Americans should indeed be concerned about “fake news” but not for the reason you think.
Defeated Democrats have increasingly whipped up fears of made-up media stories since the election. Bruised and battered, they hint that Donald Trump was not elected by a country fed up with stagnant wages and liberal baloney but rather because voters swallowed a lot of lies and belched up Republican votes.
Even the Pope is on board. Just last week His Holiness called out the dissemination of false stories by the media as a grievous sin, and likened the practice to coprophilia, or an “abnormal interest and pleasure in feces and defecation.” (One wonders how Pope Francis learned of such a rare affliction.) Moreover, the Pontiff said in the Belgian Catholic periodical Tertio that publishing false stories is “probably the greatest damage that the media can do.”
That’s tough talk from gentle Francis, but his remarks dovetail a growing left-wing chorus of lamentation. President Obama has tagged “fake news” as being in part responsible for the election of Donald Trump and was described by one interviewer as being obsessed by the topic. Meanwhile, the vanquished Hillary Clinton denounced the scourge at her first post-defeat appearance on Capitol Hill and demanded action.
“The epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year — it’s now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” Clinton said, clearly hinting that it wasn’t her actual deficiencies as a candidate that lost her the election, but rather manufactured ones.
When you hear the same theme repeatedly from the ever-organized Left, there’s cause for concern. Americans should indeed worry – not so much about the gullibility of the country in believing fake news items, but about the growing suggestion that “It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly,” as Hillary said.
How would Hillary “address” the supposed spread of “fake news”? Maybe by shutting down internet sites that carry “false” stories? By making it easier to prosecute slander? (Trump talked about that on the campaign trail; will Hillary pick up the threat?) By penalizing organizations that carry news items that turn out to be untrue?
Be careful, because that could quickly lead to censorship. When Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg promises to work “with third parties, helping to label false news, doing the things we can do to make it clearer what’s a hoax on Facebook” our antennae should quiver. Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, is seeking a patent for an “automated technology” that can identify ‘fake news’ – as well as remove hate speech, porn and other objectionable material from the site.
That sounds reasonable until we remember that Facebook was accused earlier this year of manipulating its “trending topics” chart to diminish conservative news stories. CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied the charge, but some wonder, since reportedly he fired the team responsible for the listings.
To alert her students to widespread false news, an assistant communications professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts published a list of news outlets that she considered untrustworthy. The list has since been taken down, but it attracted a great deal of attention since it includes satirical sites like The Onion (are her students really that clueless?) as well as right-wing outlets like The Blaze and Breitbart while omitting some left-wing sites like the Daily Kos. Like any good political Rorschach test, everyone found something not to like in Ms. Zimdars’ list.
When lists are published and algorithms employed to weed out bad actors, there is every opportunity for malicious meddling. Who gets to determine what is “fake news”? Stories about Hillary Clinton’s health problems were “fake” until the nation saw a video of the former First Lady collapsing into her van. In August a story ran on the site RedState calling out Hillary’s “low energy” and “coughing fits” and some odd behavior which led to speculation that she “is likely not all there.” The Washington Post dubbed this and similar pieces “conspiracy stories” and lamented that the media was forced to cover them.
Had Clinton’s collapse not been caught on tape, would the country ever have been briefed on her pneumonia? Under Hillary Clinton’s vision of a crackdown on “fake news” would RedState have been punished for publishing their concerns, or could I get in trouble for asking that question?
There’s a fine line between damping down politically unwelcome stories and smothering legitimate investigative reporting. For sure, there have been numerous instances of biased reporting – on the left and the right, and there have been plenty of “fake” stories circulated by a credulous press. When Hillary falsely said that the Benghazi attacks on our compound were instigated by an anti-Muslim video, she was spreading “fake news.” Thankfully, Americans soon learned the truth of the matter.
There is no question that the spread of social media has enabled nearly anyone to concoct a politically helpful news item and put it before the American people. It is also true that the country increasingly goes online to find out what’s happening. In part, that is because people have lost confidence in the mainstream media. In September, Gallup reported that trust in the media had sunk to an all-time low.
Why are people so down on the mainstream press? A new Harvard study shows that, just as many of us thought, coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign across most major news outlets was overwhelmingly negative. Not surprisingly, that bias undermined those outfits’ credibility. (In fairness, coverage of Hillary was pretty dour as well.)
Instead of assembling a worrisome mechanism for revealing and filtering “fake news” perhaps news organizations could mount a serious effort to return to fact-based reporting. The New York Times could take the lead, reversing their extraordinary abandonment of impartiality in the recent election. Sadly, with the paper having just hired Politico’s Glenn Thrush – a self-proclaimed “hack” for Hillary Clinton who famously ran his stories about her campaign by John Podesta for approval – to cover the Trump White House, a fairer presentation of the news seems unlikely.
Attracting readers back to legitimate newspapers and channels is as good a weapon against the spread of “fake news” as controversial filters. Unhappily, our liberal news organizations may not be up to the task.