Fake News

People on all sides of the political spectrum see fake news as a terrible problem for the health of democracy. However, the way people use, feel and think of that term has changed a lot in recent years, and it means different things to different people at different times.

What is fake news? Fake News most commonly refers to journalism or information that either deliberately or unintentionally misleads people and distorts reality by spreading false information, hoaxes, propaganda, or misrepresentation of facts. It can be used as a propaganda or marketing tactic, as a way to fairly or unfairly discredit ideological opponents, or as a way to increase revenue via engagement metrics such as clicks, views, comments, likes and shares.

Although the term “fake news” has been in general usage for nearly a century, a series of events skyrocketed its modern usage by journalists, pundits, and politicians along the entire political spectrum.

On December 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton spoke of “real-world consequences” associated with what she called "the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.” On January 10, 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted, “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH-HUNT.” A day later, he told a CNN reporter, “You’re fake news,” and has used the phrase many times since.

Comprehensive reports about anti-Trump fake news generated by the Left soon surfaced. Some media observers note that Trump’s accusations of fake news encourages the press to be even more aggressive against him, which further reinforces “fake news” accusations by generating coverage that is more outlandish and biased.

Sometimes people misuse, or are accused of misusing, the term “fake news.” For example, people on both the Left and the Right say that the term “fake news” can be used to discredit anyone or anything they disagree with or don’t like. For example, many on the Left say President Trump calls anything he disagrees with “fake news,” while many on the Right argue this is the Left media’s way of deflecting legitimate concerns about their bias and lack of credibility.

In this way, what is considered fake news tracks closely with entire worldviews. Something that seems fake to some people may be experienced as wholly true by others. People may find themselves astonished that others would believe something that is (or seems to them) “so obviously fake” (see confirmation bias).

When looking across many different examples, four types of occurrences are regularly labeled fake news:

  1. False information: Completely untrue, false, or made up information presented as fact.
  2. Misapplied or misrepresented facts: True information or data that is misrepresented, misused or misapplied to paint a false picture of reality.
  3. Omission of information: Information or data that is factually true but is misrepresented, or other relevant information or data that would counter its narrative is ignored.
  4. Misleading choices of what should be news: Important stories are ignored or buried (hard to find). Or, unimportant stories are treated as important news.

Aside from these more technical distinctions, there is broader disagreement as to the scope of what ought to be included as “fake news.” For instance, some left-leaning mainstream media outlets that have been criticized by President Trump, such as CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, tend to use the more narrow, literal definition of “fake news” — purely fictional, made-up information.

However, media and people from the Right and the Far Left often use a broader definition of “fake news” — namely, media coverage that is overly biased, deceptive, or manipulative. From this vantage point, established media powers are employing bias, failing to do good-faith research, and lacking credibility. They say the mainstream description of fake news — as purely made-up information — is too narrow a definition, and believe that we need to shine a light on the more subtle and pernicious type of fake news — that which is biased, manipulative, or deceptive. Many on both the Right and Left believe this type of fake news is a more sophisticated, dangerous, and Orwellian way to fool and manipulate people. They are grateful that this deceit is getting more attention.

But it is not that simple. Others on the Left believe that when the Right uses “fake news” to describe what they see as biased or manipulative information, it is really an attack on credible news in general. They believe this use of the term “fake news” is really an attempt to discredit otherwise credible mainstream journalism, so that people the Left perceives to be threats or with whom they disagree politically — like President Trump — can get away with lies and deceit.

In a similar way, sometimes those on the far-Left or Progressive Left see the use of the “fake news” label as an attempt by the establishment, Democratic Party-associated mainstream media to marginalize more far-left, socialist points of view.

Are all the cries about fake news something about which all of society should be alarmed? Some would say yes — proposing that the sheer number of accusations of falsehood that are circulating at any given time are, taken together, undermining the very idea that truth exists at all. This would suggest an attack on the idea that facts can be ascertained with any degree of certainty, that observation can help people sort truth from falsehood, and that there is a single reality in which all humans live and can, to a degree, come to consensus.

On the other hand, others argue that the proliferation of alarm about fake news is good for democracy and human thriving because it signals a willingness to question received information. This suggests that the proliferation of cries about “fake news” will, over time, turn people into savvy critical thinkers who demand, and therefore receive, high-quality information from the media.

Contributors: 

John Gable, Jacob Hess, Julie Mastrine, Arthur Peña, Philip T. Neisser

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