If one were to believe the mainstream media—and who doesn’t believe the mainstream media?—Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of these United States this month because over 60 million Americans are unable, and possibly unwilling, to tell the difference between true, objective reporting, filled with facts and designed only to help the citizens of this great nation make enlightened decisions, and “fake news,” chock-full of Russian propaganda designed to put a latter-day Manchurian candidate in the White House.
It’s easy, of course, to tell the difference between real news and “fake news”: Real news is found in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, in the Washington Post and on CNN, while “fake news” is found—well, almost anywhere else. The proof that “fake news” is responsible for the election of Donald Trump is equally obvious: Donald Trump was elected, and anyone who relied solely on the purveyors of real news would clearly have voted for Hillary Clinton. The frustration that reporters and editors for the Times and the Post and the Journal have expressed over the role that “fake news” supposedly played in this election cycle belies their own claim to objectivity, which just might lead the cynic to question whether the real news offered up by the mainstream media is so very different from “fake news” after all.
None of which is to say that “fake news” isn’t a problem, though it’s hardly the new one that the postelection hysteria would seem to indicate. To take just one example: Back in 1999, a columnist for Chronicles sent his text well past his deadline. This wouldn’t normally be a problem—we editors are writers ourselves, and therefore understand the bad habit of procrastination—but this column included a lengthy quotation from Attorney General Janet Reno, supposedly delivered in an interview with Reader’s Digest some time before, which seemed to herald an imminent federal crackdown on homeschooling families. Eighteen years ago, very little could be fact-checked on the internet; we actually had to go to the library and examine books and magazines and newspapers, and if we couldn’t confirm a quotation, we would have to contact the publication directly. Under deadline, unable to confirm the Reno lines and still waiting on a response from Reader’s Digest, a former editor of Chronicles made the call: So long as the columnist was certain of the quotation, we would run it. And so we did.
One needs no imagination whatsoever to see where this story is going. A week after the issue went to press, Reader’s Digest answered our inquiry—they had been forced to examine hard copy as well; they had no electronic index of all their text—and the lines in question had never appeared in the magazine. I then spent several weeks trying to determine if the quotation might be real but incorrectly sourced, a process akin to hunting for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster: Even today, two decades further along in the internet age, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. But finally, when a friend with access to LexisNexis (the premier search database of its day for news sources, and incredibly expensive, which was why Chronicles did not have a subscription) turned up nothing, we reached the reasonable conclusion: The quotation was fake.
Today, fake quotations, fake statistics, and entire fake narratives (“news stories”) are even more prevalent than in 1999—a paradox of sorts, since it would seem that ubiquitous internet access and the magic of Google indexing would make it easier to determine what is real and what is not. Yet the ease of finding things on the internet is matched by the ease of placing things on the internet, and once something is retweeted, shared, and blogged a handful of times, it takes on a life of its own. Even those publications that pride themselves on setting the standard for real news look to Twitter and Facebook for trends, and routinely include tweets (and not just those of the President-Elect) in their news articles.
Once the genie is out of the bottle—once a fake quotation or even just a mistaken “fact” has gained enough traction online—there’s no way to prevent it from spreading, or to stop people from believing it. And the next thing you know, a man is traveling from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and walking into a pizza parlor with a rifle to search its kitchen for tunnels where children are supposedly being held for use as sex slaves in a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.
And no, this is not fake news. (The man with the rifle, not the sex-slave ring, lest there be any doubt to which part I am referring.) A North Carolina man really did walk into a D.C. pizza parlor on December 4, and even fired two shots to encourage customers and staff to leave, the better to conduct his “investigation” in peace. And the fake news story that led to the man’s pilgrimage had been retweeted during the general election by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump’s choice for national-security advisor, and retweeted many times by Flynn’s Twitter followers, some of whom also shared it to Facebook. You can see the reasoning (or at least part of the reasoning): If a respected retired lieutenant general retweeted this “story,” there must be something to it, right?
