Fake news. “Alternative” facts. Welcome to the age of Trump.
There is no generally accepted definition of “fake news,” and no bright line separating it from the increasing proliferation of propaganda, but the essential characteristic is that it is not factual. (Fake news is not, as Trump asserts, any news that disparages him.)
Concern about fake news has risen, and Facebook and Google have recently announced steps to combat it. Journalist’s Resource has compiled the still-scanty academic research on the phenomenon.
While much has been written about fake news, scholars have published a limited amount of peer-reviewed research on the topic. Below, Journalist’s Resource has compiled studies that examine fake news and the spread of misinformation more broadly to help journalists better understand the problem and its impacts. Other resources that may be helpful are Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and a well-circulated list of fake, unreliable and questionable news websites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College. The First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations, was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news.
Starting in January 2017, Stony Brook University, home to the Center for News Literacy, will offer a free online course in news literacy.
The research papers described at the link are worth reading; they confirm what most of us suspect–namely, that misinformation, propaganda and fake news have a pernicious effect. Especially when you consider that most of us engage in confirmation bias–looking for information that validates our preferred versions of reality–it can be difficult or impossible to disabuse people of “facts” they want to believe.
As I tell my students, if you truly believe that aliens landed at Roswell, I can find you several websites confirming that belief. (Some even have pictures of the aliens’ bodies!)
As troubling as this aspect of our current information environment is, what makes it far more troubling is the election of a President with a very tenuous connection to reality, and a staff willing to double down on his consistent lies and misstatements. Never before, to my knowledge, have we had an administration for which facts are at best irrelevant and at worst enemies to be contradicted.
The latest evidence of this Administration’s allergy to facts was a surreal “press conference” on Saturday, in which Sean Spicer berated the media for reporting “falsehoods” about the size of the inauguration crowds. (Trump had asserted that it “looked like a million and a half people.”)
The New York Times reported,
An expert hired by The Times found that Mr. Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009….
Speaking later on Saturday in the White House briefing room, Mr. Spicer amplified Mr. Trump’s false claims. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he said.
There is no evidence to support this claim. Not only was Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd far smaller than Mr. Obama’s in 2009, but he also drew fewer television viewers in the United States (30.6 million) than Mr. Obama did in 2009 (38 million) and Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (42 million), Nielsen reported.
For that matter, most estimates showed that the Women’s March the next day drew three times more people — about 500,000 — than Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, but the White House flatout refused to accept those numbers.
Nor was Spicer the only Administration figure to make bizarre claims. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway said the Trump team is offering “alternative facts” to media reports about President Trump’s inauguration. (This led to immense amusement on social media, with people posting things like “I’m thin and rich” and “Best game the Green Bay Packers ever played” #alternative facts.)
In the wake of the election, many of us worried–and continue to worry–that our unstable new President would take America into a misconceived war. We didn’t realize that the first war he would declare would be a war on reality and those pesky and inconvenient facts.