This election season has brought to light a particularly virulent strain of fake news. It’s true that people promoting fake information is as old as time, but the internet has made it easy for anyone to create social media profiles and websites in order to post whatever they want under the guise of “journalism.” In a disturbing study by BuzzFeed, they found that fake election news outperformed legitimate news on Facebook. Apparently, this is the new normal for news.
The debate about this has unearthed important questions on how to deal with fake news. Is it protected speech? Or is it akin to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater? Everyone from The New York Times, CNN, BBC, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and others have voiced their concerns. In a piece in the New Yorker, reporter Nicholas Lemann examines how we combat the proliferation of fake news and brings up an interesting perspective on the role of government. Should we as a democratic society rely on the government to police what is and what isn’t news? Or is there a middle ground where we can institute reasonable regulation without making CNN feel like Russia-1? Does the slippery slope apply here?
Many sites have tried (and, in the case of Facebook, failed) to throw up their hands and say “this isn’t my problem, I’m just a platform” or “I am not the media – I am merely the technology.” It begs the question, what is media today? Long time media reporter Stuart Elliott examines that in a great piece for MediaVillage. He says, “there's the immeasurable influence of the Internet, and social media, which have leveled the playing field between actual and phony news outlets. The old saying "A cat can look at a king" can be recast: Thanks to technology, a Breitbart News can look at a New York Times, or a CNN, or a Time magazine.”
To be sure, just because you click on fake news, doesn’t make you a believer. How many times have you seen a delicious clickbaity headline that you just can’t resist? I know I’ve been guilty of that. But we must as consumers be judicious in how we consume information and who we give our precious “clicks” and “likes” to. Every time we click on a fake news story (even if it is just to get a laugh), we are lining the pockets of the phony news peddlers and telling them that there is indeed an appetite for this junk. Every click is a finger in the eye of legitimate news organizations with real reporters who do real and important work.
We as consumers can do more to drown out the “noise” of fake news. We can make sure that we are only sharing like-minded content from genuine sources. We can demand that products not give these sites their ad money. Kellogg’s pulled their ads from the conservative granddaddy of fake news Breitbart, and in turn Breitbart lost their marbles and declared war on the cereal maker (I think Kellogg’s hit a nerve, wouldn't you say?) So, while we can’t stop fake news, we can stop how we react to it.