Since the election, there has been much concern about fake news — lurid, sensational, and fact-free stories circulating on the internet and amplified by social media — that might have helped Donald Trump win.
A disturbing incident on Sunday underscored the fact that fake news can threaten real people. A gunman opened fire in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant at the center of a bizarre and fictional conspiracy theory about a child sex ring purportedly run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign staffers. A North Carolina man was arrested on an assault charge. While no one was injured in the shooting, restaurant employees have endured weeks of harassment and threats related to so-called “Pizzagate.”
But is fake news a crisis that leaves us stranded in a “post-truth” world, as some journalists claim? Should the social media do more to prevent the spread of such fabrications or to warn people that a story they’re passing along might be false? Or should we let the news market decide?
Fake news is hardly new. Some 150 years ago, British preacher C.P. Spurgeon noted that “a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on” (a statement that, ironically, is often misreported as from Mark Twain). Of course, the internet has vastly increased the lie’s travel speed and minimized the power of gatekeepers. But it also has made it much easier to verify information and debunk hoaxes and fakes.
In the 1990s, when the internet was in its infancy and the social media were still unborn, Bill and Hillary Clinton were targets of widely circulated stories of heinous crimes, including murder. Before that, conspiracy theories claimed the U.S. government engineered the spread of AIDS. In 1964, the book “None Dare Call It Treason,” alleging widespread communist infiltration of American institutions, sold a million copies in six months.
Today, mainstream journalists are far more aware of fake news and hoaxes. Thirty years ago, you ran into occasional letters to newspapers or calls to radio shows from conspiracy theorists; today, they can berate you on Twitter. Whether there are really more of them is anyone’s guess.
What’s more, professional media are hardly blameless when it comes to fake news — often with an ideological slant. At a recent discussion of this issue with journalists, President Barack Obama praised Rolling Stone magazine’s reporting; the irony did not escape conservative critics, who pointed to Rolling Stone’s sensational 2014 story of a University of Virginia fraternity gang rape that didn’t happen. (Much like “Pizzagate,” the Rolling Stone rape hoax hurt innocent people: A fraternity house was vandalized.)
In the 1980s and ’90s, mainstream media promoted such discredited claims as 3 million homeless people in Ronald Reagan’s America and an epidemic of racist arson against black churches. Distrust of the media, particularly among conservatives, helps fake news peddlers.
How do we stem the tide of fake news? Having Twitter and Facebook flag certain links as fake stories would be too fraught with claims of bias — both from the right and from the non-establishment left. But perhaps media watchdog organizations with a genuine commitment to political diversity could begin to restore faith by checking facts. Such groups could also provide a much-needed model for overcoming ideological polarization.
As for the future, media literacy education that helps people evaluate the credibility of stories and sources should be an essential part of school curricula. But such programs, too, can only work if they make a good-faith effort to avoid partisan biases.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.