To hear the media talk, you’d think that fake news was something unleashed by their nemesis Mark Zuckerberg, who also always seems to be plotting their eventual demise.
But fake news has a long and disreputable history in American journalism. The earliest newspapers were controlled by the Founding Fathers, who printed lies and half-truths about each other (go see “Hamilton” for the details). Fake news (“Remember the Maine!”) led to the Spanish-American War.
Journalism supposedly cleaned up its act in the 20th century, and has been posing as the great purveyor of neutral, nonpartisan, essential news reporting for decades. But somehow, even in the pre-Internet world, this didn’t stop the spread of very dubious stories, such as the canard that FDR allowed the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor despite being tipped off ahead of time, or more recently, that Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster. To say nothing about ongoing conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Compared to those stories, an alleged child sex ring in a pizza parlor is small potatoes.
And speaking of child sex rings, remember the media hysteria several decades ago about satanic sex rings in day-care centers, or the supposed outbreak of child kidnappings in the 1980s, both of which have since been disproved? The mainstream media, especially television, were complicit in perpetuating that fake news. And, again, that was before Facebook.
The mainstream media would probably dispute that their worst journalistic blunders should be classified as fake news because at least they were trying to uncover the truth, no matter how imperfectly. Actual fake news, as properly understood, is news made up out of whole cloth with no regard for the truth at all.
How then are we supposed to categorize the biggest journalistic blunder of 2015, Rolling Stone’s report about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity? This was a huge national story that caused colleges across the country to crack down on fraternities. And then it turned out to have been made up out of, um, whole cloth. If the Rolling Stone story wasn’t fake news, I don’t know what is — and yet there was President Obama himself appearing on the Rolling Stone cover immediately after the election, as if nothing had ever happened!
And let’s not forget NBC’s 1993 phony exploding GM truck story, supposedly demonstrating that GM trucks explode upon collision. In that case NBC set off explosive miniature rockets beneath the truck just before the crash. Or what about ABC’s stories about the since-disproved Toyota “sudden acceleration” controversy? To make its coverage more dramatic, ABC spliced footage of a surging tachometer into a segment with ABC reporter Brian Ross driving a supposedly out-of-control car.
The media’s chief complaint about what they call fake news is that it’s spread on Facebook and Twitter with no editorial control to screen out the most egregiously inaccurate stories. Of course it would be almost impossible for any social media platform to confirm what’s true or not true on social media, so Facebook recently announced that it would be flagging content that seemed dubious according to the judgment of mainstream fact-checkers.
Scapegoating Facebook as a purveyor of fake news is the kind of mind-meld media pile-on that occurs all too often. Some call the media a “hive.” Others have talked about their “herd mentality.” Whatever metaphor you want to use from the animal kingdom, it’s clear they’re in a bubble — or maybe it’s an echo chamber.
You have to wonder if these reporters ever used Facebook for anything other than promoting their personal brand. The thing about Facebook is that it’s been full of fake news since day one. The whole point of social media is to present a highly curated, idealized version of your life. Half of the heart-warming videos that people share about generous subway musicians or ball girls making amazing catches are eventually outed as fake. Obvious satirical pieces are accepted as real.
But does that make any difference? Studies have repeatedly shown that people don’t form their opinions after carefully weighing the facts. Instead they form opinions and then believe the “facts” that back them up, while dismissing the ones that don’t. If there’s one voter in America who was planning to vote for Clinton but changed his mind and voted for Trump after reading on Facebook that he’d been endorsed by the Pope, I’d like to meet him.
Far more influential than a post on Facebook that takes about 30 seconds to read are the hours and hours that people spend watching cable news. It’s pretty rich for MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who’s told some serious whoppers of his own, to complain about fake news on a network that can make no serious claim to impartiality. The news networks gave Donald Trump $2 billion in free publicity — but now they blame some Reddit-inspired posts for his election? Give me a break.