Fake News: It's Just So Un-Civil

The subject of civility couldn’t be more relevant to the times we live in.

Civility to me means respecting the dignity of all individuals. I keep a favorite quote up from Mark Twain on my computer screen: “It’s never wrong to do the right thing.” 

But today there’s a phenomenon that puts everything to the test, that raises the question of whether civility has run its course. The phenomenon is fake news: deliberate fabrications disguised as real reporting that are broadcast or appear on the Web or circulate through social media and gain a credulous audience.

They can mislead a lot of people — and, in far too many cases, poison public opinion.

We find this appalling. But fake news has been around for a very long time. In the presidential election of 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson hit each other with especially inventive fabrications.  Adams, said one report, was secretly planning to attack France, while Jefferson was the son of a “half-breed squaw.”    Even back then, fake news shared a similarity with fake news today:that it’s often crazy and racist.



The bogus claims that gain the widest acceptance are the ones that play into already existing opinions and prejudices.

The New York Times reported on a young man who last September fabricated a story about fraudulent Hillary Clinton ballots being discovered in an Ohio warehouse.  A fake photo was attached of a worker with crates labeled “ballot boxes.”  It turned out there wasn’t a word of truth in it.  But once the story hit the Web, it was posted on Facebook and retweeted countless times.  

Fake news isn’t generated by only one side of the political spectrum. Another picture widely circulated during the campaign showed young Donald Trump standing with his parents, both wearing photoshopped Ku Klux Klan robes.

So how do we as a civil society deal with a phenomenon that’s expanded and accelerated by the reach and speed of digital media?

There are no quick and easy answers. We’ll never stamp it out completely.  But there are steps we can take.

One is to reaffirm our commitment to civility as a public virtue.  When more people show more respect for one another — even across deep political and social and religious divides — fake news is going to fall on less fertile ground.

Another way is to make teaching about civics in our schools as essential as math, science and engineering. Civics class is where young people learn about the values that define us as a nation, and the standards that they, as good citizens, should uphold.

Many major communications schools, like The Newhouse School at Syracuse University, where I’m on the board of advisors, are requiring that students take an ethics course.

Finally, the media has a pivotal role in countering fake news — made far more difficult because we’ve suffered a massive loss of public confidence in the past 40 years.
In 1976, according to Gallup, 72% of Americans had faith in the mass media. Today, it’s 32% – the lowest ever recorded.

We in the media need to see this not as a reason to be demoralized, but as a historic challenge to raise our game.
It’s an uphill struggle when media revenues shrink sharply as customers and advertisers migrate online.  Newspapers have been hardest hit.  The number of reporters available to fact-check fake news stories is down dramatically.

This cannot be an excuse.  It just means that content organizations must redouble their efforts to practice solid, old-fashioned journalism and deep reporting.  To quote Forbes’ Chief Product Office Lewis D’Vorkin, we need to “focus, focus on quality journalism:  great reporting, great editing and sound analytic argument.”

Taming this fake news phenomenon, which misleads and poisons public opinion; healing the wounds in our society; and bridging the partisan divide that paralyzes our government — these are among the chief challenges that face us as a nation.  Our future rests on our ability to confront them.

1 comment about "Fake News: It's Just So Un-Civil".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, March 8, 2017 at 2:38 p.m.

    Well-done, Mr. Perlis.

    And how convenient that one of the most tragic victims of fake news jumped right in with two comments.  

Next story loading loading..