Our appetite for fake news does real harm to U.S. democracy

Was a report that Pope Francis had endorsed the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, enough to lock down your vote on Election Day? Maybe you changed your mind after hearing that the  pope had endorsed the  Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton? Were you startled to learn that Wikileaks “confirmed” that Secretary of State Clinton put U.S. weapons into the hands of Islamic State terrorists? If so, well, you have been had by fake news, and you were likely not alone this past November.

Pew researchers report that more than 60 percent of adults in the United States now use social media for some or even most of their news consumption. That viral spike of false reporting at the end of the race is a grave concern. A well-informed voting public is an essential component of a functioning democracy.

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No version of the truth about the 2016 election will be complete without some attention to the outsized influence of fake news. Conspiracy theories and fabricated news stories were shared wildly by partisans across the social mediascape. But in the crucial final three months of the campaign, according to Buzzfeed News, such digital tall tales actually surpassed mainstream news sources in readership.

With citizen distrust of mainstream media at an all-time high, more people are getting their daily news from these mutant sources. Some are click-bait websites that produce profitable bursts of web viewers with baldly manufactured stories. Others have more demonstrated staying power but have not matured much beyond ideological ranting thinly veneered as news reporting.

The fundamentals of basic journalism are not practiced at such outlets. Facebook's algorithms are designed to keep eyeballs on content and increase active users. That profit-driven goal is coming into a critical conflict with the medium’s role as an information outlet for a wide swath of Americans. Site visitors end up with highly distorted news that is often little more than a near-fact or two wrapped up in yards of speculation and conspiracy-spinning. Yet judging from miles of comments on Facebook and Twitter feeds, too many voting citizens accept content emerging from these sources as actual reporting.

The much derided mainstream media is not without bias or flaws, and it has gotten some big stories completely wrong. The 2016 election is itself a standout example. Though imperfections will persist, professional journalists hate to get their facts wrong.

That is not the case at anti-news outlets. Their ascendancy can no longer be treated as a passing cultural fad or a more or less harmless entertainment. What happens in the media’s Bizarro World does not stay there; it informs decisions made by voters and can even encourage hurtful policy.

Many fact-checking and meme-vanquishing sites have arisen alongside the ideological news site phenomenon, and they are welcome. But the truth-trackers are only as effective as the number of people who bother to read them. Something like a Charity Navigatorfor the media seems warranted, a transparently managed site that rates the integrity of news outlets.

In the aftermath of the election, Twitter and Facebook executives acknowledged that their algorithms, designed to surface the stories users are most likely to engage with regardless of accuracy, have been at times a public disservice. The social media giants took measures to isolate or remove some purveyors of fake news, but the industry needs to do much more to combat the dissemination of fake news at the source.

That self-policing is not without hazards. Parody and satire sites could be vulnerable to over-enthusiastic self-regulation. Calling for government intervention would also be an unwholesome development. Ultimately it will be up to individual members of the body politic to better police their personal newscape. Is the nation’s education system helping them do that? Considering the enveloping presence of traditional, digital and social media in contemporary life, media literacy should be part of the core, ongoing instruction from elementary school up.

Fraternal corrections from friends and family should discourage the tendency of many to push along “news” without checking the source. Remember your Facebook account is not exempt from the Eighth Commandment, even when you are only bearing false witness by hitting the forward command.

Rumor-mongering and the spreading of false, ruinous tales have been among the basket of deplorables often cited by Pope Francis. Early in his papacy he admonished the church to avoid such occasions of sin. “Calumny destroys the work of God in people, in their souls,” he said. “Calumny uses lies to get ahead,” Do not doubt, he warned, that “where there is calumny, there is Satan himself.”

This time he is just working a keyboard.

