In the leadup to and aftermath of the 2016 United States presidential election, great focus has been placed on a series of false and augmented news stories that became widely accepted as factual. Despite in many instances being readily disprovable, these stories spread like wildfire through social media channels and on websites dedicated to fake news. Eventually, many people lost track of which news stories were accurate and which were false, while a large spectrum of grey area persisted in between.
Let us take, for example, the now-infamous Pizzagate report, which alleged that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were connected to a ring of human traffickers operating incognito through Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, a beloved and long-established business in the District of Columbia. Started as a bizarre conspiracy theory relying on so many logical jumps as to be worthy of an Olympic gold medal in track and field, Pizzagate became one among the many commonly-cited instances of wrongdoing on the part of Hillary Clinton among alternative right-wing media outlets after it was reported on by Infowars.com, the media platform of noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Although Pizzagate was laughable at best as a news story, the manner in which it rose to mainstream prominence should give pause to any consumer of journalistic media who cares even a modicum for receiving factual, verifiable information. Initially, the conspiracy theory had no presence outside of the stranger corridors of social media sites such as Reddit. After it was picked up by Alex Jones, whose official YouTube channel alone boasts over 1.8 million subscribers, the story gained a place in the mainstream public consciousness unbecoming of any concept so ridiculous. Spread by followers of Jones, Pizzagate gained more and more attention. Among some, the story spread as validation that Hillary Clinton was not to be trusted. Among others, the story was laughed off as little more than a bad joke.
Whatever humor there may have been to the story of Pizzagate, however, was instantaneously dissipated when, on December 4th, Edgar Welch entered Comet Ping Pong and fired three warning shots from a rifle. His intent was neither to rob the restaurant nor to make a political statement by perpetrating a mass shooting, but to “investigate” the reports he had read online about the noted pizzeria. Thankfully, Mr. Welch showed no interest in harming either the employees or the clients of the restaurant and he was arrested shortly thereafter without difficulty.
Pizzagate and the events surrounding its evolution from a conspiracy theory in the dark corners of forum websites to a story that inspired a man to commit a felony is only one example of countless fake news stories that the 2016 election spawned. The spread of fake news, from minor and inconsequential mistakes made by otherwise reputable news sources to massive falsifications such as Pizzagate, should be a matter of concern to any reasonable voter. After all, when one relies upon incomplete or blatantly incorrect information, reaching an informed and evidence-based decision at the polls becomes effectively impossible.
The magnitude of some pieces of misinformation and the comparatively minor nature of others also gives us occasion to recognize that not all fake news sources are created equal. Though each individual outlet should be judged on its own record and present merit, sources of falsified news reports can, in general, be classified into four categories based upon the degree to which they misrepresent facts.
The first such category consists of outlets that offer entirely or mostly accurate information, yet inject opinion and bias into their regular reporting to such a degree that the consumer is incapable of receiving said information without at the same time receiving the spin of that particular outlet. It should be clearly noted that news reporting and editorial reporting are two different types of journalism and that to fit into this first category an outlet must editorialize in its regular news reporting to the aforementioned degree. Examples of this first category include such well-known outlets as Fox News and MSNBC, along with lesser-known digital entities such as The Young Turks, a popular left-leaning YouTube news channel, Vox.com and the Huffington Post.
One rung higher on the ladder of misinformation are sites that present a mixture of true and false news. This mixture may be either completely true stories interspersed with completely false ones, or individual stories that offer a mix of both accurate and inaccurate information. Also included in this category are outlets that selectively use accurate information to lead to conclusions that are not valid and should not be reported as news. Outlets guilty of the second class of journalistic offenses include Occupy Democrats and Brietbart News, both online media outlets that, to varying degrees, strategically intersperse information and misinformation within the overall framework of their reporting. Also included at this level of the inverted pyramid of nonsense is Wikileaks, the once-admired transparency advocate. Though not a news site per se, Wikileaks has taken to reporting as fact, often through the journalistically useless medium known as the tweet, conclusions drawn from their leaked documents that are neither verified nor grounded in reality. For anyone still in doubt of how far Wikileaks has fallen, a quick google search of the term “Wikileaks spirit cooking” should prove most enlightening.
Moving on to misinformed encounters of the third kind, we now come to the highest form of fake news reporting within platforms that at least claim to be news outlets, which is the reporting of information that has simply been made up out of whole cloth. Here, we find Infowars.com, the “news” website largely responsible for the spread of Pizzagate. Alex Jones and his associates are, however, not alone on this level. Joining them is Anonymous News, a site that publishes a mixture of political and pseudoscientific misinformation. If anyone still believes the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, a visit to either one of these surrealistic websites should correct that assumption within seconds. Also included in this third class of fake news magnates are the seemingly endless fake news websites that sprung up during the election season. These sites, often bearing names that are deceptively similar to those of real news outlets, offer up reporting that is at least as sub-par as that of Alex Jones or the caretakers of Anonymous News. Thankfully, however, these sites tend to have extremely limited audiences. Nevertheless, the fact that the spreading of fake news has obviously become a profitable business model has caused many such new outlets to arise.
Concerning the fourth type of fake news, we now move out of the world of outlets and websites and into the murky world of social media and forums. Perhaps the largest factor in the spread and general acceptance of fake news during the 2016 presidential election was the fact that it spread so easily on social media. Memes and tweets, in particular, offered a means of spreading news where neither context nor evidence was either expected or applicable. These blurbs, which at best may constitute two well-written sentences, have no validity as news. Even on the occasions when memes or tweets are used to convey accurate information, they do not constitute real news, as they cannot, by virtue of their formats, offer up verifiable evidence for the claims being presented. It is the sincere wish of the writer of this column that these two forms of communication would return to their intended purposes: entertainment and communication among friends regarding matters of no great import.
Also on the fourth level are forum sites such as Reddit and Facebook groups, where people may gather into like-minded communities. Though there is much to be said for being able to communicate with others around the world who share one’s particular mindset, worldview and set of values, it also greatly increases susceptibility to fake or erroneous reporting. When people insulate themselves within like-minded groups, be it online or in real life, the potential ability of confirmation bias to make them accept only those claims that seem to align with the mindset of the group reaches a nearly limitless level. In the online world, it is even possible to insulate oneself against claims that would in some way contradict the conclusions one has already reached. Groups and forums, then, become echo-chambers, where even the strangest claims (think Pizzagate) can gain traction, provided enough members of the group buy into them initially. Let us, the news-consuming community, divest ourselves of such contributions to our own confirmation bias, and instead seek out verifiable information reported by reliable sources, be it information that aligns with our existing views or not.
The world in which we live today is perhaps more complicated than at any other point in human history. Wars are now fought with insurgent groups, rather than among definable nation-states. Global markets, tied together by a network of interdependent currencies, react with each push and pull of economies within individual countries. The digital age has revolutionized industry and personal life, but has also forever changed what it means to be nationally secure and to have individual privacy. To deal with these complexities, voters need accurate information delivered in a timely and reliable manner. If the electorate and the news consumers of the world continue to allow such flawed reporting as we have seen in recent months, thus tacitly endorsing it, there is no telling what ramifications the future spread of fake news could have. If news, if information itself, becomes a matter of subjective perception rather than objective fact, it is the humble opinion of your current correspondent that democracy as we know it, a system which depends upon deep and accurate knowledge of pressing issues among the broad electorate, cannot long endure.
Sources and related reading:
New York Times: How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study
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