Here comes another one of those things branded as an imminent threat to public safety, something evil lurking out there which is poised to infiltrate our minds and poison the republic. It is described it in two words: Fake News.
Now some are clamoring to legislate, regulate or eliminate this thing called Fake News.
Fake News has already been blamed for tipping the presidential election, inciting racist hatred across the land and forcing the country toward a form of authoritarianism. Beware the Fake News, we are told, and those who spread it, for surely their motives are impure! Even Pope Francis has warned against the evil of spreading Fake News.
Hillary Clinton recently told a group at the U.S. Senate that Fake News is “an epidemic,” that left unchecked “can have real world consequences.” The former presidential candidate now backs “bipartisan legislation” giving Congress more power to respond to “foreign propaganda”, an apparent reference to the idea that Russia bankrolled faked information about her that skewed the presidential election results.
But what is this Fake News phenomenon exactly? The definition seems to be as fluid as the number of people talking about it.
Some define Fake News as the so-called click-bait found on the margins or at the end of stories on social media. You know, those small boxes with luring and often erroneous headlines like, “Jennifer Aniston appears to be pregnant!” The Washington Post recently reported that click-bait writers can earn up to $10,000 a month sitting in their basements churning out clap-trap text for advertisers who are eager to pair their ads with the enticing click-bait headlines.
But Fake News has also been described as originating on Twitter where troublemakers urge us to believe, among other fantasies, that a major child trafficking ring is operating in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and its clients include top politicians with household names! That tweet caused a believer from North Carolina to grab his gun and travel to DC to save any children he might find at a local pizza shop, the supposed front for the operation.
Come on! Everyone capable of critical thinking should already know that what you read on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter should be taken with multiple grains of salt. The same for all those streams of reader comments on line. Opinions, not facts, my friends. Think about it. Isn’t Fake News what we used to call just plain old gossip?
And can’t the Fake News label also be applied to sassy opinion articles masquerading as objective journalism on news sites? They bear titillating tiles like, “Donald Trump is a Professional Dominatrix and the GOP Can’t Get Enough of His Humiliation.” The article’s overt message — that Trump is a “cult leader” and “he is Hitler” – is obvious hyperbole. Does anyone really believe the president-elect plans to force citizens to drink poisoned Kool-Aid or that he has a strategy to exterminate millions of Americans? No clear-thinking person would believe that.
And, finally, readers who don’t agree with what they find in legitimate news stories, written by career journalists, will willy-nilly label the report as Fake News. Just look at the online comment section of any major newspaper or magazine. Even those ubiquitous cable TV pundits toss the epithet, “Fake News!” at other pundits who dare to offer a different point of view.
CNN defines Fake News as, “Often blatant falsehoods passed off online as the truth and spread by conspiracy theorists”. But it is obviously more than that, of course. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to pass on salacious internet items to others. And the more a falsehood is repeated the more likely it is to be regarded as truthful. That’s why PR operatives invented “spin” – an alternative story to counter negative news. Repeat the spin often enough, they figure, and the public will come to buy it as truth. A blatant lie? Deliberate propaganda? Wrap it up in clever language and someone will surely buy it. My, how gullible we have we become as a population.
Still, some remain convinced Fake News is real. Something that springs from sinister minds, deliberately planted falsehoods designed to destroy our current belief system and way of life. Well, if that is true it is time for every consumer of information to learn how to discern probable truth from fantastic fiction – and teach it to their children. Schools better begin designing classes to teach critical thinking because no matter which big name politician or religious leader calls for new laws to regulate this so-called Fake News, the reality is: there is just no way to legislate away freedom of speech and naïveté.