For a while now, much has been made of something called “fake news.” From what I heard, I understood that fake news originated on Facebook, but I never bothered to look into it until now.
When I did a search, a few items jumped out at me. For one, Arianna Huffington published a post on LinkedIn last Wednesday (December 21, 2016) in which she talked about fake news. I gave it a read and I was in agreement with most of her points.
So, What Is Fake News?
In short, fake news is any “news” article with false or misleading information. According to an article from PolitiFact posted earlier this month, fake news is aggregated from sites created for that purpose. (I will of course leave out satirical news sites, which are created for humorous purposes.)
Also, I tend to agree more with Huffington’s assertion: Misinformation appears in well-known, traditional, and trusted outlets (often referred to as the mainstream media) as well as those with a more distinct political or social bias. More on that in a bit.
Fake news articles are written for a myriad of reasons, including:
- The reporter, journalist, or writer fails to do the necessary research to verify information.
- An editor, producer, or owner makes a deliberate effort by to spin a certain narrative for clicks, views, and advertising dollars.
- A partnership between and outlet and a politician or government is formed in order to produce propaganda.
- An effort is made by an established reporter, a renegade, or “amateur reporter” in order to sway public opinion.
People have been making much of the first and last scenarios lately, in reference to this year’s presidential election (in the U.S.). In short, people point to fake news as aiding Trump. There is so truth to that, when you follow some sources, but only to an extent.
Many people blame social media for making these articles more available since they can be easily shared among friends, family, and followers online. It is true that social media could make some articles more visible, especially if a person’s followers see the links and feel compelled to click them. And depending on the political alignment of posters, social media circles could serve as echo chambers.
What Are Some Examples of Fake News?
The examples given in the PolitiFact article include:
- “Pizza-gate”: an anti-Hillary story linking her campaign and Comet Ping Pong to child molestation. The story was Debunked by PolitiFact and Snopes, but the falsehoods led to a real-life incident when shop owners in the area received threats and a gunman opened fire at the Washington, D.C. pizza place.
- A story about a Trump rally chant in which his supporters chanted “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back.” The story was also debunked by Snopes.
Huffington views fake news from a wider perspective, as do I. She points to the New York Times’ reports from Judith Miller leading up to the Iraq War. The American people were told that Saddam Hussein was connected to the September 11, 2001 attacks. This has since been proven false.
I would add a few more examples:
- Reports from another former journalist for The New York Times, Jayson Blair. He was supposed to cover different stories on location but it turned out his stories were written from the comfort of his home. He had used reports from other sources to write his.
- There was once a story about a man who visited his dentist ex-girlfriend, only for her to remove all of his teeth.
- There was a story about a rape at Virginia Tech that never happened. The story was published by Rolling Stone, which ultimately had egg on its face.
- During the primaries, a story persisted that Bernie Sanders delegates threw chairs in Nevada. The story has been thoroughly debunked, by numerous attendees and video evidence.
You see, false information of any kind can be posted as it they are legitimate news items. It doesn’t matter who the target is and it’s not specific to this election.
How Big of a Problem Fake News?
Fake News is a really big problem, but not just in a political level.
As has been pointed out, all one needs is a belief and an Internet connection in order for a story to spread like a wildfire. We will believe certain stories because of our own biases, unless we choose to have an open mind and maintain a healthy level of skepticism.
The greater issue at play is the result of the rules and standards of reporting, or the lack thereof.
As Arianna Huffington pointed out:
And we’re still living with the consequences of this outbreak of fake news back in 2002-2003 — not only in the Middle East, but every time we check our phones for the latest updates, switch on the TV news or scan our Facebook feeds. What can we believe? This article I’m reading—who wrote it, and why?
Journalism has no Hippocratic Oath, no injunction to “do no harm.” Yet again and again, we see individuals and institutions chip away at the public trust and reverence for facts that are the foundation of the entire proposition. Whatever we want to call it now, fake news has always been with us.
Want to Know Something About Free Speech?
What constitutes “the press” isn’t clearly defined by the law. According the FAQ’s page at the First Amendment Center, just about any publisher can constitute the press. However, some outlets can be limited by state laws, the press can be restricted from courts and crime scenes, and prior restraint can at least delay the publishing of certain materials.
