Since November 8th, media outlets, pundits and prognosticators have fallen over each other ready to decry an epidemic of so-called “fake news” — a phenomenon many believe is undermining a core principle of democracy: the fair and accurate marketplace of news and ideas.
Yet the news — particularly the mainstream news — hasn’t been particularly clear about what fake news is. Even worse, while they decry its effects, some of the largest media conglomerates are actually investing in and promulgating new ventures designed to capitalize on echo chambers of selected facts and tailored presentation.
First, start with definitions. The term fake news sounds like it refers to an outright lie (think the recent ‘Pizzagate’ story alleging a nonexistent child abuse ring associated with Hillary Clinton). Unfortunately, the fake news phenomenon isn’t that simple.
More often than not, what we refer to as fake news is not patently false, but more likely to be biased or perniciously misleading. This is largely the result of exposure to vast networks of content creators who generate information exclusively for Facebook’s platform, which is algorithmically geared to reinforce opinion.
In such a system, fake news, colloquially speaking, is content created specifically to appeal to an audience’s pre-existing preferences.
Misleading or inaccurate information is not new, dating back to some of the more spurious revolutionary pamphlets distributed by our own founding fathers — an eighteenth century version of Reddit.
But the reach of such information, and the pace at which it is spread, is exploding. Under this model, unbiased (accurate) reporting is left behind, relegating mainstream media, with its veneer and general adherence to fact-based and balanced reporting, as increasingly irrelevant. This scenario pits the forces of fact against the dark forces of misinformation.
But it’s not that simple. In fact, the mainstream media is doubling down as the very purveyors of colloquial fake news.
The best example of this is CNN’s recently announced acquisition of the technology behind the social media app Beme, along with the talents of its celebrity creator, Casey Neistat.
Much like the network’s short-lived partnership with Vice, Neistat’s $25 million arrival represents part of traditional media’s growing demand for immersive, shareable content — and highlights the expanding economic strains of news production in a crowded marketplace.
This is a smart business move designed to bridge generations and different types of media users. “There is a tremendous distrust between the audience that watches my content online and the information that is put out by traditional media,” Neistat told The Verge. “Our broad ambition is to figure out a way with tech and media to bridge the gigantic divide.”
While he is correct to point out a gap in trust — arguably widened by opponents of the President-elect — suggesting that Neistat is intended to close the gap is misleading. The divide is not an absence of trust as much as it is a crisis of relevance, one that the CNN is quite deliberately trying to address.
According to a statement from CNN, Neistat’s presence within the company will “be devoted to filling the world with excellent, timely, and topical video and empowering content creators to use technology to find their voice. It won’t be what most people think of as ‘news,’ but it will be relevant to the daily conversations that dominate our lives.”
By placing stock in Neistat, CNN understands the lucrative future in courting a viewership that previously remained outside their traditional purview—an audience that values both authenticity and entertainment.
The challenge will be distilling and guiding the sentiment of this broad audience — defined only in their unwillingness to consume traditional media — whose lives are not dominated by the same “daily conversations.”
As Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed writes, the best way to attract and grow a political audience is to “simply tell people what they want to hear.” But in order to create successful content — the success of which relies on its ability to reinforce the collective preferences of its audience — CNN must first assert their relevancy to this new segment of the market.
There is possibly an even darker motive, or at least outcome. By promoting a fake news narrative that calls our democratic institutions into question, mainstream media, such as CNN, can establish a renewed level of relevancy to its fractured audience.
The effect is easy to understand, but perhaps harder to see; but it can be loosely suggested that discrediting everyone but yourself is a good way to self-promote.
Indeed, while we’re asked to believe that fake news is created to manipulate our political discourse, a different understanding is rooted in simple economics — and specifically those equations that drive profits.
As recent investigations have uncovered, a large number of fake news creators are actually teenagers from Macedonia, who, while profiting from hyper-partisan dialogue, ostensibly held very little stake in the outcome of our election.
As John Herrman of the New York Times has written, the wide formula that fake news has encompassed “will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability to declare things true, even when they are.”
The question then becomes: to what extent will CNN mimic colloquial fake news to increase traffic?
So, where does that leave us? The changing landscape of news, where real and fake is anyone’s guess, requires that we hold even established organizations to the same standards applied to sources like Occupy Democrats, Bipartisan Report and Blue Nation Review—all of which have been deemed, if not ‘fake’, prohibitively partisan.
Certainly it can be argued that news about fake news is, in itself, fake; a confusing conclusion that perhaps illustrates how false the dichotomy between the mainstream media outlets and the purveyors of questionably accurate information really is.
The point being: the lines are not clear, and now with converging business interests they are set to blur even further. Expect to hear more about fake news — the trick will be telling just how fake it is.
Jack Mallory is an associate at Clyde Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.