One of the most pervasive terms to come out of the contentious 2016 election is also one which harms the integrity of the truth itself: fake news. The concept of fake news has only recently entered the mainstream discussion, but the idea actually has deep roots in shady journalism and authoritarian regimes throughout history. It is disturbing enough that a large portion of the country believes the mainstream media is the "enemy of the people," but the recent shooting at the Capital Gazette also drives home the deep anger and mistrust that people have with some news outlets. Though the individual incident at the Gazette appears to have been motivated by a personal grudge, many who decry the "mainstream media" now support allowing the president the ability to shut down news organizations. The phenomenon of "fake news" and media distrust is one of the most insidious challenges facing American democracy today, so let's discuss it this week.
What actually is fake news? The real definition of fake news is not that of stories which may appear somewhat biased or portray someone in a negative light. Fake news refers to stories that are completely untrue and are usually used for political, cultural, or social manipulation. This is a real problem, as foreign nations or other nefarious internal actors push these stories on social media (where journalistic integrity is removed from the equation). It's true that some news organizations accidentally publish fake news, but a few organizations are actively masquerading as news outlets to intentionally push these stories. This is a major problem that impacts our preception of the truth itself, particularly in social media spheres around the world.
What is it not? It is not propaganda. Propaganda is used by authoritarian regimes (and their media outlets) to push their own political agendas. They publish only their politically approved stories, constantly attack other news sources, and use fear and emotion (rather than facts and logic) to bring their audience to a predetermined conclusion. A prominent example is the Russian propaganda outlet "Russia Today" (RT). True independent journalism is not propaganda. Independent media organizations use verified sources, objective facts, and independent analysis to inform the public about critical events. If your news outlet of choice spends more time yelling than discussing, you're probably being manipulated, not informed.
What else is not fake news? It's not unflattering or negative coverage about a particular person or ideology. The president constantly calls news organizations "fake news" simply because they tend to run stories critical of the president. (Which it's hard to blame the media for this when he consistently calls them an "enemy of the people.") Sure, they don't always get some stories exactly right, but most articles from mainstream sites are nearly always based on facts and can be corroborated by other sources. They don't knowingly publish conspiracy theories.
What the president and his propaganda outlets are engaged in essentially boils down to a form of information warfare. They deride any news that they don't control, constantly pushing a conspiracy theory that only their version of the truth is correct. From there, it's not hard to convince their audience that conflicting narratives should be silenced. After all, if theirs is the true and patriotic reality, anything else is sedition. Is it any wonder that more and more alt-right individuals are advocating for censorship against mainstream media outlets?
Before you discount my views entirely, its important to make one thing very clear. There are other, smaller organizations on the American left that are equally guilty of false and sensationalist reporting. But they do not have the reach, nor the political clout that Fox News does today. Fox News was specifically engineered to push a conservative agenda. Whereas traditional news organizations like the Washington Post and New York Times may lean more towards the left, this is more often the result of personal bias on behalf of its writers and employees rather than a top-down decision to publish only that which supports liberal views. Notice which organizations constantly use fear and emotion, rather than factual analysis to push their stories. Good news organizations tell you what is happening, bad ones tell you how you should feel about what is happening.
History has borne witness to this tragic story countless times. Russia, China, and many other state controlled media follow this same playbook. Now this is being attempted in the United States. Everyone should be concerned with fake news being pushed in America by other nations. Even if you support the policy positions of those who attack the media, you should still want to see your positions backed up by thoughtful analysis and objective facts. The phenomenon of foreign interference in our news media is the ultimate breach of national sovereignty. It is the sovereignty of our own ideas that is at stake here. Despite our 1st amendment protections, it CAN happen here. But it wouldn't take the form of state mandated censorship, at least not at first. Instead, much like the doomed society in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, people will simply become disillusioned and confused to the point where they turn off entirely. Then, it's only the louder and more interesting narrative that wins out.