Doug Linder pointed out a few cases where the Supreme Court weighed in on freedom of speech:
- New York Times v. Sullivan (1964): No one can be sued if they make false statements unless they are made recklessly and with knowledge to their falsity. The Supreme Court justices stopped short of protecting all falsehoods, but they did not want the government or any jury to infringe about the freedom to report facts.
- Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) established that false statements could be made (about public officials) when those statements aren’t likely to be or can’t reasonably be believed. Basically, satirical comments are protected under the First Amendment.
- Rickert v. Washington (2007) protected falsehoods made in political speech.
- United States v. Alvarez (2012) essentially ruled the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. Under the Stolen Valor Act, anyone who made a dishonest claim to have been awarded a medal or any other recognition by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States could be prosecuted.
Additionally, any member of the press can publish whatever they want — unless there’s malice. There’s libel in the written word, slander for the spoken word, and sometimes people can be sued for invasion of privacy. But in those cases, the plaintiff has to prove malice and the willful and harmful spreading of false information.
In short, our laws cannot govern how the press operates for the most part. Also, First Amendment freedoms only end where others’ freedoms and rights begin.
What Should Be Done About Fake News?
Like I said above, fake news can be shared on traditional forms of media. That means no one is necessarily free from false reporting — unless they avoid the news altogether.
Truth be told, we cannot avoid the news, especially when the people we know will talk about it and we need news outlets in order to stay informed. However, there are times when we should question the veracity of what we are being told and consider the source.
There are no uniform standards to reporting, when our press could essentially lie to us and still be protected by the First Amendment. Different sources have different standards. Like Huffington said, there is no Hippocratic Oath for members of the press as there would be for doctors. Lives are at stake when it comes to medicine … but the same thing is true at times when it comes to the press.
Is there anything the U.S. government should do to limit fake news? Honestly, no. Anything more the guidelines we have might violate freedom of the press. Certainly, any sanction limits on what one considers fake news could be politically motivated; real news outlets that publish unflattering facts about specific politicians could be shut down as a result.
However, it would make since if some certification was required before anyone could become the member of the press, much like medicine and law. A list of uniform standards could be set and something like a Hippocratic Oath could be created.
Now, I would argue that the government could set a proper example by valuing veracity and being more transparent. Of course, there are state secrets it can’t disclose but the people need to know if the government is working as it should, the public should be informed about all laws that are passed, and public servants should abide by the law.
There is of course more to this and I plan to address it …
Barry, Dan, Barstow, David, Glater, Jonathan D., Liptak, Adam and Steinberg, Jacques. “CORRECTING THE RECORD; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” The New York Times. 11 May 2003. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/us/correcting-the-record-times-reporter-who-resigned-leaves-long-trail-of-deception.html>.
“‘We Hate Muslims, We Hate Blacks’ Chanted at Trump Rally.” Snopes. 9 Nov 2016. Web. <http://www.snopes.com/trump-rally-chant/>.
“Frequently Asked Questions — Press.” First Amendment Center. Web. <http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/faq/frequently-asked-questions-press>.
Gillin, Joshua. “How Pizzagate went from fake news to a real problem for a D.C. business.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times; 5 Dec 2016. Web. <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/05/how-pizzagate-went-fake-news-real-problem-dc-busin/>.
Holan, Angie Drobnic. “2016 Lie of the Year: Fake News.” PolitiFact. 13 Dec 2016. Web. <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/13/2016-lie-year-fake-news/>.
Huffington, Arianna. “Fake News: A New Name For An Old Problem.” LinkedIn. 21 Dec 2016. Web. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fake-news-new-name-old-problem-arianna-huffington>.
LaCapria, Kim. “Comet Ping Pong Pizzaria Home to Child Abuse Ring Led by Hillary Clinton.” Snopes. 4 Dec 2016. Web. <http://www.snopes.com/pizzagate-conspiracy/>.
Linder, Doug. “Does the First Amendment Protect Lying?” Exploring Constitutional Law. Web. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/lying.html>.
Siddiqui, Faiz and Svrluga, Susan. “N.C. man told police he went to D.C. pizzeria with gun to investigate conspiracy theory.” The Washington Post. 5 Dec 2016. Web. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/12/04/d-c-police-respond-to-report-of-a-man-with-a-gun-at-comet-ping-pong-restaurant/?utm_term=.10307d4a1e41>.