Made-up and fake news part of the public sphere

Made-up and fake news part of the public sphere
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The First Amendment of the United States Constitution allows for the dissemination of made-up and fake news. That’s a shock and a bummer to most Americans, but the nation has survived over 200 years with this crazy state of affairs.

Sure, spreading false or distorted information is ethically bankrupt, but politicians, civic leaders, average citizens, and of course, the media have all joined in the spread of misinformation at various times. Some do it more consciously and gleefully than others. The public sphere, however, has over the years largely fended off this disruption of reality. And at those times when the marketplace has succumbed to fakeouts, society has only itself to blame for not more carefully countering false messaging with reason.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center should prompt American society to carefully assess how the nation should wrestle with the issue of made-up and/or fake news. The study indicates Americans are quite disturbed over the presence of made-up news in the public dialogue. Fifty percent of all survey respondents believe made-up news “is a very big problem in the country today.” Remarkably, that’s a higher percentage than for Americans who believe violent crime, or terrorism, or illegal immigration are very big problems.

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It is little wonder Americans have become so fearful of fake news. President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE and his surrogates constantly dismiss any development unfavorable to his administration as fake news. The news industry, whose own credibility has been in steady decline for two decades, is quick to point out the slightest factual errors of politicians and corporations. Social media executives pound their chests proudly and publicly for their efforts to scrub fake news from their platforms. Society is being told to fear fake news by forces which generate power for themselves by the fear-mongering.

Perhaps Americans wouldn’t be so worried about made-up news if they realized that all mediated information is concocted or distorted to some degree. All messages delivered into the public arena are filtered through the attitudes, values and biases of the disseminating source. That includes government officials, activists, and supposedly objective news reporters. In a sense, all “news” is made-up and necessarily so. Transmission of absolute reality through messaging is quite impossible. Thus, the phenomenon that is made-up news has been a weed in public deliberation since the beginning of civilization.

Some of the fakeness in the public sphere is the result of this unavoidable human processing. More insidious sources, of course, intentionally fabricate in order to sow chaos into the nation’s deliberations. These can be extremists of various sorts or even foreign actors, but easy access to the internet and social media nonetheless makes them players in the marketplace. Citizens are responsible for detecting fraudulent content, regardless of its source or motivation.

It is, indeed, challenging and frustrating to seek reality in the chaotic maelstrom that is the public sphere. Sorting out facts, even if agreed upon, doesn’t lead to common interpretation of what the facts mean. Competing narratives are often hobbled by cherry-picked facts by opposing points of view. Twentieth century sociopolitical observer Eric Hoffer warned that public discussion is harmed as much by omission of information as by exaggeration or inaccuracy. The problems of misunderstanding faced by America today are much more nuanced than simply saying made-up or fake news must be eliminated.

The Pew study reports that four-in-five respondents “believe steps should be taken to restrict made-up news.” Unanswered is what specific steps should be taken and by whom. Also to be decided is what punishment should be meted out to the purveyors of made-up news. Virtually any movement to restrict or punish, especially by the government, would immediately generate constitutional barriers. Of course, fabricators, deceivers and propagandists should be identified and criticized, but that needs to be done with counter-messaging from voices of reason.

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Over half of Pew respondents believe the news media should take the lead in fixing this problem of made-up news. Those citizens apparently overlook the role the media have played in fueling distorted reality in the first place. Sensible news consumers are, instead, going to have fix the problem for themselves by becoming more media literate, checking more news sources, and sniffing out nonsense. It would also help for citizens to avoid letting social media guide their news consumption.

News consumers need to stop feeling all helpless in dealing with fake news. It is here. It is not going away. Any effort to make it go away would require a blanket of oppression that would undoubtedly lead to more harm than what is caused by the fake news itself. The marketplace of ideas will have to be trusted in having truth and accuracy prevail over made-up and fake.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.