But respected retired lieutenant generals are people (and politicians), too, and like the rest of us—including the gatekeepers of real news in the mainstream media (like those at the Washington Post who seriously reported the rumor that Hillary Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 memorial service may have been the result of poisoning by Russian operatives)—they can let the wish become the father of the thought. The flip side of our widespread cynicism concerning political elites is all too often an expansive credulity when it comes to stories about any elites whom we particularly despise. (In the wake of the December 4 shooting, Michael Flynn’s son, who had previously worked as Flynn’s chief of staff and for whom the Trump transition team had attempted to get security clearance, continued to promote the false “Pizzagate” story on Twitter. After the younger Flynn suggested on Twitter that the shooting was a hoax designed to discredit those who had promoted Pizzagate, he was fired from the Trump transition team on December 6.)
That combination of cynicism and credulity may explain, at least in part, the anecdotal evidence that suggests that there was more “fake news” targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign in 2016 than there was targeting Trump and his. It’s certainly true that more stories involving Clinton gained traction. Much of this has been blamed on the “echo chamber” effect of social media. While people may start their social circles on Twitter and especially Facebook by friending or following their real-life friends and acquaintances, which allows for some initial diversity of social and political views, they tend to expand those circles by finding others (or being found by others) who share similar opinions and views. From there, especially on Facebook, the algorithm takes over, and people routinely discover stories in their feed that are similar to the ones they and their friends have previously liked. And if they like or repost the new stories, the funnel continues to narrow. Those who arrive at a fake news story because someone they respect and admire (such as a retired lieutenant general) tweeted or posted it are more likely to believe, like, and repost it, and thus unintentionally to signal to Facebook that they want more of the same.
In other words, the artificiality of social networks creates and reinforces the echo chamber. But is that really all that different from certain “real life” social networks—such as the newsrooms at mainstream newspapers and TV networks? No one in the business argues anymore that the mainstream media doesn’t exhibit a liberal bias. And those few outside of the media who still try to explain away entire newsrooms with an 80- to 90-percent record of voting Democratic by claiming that the mainstream media has a “bias toward reality” simply confirm the suspicions of those who wonder why “reality” would, after several millennia, suddenly lurch to the left.
And so cynicism about liberal elites spills over into cynicism about the media elites who vote for them, and the echo chamber of the mainstream newsroom helps create a very different kind of echo chamber among those who distrust the mainstream media, one in which cynicism about political and media elites turns into credulity concerning all those who seem also to mistrust the political and media elites. Inside the latter echo chamber, the fact that a fake news story doesn’t appear in the New York Times or the Washington Post or on CNN is not evidence of its falsity but a reason to suspect that it may be true.
There is no easy solution to the problem of fake news. Structural solutions—Facebook algorithm changes, Google flagging sites for having “knowingly” promulgated fake news—open up potential avenues for abuse, and that very possibility, even in the absence of any evidence of such abuse, will just reinforce the echo chamber. The only way out is individually—a healthy skepticism about any “news” one may read—but even there, the signs are not promising.
After Chronicles published the fake quotation from Janet Reno, I spent five or six years handling requests from readers for confirmation of the quotation, even though we had published a correction in a later issue. A few of those readers desperately wanted the quotation to be true, but they felt compelled to confirm it before distributing it to others. Most, however, had attempted to confirm it for themselves, found that they could not, and decided that they should let us know.
The behavior of both groups seems almost quaint today. Much of the truly fake news that is distributed on Twitter and Facebook is simply retweeted or reposted by people who haven’t bothered to read much (if at all) beyond the headline, much less attempted to verify its veracity. And those of us who routinely but gently point out false information posted by those in our networks are less likely to receive thanks for having done so than to get a cold shoulder—or, all too often, attempts at justification that quickly descend into belligerence.
In the end, the real problem that lies at the root of fake news is a disregard for the truth—an ideological frame of mind that sees “news” as nothing but a tool in political battles. The mainstream media have taken a side, while denying that they fix the facts to their preferred narrative; why shouldn’t those who stand up for everything that’s under attack not do the same?
Those who cannot answer that question will be stuck in the echo chamber forever.