What’s Real about Fake News

Last week Breitbart, the leading mouthpiece of the “alt-right” (the term used by the media to describe a white-nationalist, anti-Semitic, fascist movement), began a war on the weather. By using a Weather Channel video created to describe La Nina’s effect on New England’s weather, Breitbart created an alt-reality by misleading its viewers into thinking the video was about a forthcoming period of global cooling, despite the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change being irrefutable. The Weather Channel issued a well-articulated response accusing Breitbart of cherry picking information from an unrelated article and politely asking them to stop misinforming the public. However, rather than update their views in light of factual information, Breitbart followers doubled down when presented with this contrary viewpoint. One proudly uninstalled his Weather Channel app, stating “I don’t need more fake news on my phone.”

The form of news simply titled “fake news,” is now being circulated at an alarming rate. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a supposedly bipartisan group of US representatives, even retweeted Breitbart’s article, further elevating fake news from the depths of the Internet to our government. President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for national security advisor, Michael T. Flynn, has been getting into the act, promulgating fake news at least sixteen times over the past few months, with his son chiming in over the recent Pizzagate incident.

When twenty-eight-year-old Edgar Welch of North Carolina opened fire at Comet Ping Pong on December 4, officials discovered shortly after that he had travelled to investigate what he believed was a child sex ring in the basement, run and operated by the owner who was said to be linked to John Podesta and Hillary Clinton. The reporting on the incident was filled with the assertion that fake news had finally become physically dangerous, which unfortunately led to stronger conspiracy theories, with many touting Welch as an “actor,” and the whole situation a “setup,” despite Comet Ping Pong not having a basement, undermining the entire conspiracy theory.

Roughly 50 percent of conservatives receive the majority of information from Fox News, while conservative humanities professors make up just 10 percent of the academic community. In a climate where “the bubble” is becoming increasingly defined, individuals feel that contrary information is an attack on them personally. A Dartmouth study conducted in 2006 looked at how people reacted when confronted with factual information that went against their defined ideas and principles. The study gave groups a fake newspaper article with a real quote from George W. Bush: “There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks, and in the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.” Reading this quote led participants to believe that weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) were found in Iraq and were being passed to terrorist groups. Some versions of the newspaper provided conservative readers with a “factual rebuttal” of the WMD claims. Conservatives experienced what is known as the “backfire effect,” where instead of accepting the factual rebuttal, their beliefs that Iraq possessed WMD’s were strengthened. This is the reason why fact-checking politicians’ claims and other news doesn’t work. When fact-checkers deciphered, dissected, and delved into Donald Trump’s comments, they expected a response against the Republican presidential nominee; they expected his voter base to press him on these issues. Instead they saw the backfire effect in real-time, galvanizing Trump supporters against the “crooked media.”

How are we supposed to combat fake news when we are statistically more likely to feel aggrieved by conflicting reports? Fake news is a profitable industry, with its creators making anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000 a month from hosting sites, with the majority of their recent success having coming from anti-Clinton propaganda. Political candidates themselves don’t necessarily want to combat fake news, as many of them benefit from it. The public benefits in that people now have sources for radical theories that exist inside their ideological bubble.

There have been campaigns to combat fake news, with Facebook and Google’s being the most effective. Both tech giants are working on ways to suppress fake news by changing algorithms to favor more respected, reputable sources. President-elect Trump and his followers, however, see this change as a plot to undermine their legitimacy, increasing their attacks on the mainstream media by labelling them as fake news outlets. In the months leading up to the election, fake news surpassed real news with regards to “likes,” “reactions,” comments, shares, and clicks on Facebook. And according to the Brookings Institution, “In the final three months of the presidential campaign, the twenty top-performing fake election news stories generated more engagement on Facebook than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times.” This is an astounding tidbit that shaped the election.

While the populous egregiously ignores fake news, and as our president-elect continues to promulgate the idea that reputable news sources are the true “fake news,” the idea of combatting purposeful misinformation becomes increasingly intangible. Still, schools are beginning to teach students media literacy (which older readers, who can have trouble spotting fake news sites, could also benefit from).

Another idea being touted is to “check your sources” and to fact check every article you read. I struggle with this, as I can’t remember the last time I fact-checked an article within my bubble. Another possible response, though one I disagree wholeheartedly with is censorship, as seen in China’s policy of fining its citizens $72,000 if they create fake news. Fake news seems to be driven solely by profit, with many creators not even believing what they write. And with $10,000-$20,000 a month on the line, what’s to discourage them? By changing their algorithms, Facebook and Google can push fake news to the back, decreasing revenue for these sites, and totally disincentivizing fake news altogether.

Above all, the American citizenry needs to be more responsible with the media it permeates. Fake, misleading, and false news will always exist. We the people must scrutinize every facet of information we read. However, the tone is set by our leadership. Our outgoing president has been extremely respectful to the media, taking attacks from all sides without striking back with similar ferocity, but our incoming president has fed into these conspiracy theories, with a large portion of his followers playing along. It’s time for Trump to understand the gravity of the office he will soon assume, and for him to have a healthy relationship with the reputable media.