Note: An edited version of this post ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 12, 2017 under the headline “When Facts Become Optional.” The piece is online on the SMU website under “Fake News and Alternate Facts.”
Fake news and alternate facts have become the discussion du jour of the nascent Donald Trump presidency. One might suppose, even hope, that if Hillary Clinton had won the election the world of Democrats and Progressives would have remained in its tidy orbit and we could have been spared this journalistic and political crisis. Instead, the erratic and even angry campaign of Trump has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies.
There were several key moments of concocted news during the campaign, perhaps the most recognized being the bulletin of Pope Francis endorsing Trump. Didn’t happen. We also had from The New York Times the headline “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The piece detailed a tweet sent the day after the election from a marketing company co-founder in Austin with about 40 Twitter followers. The tweet concerned busloads of anti-Trump protesters who were being paid to protest the election. The tweet was shared, according to the Times, 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. Then President-elect Trump took to his own Twitter account to denounce the protests as “incited by the media” and “very unfair.” Discussion groups and blogs picked up the details, all shared thousands of more times on social media. Of course, there were never actually busloads of paid protesters. The original tweet was finally taken down, but to little notice.
In a cold and perhaps even elitist analysis, I might say that people depending on Facebook and Twitter for news deserve what they get. That we even consider Facebook a source of news says more about the damaged and deeply flawed psyche of American democracy than it does about social media.
But in a larger context of the free flow of information essential to self-governance, legitimate questions must be asked. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigned on major changes in the First Amendment and our concept of a free press. Clinton bought into the loopy concept of rewriting the First Amendment in order to change the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United in 2010. Trump pledged to change libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue news organizations. That would presumably change the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 decision on press freedom in Times v. Sullivan.
We could also digress to another discussion of serious damage already done to the First Amendment by the two previous administrations. While we all understand a legitimate need for national security, the USA Patriot Act passed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has created a disruption in the flow of information from government agencies as well as an extraordinary level of government secrecy. And there was the seizure of phone records of the Associated Press by the Eric Holder Justice Department, as well as the record-setting prosecution of leaks by the Obama administration.
This is a bit of a digression, but none of it bodes well for real news in a politically polarized environment where every news angle, legitimate or not, is taken as an affront by someone. The fact is that government in the last 16 years has shown a hostile and heavy-handed approach to the news media, and it looks like that won’t be changing anytime soon.
How does this relate to fake news? It seems like fake news is just a continuation of the pattern where traditional news media are being undermined. With the economic calamity that has hit the news media, especially newspapers but also including broadcast, there are far fewer reporters and editors to do the basic fact checking and editing of solid news. And in too many cases, the reporters and editors who have been retained are younger, less experienced, and can be paid lower salaries.
It would seem that fake news might be the emergent replacement. But the fact is that we have had fake news as long as we’ve had news media. Newspapers of the 19th Century often printed hoaxes, simply for entertainment purposes. One of the most famous was the so-called Moon Hoax, printed in 1835 by The Sun in New York. The stories detailed a British scientist who had made significant advances in telescope technology and had found that there were men on the moon. The men had wings. The paper even concocted drawings showing the creatures.
Two major contributors to American letters, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, were among the famous writers who wrote hoaxes. Sometimes the hoaxes would continue for months and spread to other newspapers in a 19th-Century version of viral media. Perhaps the most famous hoax in our history was the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 by Orson Welles. That hoax concerned a Martian invasion in New Jersey.
One can argue, and certainly it’s a legitimate concern, that the digital age with social media has opened up many more opportunities for fake news and serious harm from posts that go viral in minutes. That is quite different than printing hoaxes in a newspaper sold on the streets.
And Trump’s critics legitimately point to his relentless Twitter posts and his administration’s claim to “alternate facts.” There is real danger here with both the new president and with his White House press spokesman Sean Spicer. It’s one thing to spin stories, and all recent White House press spokespersons have done so. It’s another to state matters from the White House press podium that are demonstrably false. We are entering uncharted waters both in politics and technology.
But there’s no replacement for discerning and concerned citizens reading carefully to educate themselves in basic media literacy. One of the foundations of the Enlightenment was that human beings were rational creatures and could discern fact from falsehood. It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that Facebook and most other social media are only what they are: sometimes interesting and entertaining tools for keeping people in contact. That is, after all, the definition of social media.
It also reminds us of the legendary writer and critic A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker who said that freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one. Now anyone with a smart phone is a publisher in a global context never before imagined. Caveat lector.