No doubt just about everyone who has spent any time on social media
has experienced that special dread when a formerly beloved but
increasingly antagonistic relative deposits yet another steaming heap of
nonsense news on Facebook. A quick survey of the item suggests that it
is indeed another example of the fake news roiling social media and
contemporary U.S. political culture. Do you chime in and try to correct
the record? Or do you hit ignore and stay out of the rhetorical
Some can’t resist chiming in, often to their regret. These social media martyrs engage in a thankless public service that perhaps in a small way begins to address what is becoming a giant civic problem. If you think the insistent dissemination of fake news is a victimless crime, merely ruining family dinners across America, consider the recent wreckage produced by perhaps the greatest success in the genre’s short history.
The idea that dark forces
from Ukraine, not Russia, had infiltrated and subverted the 2016
election to support (apparently ineffectually) the losing candidate,
Hillary Clinton, has long been highlighted as fake news by the U.S.
intelligence and law enforcement communities. It is a crowning irony
that President Trump, a cunning manipulator of press perceptions and the
guy who helped popularize the catchphrase in the first place, proved to
be an eager consumer of some of the fakiest fake news out there—and,
more terrifying, was willing to make policy decisions based on it.
People of goodwill are free to argue over whether the president’s machinations in Kiev justify impeachment, but the president’s hook-line-and-sinker swallowing of this particular morsel of fake news should raise bipartisan concerns. The United States finds itself confronting an entirely new theater of war, where truth-like news items meant to sow chaos and division have been weaponized and deployed.
The national crisis in credulity suggests that instruction in media literacy and critical thinking must become core components of public education. While government and tech-media, one can only hope, convene to devise effective countermeasures to the fake news onslaught, the public can protect itself by maintaining some common-sense skepticism about news traveling at the speed of the internet.
Noting with some alarm that Oxford Dictionaries called post-truth its 2016 word of the year, members of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions put together a list of questions to ask and challenges to acknowledge in confronting fake news. Among them: Be aware of your own biases; read beyond the headlines; and audit the reliability of the reporter, author, or web content producer. Other sites offer lists of known purveyors of fake news or host fact-checking meant to skewer fake news before it goes viral. Sites like factcheck.org maintain updated lists of currently circulating fake news items.
A pretty solid case can be made that luxuriating in fake news and perpetuating it is an eighth-commandment breaker, a form of bearing false witness against a neighbor. Pope Francis specifically targeted fake news in a message for World Communications Day in 2018. “Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life,” the pope wrote, warning of the phenomenon’s less obvious threats.
He urged a “journalism of peace,” one that is “truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those—and they are the majority in our world—who have no voice.”
That’s as worthy an ambition as ever articulated for the news profession and a fine antidote to news fakery. You could check it out.