‘Fake News’ is repackaging an old debate
Today, we are told the death of journalism comes at the hands of social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter. According to this narrative, they are the primary vector spreading an “epidemic” of fabricated, misleading or conspiratorial stories.
In recent months, President Donald Trump frequently has derided outlets such as CNN, ABC, NBC and The New York Times as sources of “fake news,” charging them with false or unfair coverage. After declaring them “the enemy of the American People” on Twitter, he reiterated the charge on-stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Perhaps the apotheosis of his administration’s deteriorating relations with the press came last Saturday, when Trump announced he will skip this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This makes him the first president to skip the nearly century-old tradition since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan, of course, was recovering from a gunshot wound, which is a pretty good excuse.
In Trump’s defense, some of the stories he’s complaining about are false. But in most cases, what the president really means by “fake” is that the media are biased against him and incapable of fair coverage. Indeed, the American people seem to agree. According to a recent poll, registered voters find the Trump administration slightly more likely to tell the truth than reporters. Another poll revealed most people think the media are too hard on Trump.
Indeed, Republicans’ trust in the mainstream media (and independents, too) has been on the decline for decades. One poll last year found only 14 percent of Republicans said they trusted the media. Before it was called “fake news,” the common charge from conservatives was that “liberal media bias” was perpetrated by — in the immortal words of Sarah Palin — the “lame stream media.” There may be good cause for that suspicion. According to a 2014 study from Indiana University, only 7 percent of journalists identified as Republican, down from 18 percent in 2002.
But it’s not just conservatives who have a beef here. Before Trump picked up the term, many of the complaints about “fake news” in 2016 came from the other end of the political spectrum. Liberal pundits complained that fake news stories going viral on social media helped Trump win the election and were “undermining our democracy.”
Hillary Clinton called them a “danger that must be addressed.” Unlike Trump, when liberals talk about fake news, they are more likely to mean outright hoaxes and conspiracy theories, rather than bias. But when tasked to produce a list of unreliable news sites, the left nonetheless is prone to identify popular right-leaning publications like Breitbart, Red State and IJ Review.
Stuck in the middle are internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, who have been under rising pressure to be more aggressive about policing fake news and other misinformation. Mark Zuckerberg himself recognized the challenge, observing that “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated … we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth.”
Facebook did ultimately take action, announcing a deal in December to crowdsource identification of misleading stories to third-party fact-checkers like Snopes, PolitiFact and ABC. But the scheme has raised eyebrows in conservative circles, with a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling it an experiment likely to result in “judgments that are ideologically skewed.” Given past controversies over how sites like Facebook treat conservative content, it’s easy to understand the anxiety over attempts to “fix” the fake news problem.
But is fake news really that big of a deal? For all the attention it receives, social media may not be as important a news source as people assume. It’s true that, according to a 2016 study by Pew, 62 percent of Americans get news from social media. But only 12 percent of Americans said they did so often.
Another study by professors at Stanford and New York University echoed this, finding only 14 percent of people cited social media as their most important news source during the 2016 election. For fake news to have swayed the election, they conclude, a single fake news story would have to have had the persuasive power of 36 television campaign ads.
In the digital age, there’s no question that incentives have shifted. Rather than a few monolith television networks and daily newspapers setting the agenda for everyone with a dispassionate and nominally “objective” format, thousands of decentralized news sources — many with strong ideological leanings and disparate ethical standards — compete for clicks, ears and eyeballs. Even venerable publications like The Washington Post are not above publishing clickbait headlines and trivial stories to stay competitive.
We can’t escape our revealed preferences. Bias, sensationalism and gossip are what sells. Even if the controversy over fake news is overblown, there are real underlying concerns with declining trust in the media and the entrenched, polarized filter bubbles that cater to our prejudices. There are no easy solutions and it’s unlikely we can force a return to the mythical bygone age of objective reporting.
Rather, we may just have to accept that, in the words of H.L. Mencken, the people “know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
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