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Luis Gutierrez
1 year ago
Our appetite for fake news is proportional to our appetite to hear what we want to hear. This is what most fake news are about, because people tend to filter out what they don't want to hear. "My country first, make my country great again" is what people want to hear when they want to hear "Me first, make me great again." Trump is the personification of patriarchy, "me first, my country first." Is this what Christianity is about? Is Christ, the crucified king, a patriarch? In the ultimate analysis, the fundamental calamity we are facing, in the USA and in the entire world, is the patriarchal culture of domination/subordination, which is pervasive not only in male/female relations but in all human/human and human/nature relations. This is the fundamental issue facing humanity, how to transition from patriarchy to a more inclusive and sustainable culture. As long as the Church remains patriarchal, she is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Laudato Si' calls for a bold cultural revolution (#114). I understand that Pope Francis cannot walk on water, but as long as ecclesiastical patriarchy remains, it is hard to see how we can credibly preach about the nefarious social and ecological effects of secular patriarchy. Charitable initiatives are commendable, but there is no way in the world that the ecological crisis can be resolved within the boundaries of the patriarchal culture.
Lisa Weber
1 year ago
Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to sort the news on electronic media for reliability. I think most people know that the tabloids at the check stand are unreliable as a source of news, but they do not have a way to recognize the unreliable on TV or radio, and certainly not on the internet.
Richard Booth
1 year ago
Relying on fake news (read: lies), slogans, cliches, and unsupported gossip is the easy and anti-intellectual way to clear up cognitive confusion. For those who know little and wish to study even less, these are handy tools that tell them how to think and behave. The greater the number of these types in the group, the more support they provide each other for accepting non-thoughts and even inane notions. When people talked with me about the person they were supporting in the presidential election, what I heard were platitudes and sloganisms. No thought required. Concrete information-processing. Life is either black or white; a combination of the two is far too challenging and complex.
E.Patrick Mosman
12 months ago
"professional journalists hate to get their facts wrong." Really!! First one must specify what defines and who are "professional" journalists. Are by-lined MSM reporters who include only one side of a topic or include opinions considered "professional"? Are the nightly national news readers at ABC/CBS/NBC/ CNN/et al who, for example, reported only their own station's poll result favorable to one side while failing to report on two national polls which had different and actually correct results acting professionally?Were they spreading false tales? It isn't necessary to report rumors or false tales to be guilty of providing fake or false information but to mix opinion with questionable "facts" or fail to report actual facts is also sinful.
J Cosgrove
12 months ago
America, the magazine, is guilty of false news propagation or maybe since it is mainly an opinion site, it is guilty of propagating false impressions through its opinion pieces. But whether it is false news or false impressions the result is a false perception in reader's minds as a result. For example, during the last presidential campaign there were numerous articles on this site accusing Paul Ryan of cutting benefits for the poor. But these were not true. Yet this did not stop authors from repeating these lies. Ryan wanted to cut back part of the increases in poverty programs in the future and current benefits were far greater per person than under Bill Clinton who said it was enough. Not even close to cutting back benefits. They were going to increase just not as fast as Democrats wanted them to increase. But Paul Ryan was made an ogre. Another example in this election cycle by America and nearly all of the mainstream media was the publicizing of articles about the Black Lives Matter movement. None of the articles in the mainstream media and America looked at this movement's claims and what was fueling it. It was nearly all based on lies or gross distortions and as a result of these lies/distortions, policemen have died. So what is the result of such journalism? Wrong perceptions in the population and these perceptions affect lives of policemen and others as well as perceptions that affect voting patterns. Most of the lies in the media are the result of not publishing all the facts and the spreading of memes that are false and thus giving them credence. The main way this is done is by not covering various incidents or situations or covering them very selectively so they either are not covered at all or not covered honestly. Very often the lie or false perception is the result of what is intentionally held back.
Tom Maher
11 months 3 weeks ago
Kellyanne Conway, Trump's senior campaign manager, at the post-election review forum at Harvard Kennedy School of Government this week said the fakest news of the 2016 election was the headline news produced by the main stream media that with few exceptions repeated that Donald Trump can't win. Polling data by mainstream media such as a ABC poll showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump by a fantastic 14 points less than two weeks before the election. Only the Los Angeles Times and one other less known poll showed Trump consistently ahead with electoral college votes. This system-wide mainstream media election outcome prediction that Trump could not win was not corrected until election results were more fully tallied the day after the election which showed Trump with a very commanding lead over Hillary Clinton in electoral college votes. The final result tabulated weeks later was Trump had 306 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton 232 electoral college votes. Trump won in 30 states. The main stream media entirely failed to prepare the public for the large Trump victory that was about to take place. Accordingly the public was shocked and completely unprepared for what actually happened. The Trump's win in 30 states resulted from Trump voters completely disregarding the main stream media's polling predictions, endorsements and numerous editorial criticisms against Trump. Political analysis warned that there was a hidden Trump vote not being properly reported by the main stream media. The election results speak for themselves. Conspicuously the results showed there was a very large economic issue of general job and income security that converted blue state voters into Trump voters. The widespread national voting pattern for Trump was based on real and deeply felts economic issues that Trump fully addressed and Clinton did not. Clinton took for granted once again that blue states Democrats would automatically vote for her because she was the Democratic nominee without her addressing the deeply felt economic concerns of so many citizens nationwide. The nation needs to have full accurate coverage of the election and open forums of opinion of what is really going on in the minds of the voting public. The media needs to be reminded that the nation is a democracy. What is going on in the minds of the voting public is more important to know than the insulated opinions of media and establishment elites who to a person said Trump could not and should not win. The voters however wanted Trump for President. Lincoln's quote on fooling the public still holds today: "You can fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all the people all the time."
L J
11 months 3 weeks ago
"The fundamentals of basic journalism are not practiced at such outlets. " The fundamentals of Basic Moral Values (BMV) are not practiced in America culture anymore. Pick an industry, any industry, and the violations in BMV are palpable. Ethics in banks? Moral values in health care? women murder lives under the lie of rights? Catholic universities routinely host vehemently anti-Catholic leaders (e.g. Cecile Richards)? Assassins (e.g. Fidel Castro) are pictured on tshirts and defended as heroes? Stop crying about fake news in an industry that sold its soul (if it ever had one) decades ago. It isnt just one industry that has lapsed judgement but a people. When will we pay attention to the Holy Father's prophetic messages just as prophetic as Popes Paul VI, JPII, B16? The answer, as Pope Francis states weekly, is each of being a culture of encounter, each of us being the hands and feet, being a pencil of God, seeing Christ in each other in the streets, our families, neighborhoods, churches, markets ....mano a mano, not on keyboards, 24/7 news headlines or text news alerts....these are all fake and lacking in any intellectual rigor never mind BMV To wit: "Washington Post writer says Trump is not Hitler, compares him to Hitler anyway | Washington Examiner" http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/wapo-writer-says-trump-is-not-hitler-then-compares-him-to-hitler/article/2608953 Stop pretending our culture is well save a few bad apples / deplorables here and there. The problem isnt an obscure isolated people or industry. Its the culture stupid. We are rotten to the core. We are all in desperate need of metanoia Advent is here and a great place to start! Vamos!

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