“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson
As you doubtless know, the proliferation thereof has people fretting. President Obama has dubbed it a threat to democracy. And there is a rising demand for social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, often used as platforms for these viral untruths, to take corrective action.
But the good news is that anyone who wishes to avoid fake news can do so easily. There is, in fact, a news platform that specializes in gathering and disseminating non-fake news. So committed are its people to this mission that some have been known to risk, and even to lose, their lives in the process.
Granted, this platform is imperfect – sometimes it is guilty of error or even bias. But hardly ever will you find it trafficking in intentional falsehoods.
So what, you ask, is this miracle medium? Well, it’s called a “newspaper.” Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Yes, there is a point here, and it is this: the facts are knowable – and easily so. So the proliferation of fake news should tell you something.
Before we go further, though, a definition of terms. Fake news is not to be confused with satirical news as seen on shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “Last Week Tonight.” Fake news is not a humorous comment on the news. Rather, fake news seeks to supplant the news, to sway its audience into believing all sorts of untruths and conspiracy theories, the more bizarre, the better.
There is, for instance, the “story” that opponents of Donald Trump beat a homeless veteran to death. Didn’t happen.
There is also the “story” that Hillary Clinton molested children in the backroom of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Also didn’t happen.
The New York Times recently did a case study of a fake news story. It originated with Eric Tucker, a marketing executive in Austin, who posted pictures of buses he claimed had been used to transport paid protesters to an anti-Trump rally. This blew up on Facebook and Twitter. By the next day, Trump himself was tweeting about “professional protesters, incited by media.”
But this, too, didn’t happen. The buses had, in fact, been hired by a software company for a conference. Asked why he didn’t check this, Tucker told the Times, “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there.”
Can we get a Bronx cheer right here for “citizen journalism”?
As noted above, real journalists regularly produce real news that is easily accessible. So the rise of fake news speaks not to the unavailability of the real thing, but, rather to a preference for the phony one. It is no coincidence fake news almost always seems to find greatest purchase among conservatives, or that the stories it tells almost always seem to validate their sense of their own victimhood.
But the president is right – these lies are eating like termites through the foundations of democracy, a process likely to accelerate as Obama is succeeded by one of the chief national distributors of this political manure. The right wing has led us so far down the rabbit hole of its alt-right alt-reality that we now face the very real prospect of military and policy choices hinged on things “people are saying” or tweets from those who are too “busy” to check facts.
One recalls what Jefferson said about the incompatibility of ignorance and freedom – and one wonders how long we have. Fake news drives a fake worldview. But the decisions made from that will be real.
And the consequences, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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