standards.
With regards to the polls, all mainstream media, including Hannity’s Fox News reported Mrs. Hillary Clinton was leading Mr. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMatt Schlapp: 5 lessons Paul Ryan hopefully learned from healthcare debate Former DNC chair: Russian election hacking an ‘act of war’ Prices dictate energy supply trends far more than policy MORE. Trump won, but that doesn’t mean the polls were wrong, much less that they were intentionally misleading. National polls had Clinton winning and she did win the popular vote. In fact, national polling was more accurate in 2016 than it was in 2012. Nevertheless, reporters, and news anchors did rely too much on polling when they argued that the so-called “Blue Wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would never vote for Trump. That’s different from fake news though, because those reporters were relying in good faith on surveys that had previously been accurate, not simply inventing stories designed to please their audience.
Even since the election, President-elect Donald Trump has become infamous for actively promoted fake news. One-story cited involving supposed anti-Trump protesters was completely inaccurate. Mr. Trump also made statements that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the last presidential election – it’s unclear if that was deliberate disinformation, but it was easily refuted by Politifact.
Take Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign as an example. No political campaign has been hurt more from the proliferation of fake news on the Internet. Mrs. Clinton blasted fake news as an “epidemic” in a recent speech. Mrs. Clinton went on to say, “…it’s now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.” She was alluding to a fake news report that inspired a gunman to shoot up a pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, allegedly linked to Clinton.
While some disagree with the assumption that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was adversely impacted by the proliferation of fake news, facts do not lie. In the past presidential election, pro-Trump Twitter bots overwhelmed pro-Clinton Twitter bots five to one. An analysis by Buzzfeed found that fake news stories on social media overwhelmingly favored Trump and had more engagement from readers than stories from actual news outlets. Two of the biggest viral fake news stories were one story that allegedly confirmed Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, and Trump was endorsed by the Pope.
Thankfully, a number of social media sites have finally taken steps to curb fake news. Both Google and Facebook have ambivalently agreed to rein in the fake news phenomenon. Facebook is toying with having disclaimers on disputed news sources. Social media sites, and Internet search engines do make money off fake news, but the money is negligible according to some in the social media community.
In a democracy based on Socratic ideals of dialogue between two informed parties, the proliferation of fake news makes reasonable discussion increasingly difficult. Instead of debating pertinent issues, the conversation as shifted to debunking conspiracy theories. Rather than discussing how to fix Obamacare, healthcare experts need to debunk absurd claims about death panels. In an already politically hyper-polarized environment, these deranged conspiracy theories contribute nothing to the public good, and need to be restrained.
Matt Fecteau (Matthew.Fecteau@gmail.com) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was a Democratic congressional candidate in 2014. He is a former White House national security intern and Iraq war veteran. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewFecteau
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.