Donald Trump Achieves World Peace!

So, now that I’ve captured your attention, let’s talk fake news… 

In the age of the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, the role of traditional media has changed considerably. Sixty years ago, people would have gathered patiently by the radio to hear the latest news stories; today, people are notified of global news immediately via the vibration of their personal devices. Likewise, instead of tuning into NBC Nightly News, many modern-day Americans get their fix of current events by scrolling through popular Twitter hashtags or watching Saturday Night Live. 

Not only is it becoming easier to access information, but it has also become easier to value convenience and immediacy over authenticity. On the authority of a USA Today article from April 2018, “daily newspaper publishers watched their weekday circulation plummet from 62,000,000 to an estimated 25,000,000 over a span of 26 years,” and 93% of adults in the U.S. get their news online through mobile devices. 

But, then again, who said any of my sources or “facts” were true?Minneapolis Black Lives Matter protestBack in the day, news was relayed by “the voice of God,” Mr. Walter Cronkite. At least, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says that if you were to turn the TV dial to the CBS in 1965, that’s who you would have found sitting calmly in front of the camera to deliver the news (no matter how extreme or how catastrophic). He was the man that millions of Americans relied upon to share that JFK had been shot, that the nation had put a man on the moon, and that they couldn’t win the war in Vietnam. 

For 20 years Cronkite anchored the evening news on CBS, becoming a daily presence in every U.S. home and ultimately the “most trusted man in America,” as determined by a 1972 poll. Even in his final broadcast, he assured the public that he wouldn’t be going away completely and solemnly maintained that “that’s the way it is.”

But, oh, how times have changed. Not forty years after Cronkite’s resignation in 1981, television broadcasts have expanded dramatically to highlight what we don’t definitively know to be true, or “fake news.” And, much like a TV drama like Grey’s Anatomy can form our basis of knowledge for a topic we don’t have any experience with, such as medicine, news can affect the public’s opinion through the way it is presented. 

“Fake news” has been one of the most vehemently debated socio-political topics of recent years. In the United States, it was the 2016 presidential election that escalated the conversation: did fake news help elect Donald Trump? Did Facebook help the spread of fake news? Should the government be responsible for fixing the problem? The discussion, however, should be less about how we can fault fake news for potentially helping to elect Donald Trump and more about how we can fix the damage that’s been done to our judgement from the constant mixture of truth and falsehood in media. 

Just like marketing campaigns, elections are a contest of who can make the most creative use of their resources and, nowadays, who has the better understanding of media’s potential. Politicians are known to lie, but Donald Trump has advanced the art of fabrication during his time in the political limelight. Due to the number of outrageous and fairly bigoted comments Trump made throughout the pre-election period, it was not unreasonable to think that Clinton would have the advantage. When Trump won rather unexpectedly, people began looking to the purveyors of fake news for an explanation. Bernie Sanders at a rallyFake news holds the power to convince people across the political spectrum of information that isn’t true. “It can confuse people, it can turn people off from politics — it can have a lot of negative effects that we're only beginning to understand,” says Andrew Guess, an assistant politics professor at Princeton University. 

In the present climate, stories that actively blur the line between what’s true and false actually seem to hold more power over our way of thinking than blatant fiction or nonfiction do. Even incredibly exaggerated incidents like that of the sexual harassment of a five-year-old in Twin Falls, Idaho –– linked here –– for example, had people firmly convinced that all Muslims were dangerous in 2016. 

Since the story was consistent with the discriminatory beliefs of much of the town’s white, church-going population, lies spread like wildfire –– that the little girl was gang-raped at knifepoint, that the miscreants were Syrian refugees, that their fathers celebrated with them afterward, etc. Moreover, while anti-refugee groups purposefully got key facts about the case wrong to garner support for their cause, hundreds of such anti-immigrant townspeople didn’t even know that they’d been preaching misinformation. Element5 DigitalIn 2018, a group of MIT scientists found that roughly 126,000 major fake news stories have circulated the Internet over the last decade. Many of these stories can be easily disregarded as hoaxes, but many could also be consistent with people’s preexisting beliefs or just crazy enough for people to pay attention to them. While it is certainly upsetting to think that people publish false information in order to covertly manipulate opinions and loyalties within society, the real issue associated with fake news are its inescapable impacts.

Fiction is meant for the big screen, not billions of small screens. Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, is rightfully dramatized; reports of sexual harassment and wars should not be. Television inaccuracy is rather harmless when we watch shows for entertainment because we’re aware of the distance from reality, but falsehoods hidden in news media are hazardous because we’re so unsuspecting… and that’s the way it is.