The year 2016 was an awful year and yes, in part, because we were confronted with our own mortality by the abrupt and premature deaths of our pop culture icons. However, more importantly, 2016 was an awful year because America’s populace was more uniformed than we’ve ever been; not because we do not have enough information, but because we have too much information. In an age where cable TV news is 24/7 and newspapers are being replaced by instantaneous digital news, it is easy to see how Americans are more prone to reading and accepting what has become known as “fake news” as actual news.
The concept of fake news has only recently been introduced into the American vernacular but it has existed in the deepest recesses of the Internet for years. However, it took the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the events thereafter for us to examine the role that fake news played in the outcome of the election and in our culture as a nation. Sites like ‘usuncut,’ ‘The Free Thought Project,’ and ‘Bipartisan Report’ have been shared, ‘tweeted,’ and posted across timelines and news feeds everywhere. Americans ought to ask ourselves: why have we come to accept verifiably false and discredited sources as valid outlets for serious news stories and information?
To answer this question, we can point to the distrust that Americans have in established institutions such as the mainstream media and the political class. Americans have lost faith in the mainstream media and some have sought to obtain information from places outside its sphere of influence. This distrust in mainstream news organizations spans across the political spectrum and members of the populist movements on both the right and the left have come to view these alternate news sources as a way to validate their already previously held views and beliefs. Some in these movements have also found emotional comfort by discovering others who they consider ideologically compatible to themselves in these online hubs and therefore, they have gravitated towards fake news even more. As a result, their political positions have become emotionally charged with discredited news sources as the cushion to support them.
Another plausible explanation for America’s fondness for fake news is that we as citizens are simply not doing our homework. The hustle and bustle of daily life in combination with the availability of instant news has made it more difficult for the casual observer to distinguish what is real news and what is fake news. Fake news stories are often shared and reposted without the contents being read or viewed simply because they validate a pre-existing viewpoint in a fast and efficient way. The trouble is that many Americans are unconsciously contributing to both the ignorance and division that exists in our country today by giving these “news” outlets a large and unwitting audience.
The narratives pushed by fake news sources don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, operatives at the highest levels of our political echelons have embraced them and as such, have promoted them as legitimate news. During the campaign, Donald Trump regularly cited fake news sources, often from overtly racist sources such as the Ku Klux Klan’s web page. The President-Elect’s national security advisor to be, General Michael Flynn and his son actively promoted a demonstrably false news story involving a phony pedophilia ring operated by the owner of ‘Comet’ pizzeria in Washington D.C., Hillary Clinton, and other Democratic Party leaders. This story was, of course, erroneous but that did not stop a gunman from driving six hours from his home to ‘Comet’ pizzeria and firing shots nearly injuring customers and passersby in response to this fake news story.
Hillary Clinton referenced this incident in a speech at the capitol last month when she stated that the spread of fake news not only played a role in the outcome of our election but that “lives are at risk” because of it. Now that this issue has been brought to the forefront of our national discourse, the question is: what do we do now? We could all start with changing our own habits by being more selective about which news sources to rely on for information but also in how we approach news sources and individuals that have different views than we have.
First, we as Americans, have to start doing our homework. We have to start looking beyond the scope of our social media accounts for our news and verify that the stories we read and post are indeed true and can be proven by objective, empirical evidence. How do we do this? If the story is true, it will be confirmed and written about by credible news sources such as the Associated Press. If that doesn’t happen, the story is false. Let’s also start looking for implicit and obvious biases in our news. Stories from ‘Breitbart’ have an alt right slant that is made obvious by reading the first two words in most of their headlines and the same can be said for sources with a left leaning tilt. That should be a factor which informs how we confirm the veracity of our news.
Second, we should work to change our responses and reactions to our fellow citizens and institutions that have different views than we have. The purpose of engaging in political discourse is the hope of convincing those we engage with of the validity of our perspective. That goal cannot be achieved if we only listen with the intent to respond rather than truly hearing out a different point of view. The lifeblood of fake news comes from well meaning Americans with strongly held beliefs that wish to validate them immediately (often in a long winded Facebook discussion with an ideologically opposite friend) without confirming the credibility of the source. Even when we hold strong to our principles and beliefs, we ought to have an open mind and look at important issues from different perspectives. This would both increase the civility of our discourse and combat the swath of false information floating in cyberspace.
This year is bound to be one that is unpredictable with changes to our country, government, and culture that will be both swift and merciless. There is bound to be even more misinformation in the age of Donald Trump. It is up to us to combat the changing tide, which was elevated by misinformation, with discussion and discourse supported by facts. We saw in 2016 what happens when large groups of people act on emotion and information from questionable sources. Let’s show that we have learned our lesson heading into this New Year.