How we made the problem of fake news worse

Miranda Xiong, Staff Writer

Besides the excitement and anticipation surrounding the 2016 election, 2016 was also a year where a web phenomenon began sweeping social media, affecting many and suspected of affecting the somewhat controversial results of the election. This infamous, wide-reaching, and impacting phenomenon is known as fake news, and is a major problem plaguing the Internet. The modern-day media aggregates the circumstances, but the ignorance of the public only serves to spread fake news even further.

Fake news was also the subject of a talk presented by fact-checker and Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler, George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, and George Washington University political science professor Ethan Porter, hosted at Jefferson on Oct. 20. In the panel discussion that stretched both A and B 8th period blocks, they discussed the media’s role in exacerbating the problem of fake news, such as with failing to obtain primary sources and “jumping the gun” to publish articles immediately after major events where information may be subject to change. Though I agree with the panelists that the media must learn to improve the quality of news, I think the problem of fake news lies more in the consumer — the reader — rather than the media. The reader, who used to act as a watchdog, has now turned a blind eye to this responsibility.

When asked about how to look for factually correct information, Hanson advised looking for the timestamp on articles to avoid material published immediately after a major event occurred, in case facts of the event were subject to change. Kessler brought up the Las Vegas shooting’s media coverage as an example — the timeline was revised multiple times, due to the fact that the initial timelines were all reported on by eyewitnesses, sources who were not actually involved in the shooting. This led to another point Kessler stressed — the importance of obtaining information from the scene, or documented evidence, instead of simply reporting information heard, because the situation is usually different or “much worse than you think it is.”

Constantly fluctuating stories and questionable sources are definitely factors that influence the validity of published material, and lead to different takes on the truth. However, the bigger idea at hand is the purpose of media in the first place.The media produces new articles every day. The articles are put on a website, blog, or in print, and what do they do? Nothing, except wait to be read. Therefore, the responsibility to choose the factual articles out of a huge selection belongs to the ones who choose to read the articles — us.

The current state of we, the people, is in a state of political polarization, Hanson says. The population is currently fragmented into groups of people that share similar interests with each other, but are not interested in interacting with other groups. What’s the cause of this great divide? There are many causes, actually, but the main one is politics; yet again, politics has managed to worm itself into a field where it does not necessarily belong.  

Porter brought up the point that strictly partisan news should be “read with a grain of salt,” since these articles typically leave out truths. Porter also introduced a monstrous, potentially dangerous idea overarching America right now — that people will accept facts, but these facts do not affect support or change people’s stances. This means that you can bludgeon a Republican with all the facts in favor of Democratic ideals on the Internet, but the Republican is unlikely to budge, despite acknowledging the truths presented. The action of passively intaking truths and not absorbing them makes it so that no one will actually act upon truth, and that party lines may never disappear. As Hanson said, “We like to think we’re different because we want to be different.”

2016 was,for sure, not the first time fake news hit the country. “Yellow journalism” was a type of news back in the early 20th century that spurned sensational, overly exaggerated headlines. The modern day equivalent may sound more familiar – tabloid journalism, which blows up celebrity news, gossip columns and other junk news. But if fake news has existed for such a long time, why have we never taken action before? It’s not as if tabloids don’t disrupt society – the Globe Magazine once spread rumors that the deceased Princess Diana had a secret daughter, which certainly stirred up discussion. It is only when fake news is news that the whole country has a personal interest in, that the population starts demanding reforms to social media. However, doesn’t this mean that other news is simply disregarded as less important? Therefore, by doing this, we leave the vast majority of news exposed to the attack and distortion of fake news, spreading the problem even further before we realize it. We put our personal interests in higher priority than the truth.

Most of us can recognize that fake news needs to go. Unfortunately, instead of engaging first-hand in the effort to remove fake news, we sit back, kick our feet up and let companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter do the work for us, only to blame them later when we see fake news in our feed or search results. Yes, fake news looks like regular news and it’s not always easy to pick out the truths, but the main problem in stopping the threat is our lack of taking responsibility for poor social media literacy. The panelists at Friday’s talk suggested several methods to avoid fake news in social media, such as diversifying your social media feed to include material from all sides of the political spectrum, checking article timestamps, and asking people who were personally involved with news events about what actually happened.

The public should actively ensure that they do not absorb or advocate for fake news in order to stop its spread.. The First Amendment imposes the power to express or read anything we want; however, with this great power comes great responsibility. If we continue to digest and believe the guise of fake news, the truth will only have a harder and harder time catching up to the lie.