POINT: “Fake news” is a bigger problem than we think
With news of an indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a guilty plea from former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI, it seems like the horror story of the 2016 presidential election just won’t stop.
In response to resurfaced allegations of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia in meddling with the presidential election, right-wing media has come up with an answer: There was collusion with Russia, but it came from the Democrats. Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson said on Tucker Carlson Tonight:
“Knowing what you know about Russia, was it really a good idea for the Obama administration and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to approve a deal giving the Russians control of 20 percent of our uranium supply?”
“Why did Hillary’s office and the Obama administration sign off on giving the Russians a fifth of our uranium?”
“Why is that a good idea to give a hostile power 20 percent of our uranium supplies? It’s insane though.”
“How would Hillary Clinton not know if a Russian company was getting 20 percent of our uranium supply? What was she doing?”
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker rated this claim — that Hillary Clinton gave 20 percent of the U.S. uranium supply to Russia — four Pinocchios, its highest marker of falsehood. The paper called it “simply absurd.”
Yet, predictably, this story has resulted in calls from members of the Republican base to “lock her up.” It is a counterpunch and a purposeful deflection of the progress of special investigator Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion with Russia. And yet, despite its falsity, the story is continuing to gain traction among right-wing media; Fox & Friends, Breitbart, Sean Hannity and the Daily Caller have all run stories either encouraging the theory or stating the facts outright. None of these outlets have corrected or retracted their stories for containing plainly false claims.
That is gravely worrisome. It is amazing that constant lying has become the new normal.
What’s even more amazing is how pervasive it has become. Whereas plainly obvious fake stories used to be peddled by Alex Jones’ InfoWars, unscrupulous forums on Reddit and elsewhere in the depths of the Internet, they have now become insidiously mainstream. The entertainment of conspiracy theories by folks like Carlson, who Forbes recently called the “king of cable news,” is gravely damaging, and will have long-term effects on the state of our democracy.
In his counterpart to this column, my colleague Luke Phillips says that this isn’t fake news; instead, he calls it “mass media opinion journalism.” Unfortunately, critics underestimate the degree to which these news sites have peddled stories filled with facts that are unequivocally false. Take just the past few weeks at Breitbart: the news site published stories falsely saying that immigrants were arrested for starting the California wildfires, that Planned Parenthood worked “in tandem” with the Satanic Temple and that a study determined that refugees in San Diego had an active tuberculosis incidence rate more than 100 percent higher than the national average.
This news is completely fake. And yet, the disconnect between legitimate journalism and media that relies on made-up facts has created alternate realities, and lent support to President Donald Trump’s view that it’s the legitimate journalism that is fake — not the media sources that peddle conspiracy theories. That’s why, even though fake news is not a partisan issue — there is right-wing fake news (Breitbart) and left-wing fake news (Natural News) — it is disproportionately affecting the right. Right-wing fake news sites have seized on the changing tide of the right to further narratives that are consistent with their beliefs about the world, and so they have become all the more pervasive.
In light of this changing media landscape, we must be vigilant now more than ever and not only in the news that we consume. We also must challenge those around us, and continue to fight for the legitimacy of journalism. One way that comes about is through the marketplaces that have come to rule the way we communicate and disseminate information today — social media conglomerates. Congress is challenging Facebook, Twitter and Google for their curation techniques regarding fake news stories planted by Russians during the 2016 presidential election, but the issue is much larger than that. We must recommit ourselves to objectivity and truth.
Phillips alludes to an important point in his side of the column; he thinks that even if we could regulate tech companies or eliminate fake news, “we’d be kidding ourselves to believe that’ll change hearts and minds.” And he’s right. As falsehoods in media have become uniquely pervasive, so has political polarization. So yes, the wounds of our country are too great to be healed by forcing Facebook to disclose the advertisers of false news stories on its site.
But consider the opposite. If we continue like this, if we continue without challenging the spread of these stories, we succumb dangerously to propaganda. That is the kind of monopoly over information that authoritarianism entails. So we must fight against this phenomenon and continue to work alongside journalists to support them, in word and in dollar. We need to pay for journalism that plays the vital public service to keep us well-informed. We need to restore trust in journalism, as an institution.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The headline on this post has been updated for clarity.