Fake news has been a hot topic for both the mainstream and independent media in the past two months. What is it, exactly? No one really knows. Much has been said about the nature of fake news, along with its specific definition, real-life consequences, and how we should go about avoiding the negative effects it may cause.
The most obvious form of fake news are news stories that are simply untrue, but there is a spectrum. On one far end, you have contrived stories made with the intentional purpose of selling a fake headline. But any individual or organization putting out fake story after fake story are easily discredited, attract small crowds, and do not survive long. On the other end, you have largely accurate stories with one or two minor, flawed details. This means that anyone ready to accuse a media outlet of publishing ‘fake news’ will do so at the first instance of flawed reporting.
Various contentions have been made regarding the potential influence fake news can have on the world. A popular example of these real-life consequences comes from the fake “Pizzagate” instance. On Sunday, December 4, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch showed up armed to a pizza place where he was investigating a fake news story which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring through the restaurant. This incident began with a fake news story, and lives were put in danger. There were more speculations which went as far as to say that fake news changed the outcome of the election, that because people believed fake news stories about Hillary Clinton, she lost the election. Whether or not fake news could have this far-reaching of an effect on a well-informed public is debated, but it does not change the fact that fake news can have extensive consequences. So people are wondering what to do about it.
Facebook and Google have already been reported by the New York Times to be taking steps to combat fake news by blocking certain sites. The danger here is that, because so many people get their news through these resources, the elites at Facebook and Google become the gatekeepers in what information is published and what isn’t. Who gets to decide what is fake news and what isn’t? This is up to the editors of each individual news agency. Freedom of the press is vital to the integrity of a well-informed democracy, and although fake news can have dire consequences, implementing gatekeepers that decide what information the vast majority of the population will access is dangerous if the wrong gatekeeper finds him or herself in that position.
The whole issue of fake news gets at the idea that discerning what is and is not true is becoming increasingly difficult. What we need to recognize is that vicious individuals who choose to contrive and spread largely false rumors are rare, and that it is up to the reader to investigate any information they come across, regardless of whether it comes from Harvard or an independent Youtuber. Check your facts, acknowledge your biases, always argue against the viewpoints you would prefer to believe, and refer to multiple sources- the more, the merrier. If we can do that, fake news will only be dangerous to the few individuals who have not been told to think critically or who to those who simply refuse to in the first place.
Photo Credit: BBC