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In a World of Fake, How Can We Find the Truth?

Fake news plagues the world today, so we need methods to be sure we are not falling victim to it.

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By Joshua | USA

Throughout the history of American politics, there have been truths and falsehoods disseminated and published on both sides of the political divide, usually in an attempt to persuade voters to vote for or against a specific candidate. However, with the advent and adoption of the internet, these motives have diversified and become much more cunning. Fake News is defined as “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is also written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.” (Burshtein). While the concept of inaccurate news has been around since the invention of the printing press, the term “Fake News” and its malicious undertones have only been a common term since the 20th century and has been further redefined in the last two decades alone. However, in today’s connected world, the stakes are much higher, and information travels much faster. Fake News in American politics poses a unique threat to citizens of the electorate, in that it distorts the democracy and hampers accurate political discussion. No entity is immune to inaccuracy, whether it be an individual, or even news outlets themselves. And with Fake News being distorted and adopted by government officials themselves, we find ourselves slowly transforming into the society that George Orwell describes in his book “1984”. Fake News affects the daily lives of Americans, often indirectly, and has forever changed the way social media and news outlets operate. Fake News has revolutionized American politics, damaging trust, misleading, and confusing voters, and has played a dangerously tangible role in major events of the 21st century.

Background of Fake News

“Fake News” is the term used to reference information and websites on the internet that are covertly falsified, for either the purposes of deceit, profit, or satire. While the term “Fake News” has several meanings, the “Fake News” label that politicians and other media figures assign to unfavorable news coverage and opinions that they dislike should be differentiated from actual inaccurate news that is misrepresented as being legitimate. These Fake News articles are often framed as being from legitimate news organizations, complete with fake credentials and corroborating fake news websites to add credibility. Examples of this phenomenon would be ‘The National Report’ and ‘abcnews.co’ with the latter utilizing the same website design and layout as the real news organization, and only becoming obvious as being a fraud upon close inspection of the URL, which is uncommon for most site viewers. There is no law preventing individuals from impersonating a legitimate news organization, and as such several notable copycat news sites have popped up in the last decade alone.

Most Fake News articles have inflammatory or salacious headlines, such as “CALIFORNIA LAWMAKER INTRODUCES RESOLUTION TO BAN ‘KILLER ROBOTS’” (Infowars) and “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton transferred 20% of US uranium to Putin’s Russia as 9 investors in the deal funneled $145 million to the Clinton Foundation” (Breitbart.com). In the case of the former example, the headline is formatted in all caps to increase the emotional impact. Articles similar to the headline from Breitbart’s home page are often designed to appeal to the reader’s sense of legitimacy by using fake statistics and detail in their articles, and using unverifiable, yet normal sources, such as ‘an insider’, ‘a top aide’, or ‘an anonymous official’ which are all used by legitimate news sources in order to protect identities. Articles that run along the lines of the Infowars example often primarily utilize emotion as a way to bypass a reader’s common sense, using attention-grabbing keywords and inflammatory word choice to get the reader to share the article with others, or even take direct action, furthering the reach of the original Fake News. Often times, the inaccuracies in Fake News articles are only obvious upon close cross-examination of other websites, something the average viewer is unequipped to do.

Even legitimate news sources aren’t immune from Fake News. During the 2004 Presidential Election season, several doubts were raised by the media and by voters, about President George W Bush’s military record, something he had touted numerous times during his first term. On September 4th of that year, 60 Minutes published an explosive article containing supposed documents that showed Bush’s absence in several physicals that were mandatory for military personnel, and several legitimate-looking documents that suggested that Bush’s story wasn’t as watertight as he had first held (Munger). However, after closer analysis, the documents turned out to be covertly falsified by a previous source, leading to a media crisis, and the first accusations of “Fake News”.

Methods By Which Fake News Has Affected American Politics

Recently, Fake News has been pushed by heavily partisan organizations, in order to advance political agendas, by individuals attempting to make a profit from advertising and merchandise-related sales, and by foreign entities attempting to interfere in American politics. Almost all Fake News websites have a partisan agenda, whether it is obvious or not. An example of a site with hard-right views would be Infowars.com, run by notable conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which pushes an alt-right, anti-globalist, anti-semite agenda; the website also contains a plethora of featured advertisements as well as an entire online catalog of Infowars-affiliated merchandise. He also pushes his products numerous times during his shows. A second example would be The National Report, which  publishes false and satirical articles with a right-leaning agenda, an example being a featured article on the home page titled “Man Shouts ‘Allahu Akbar’ Before Blowing Up Friend’s Inbox” (thenationalreport.com) while at the same time running numerous ads around the homepage and on all main pages of the site. These advertisements are the life force that keeps these websites alive because, for most Fake News sites, advertising is the only method of income. This has resulted in sites writing any manner of article in order to get more viewers, including articles with dangerously misleading content, notably about Muslims, which has inspired several hate-attacks on Muslim citizens in the last year.

A 60 Minutes Special Investigation (aired (3/26/17) included the interview of the owners of two Fake News websites, including the owner of the site that invented “Pizzagate”. They discovered that the common themes between the two owners were “money” and “to inform viewers” with the latter motive being akin to “pushing a political agenda”. The owner that responded that money was his primary motive has good reason to pursue that goal: in an interview, Jestin Coler, who runs several Fake News websites (most notably The Denver Guardian) told a reporter for National Public Radio that he made as much as US$30,000 per month from advertising that rewards the high traffic that Fake News stories draw. After posting a Fake News article about an FBI agent who leaked Hillary Clinton emails being inexplicably murdered, Coler said that “over [the subsequent] 10 days the site got 1.6 million views. He says stories like this work because they fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories” (Sydell). His site is not alone. Many of these sites attract upwards of tens of thousands of viewers, with more popular sites such as Infowars.com receiving over 31 million visits in November 2017 alone (Infowars Traffic Statistics), using tactics similar to Coler’s: using existing information and mindsets to create a Fake News story with enough facts and buzzwords to appeal to a reader’s confirmation bias, while at the same time planting enough inflammatory content to keep the reader hooked and continuing to spread the article to others, where the cycle usually repeats.

Fake News often has permanent, real-world consequences, and constitutes a direct danger to everyday Americans, both directly and indirectly. During the 2016 Presidential Election, a Fake News website run by Mike Cernovich published a series of stories detailing a secret child pedophile ring inside a Clinton-linked Washington D.C. pizzeria. Some of the details of the story were allegedly obtained by codebreakers who analyzed actual emails leaked from the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, and the DNC by Russian hackers through Wikileaks in early 2016. These false articles quickly spread throughout other Fake News sites and republican forums and social media networks, including Facebook, inspiring copycats and mutations of the story, complete with: added documents related to child orphans from Podesta’s previous activities in earthquake-stricken Haiti in 2010, images allegedly from inside the pizzeria, including a below-ground storage room where the children were supposedly being held, and images of the children themselves. Some of these images, in fact, came from the restaurant’s Facebook page and from random social media pages (LaCapria). This resulted in an armed gunman (who had been following the Fake News story on several republican news platforms) storming the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria on December 4th of the same year, brandishing a loaded assault rifle, and firing several shots off, endangering not only himself, but dozens of other diners, who panicked and rushed out of the restaurant into the street and into nearby businesses. This instance alone demonstrates the tangible danger that inflammatory Fake News poses when it gathers steam and runs unchecked. In addition, although no comprehensive study has undertaken the task of verification, it is speculated by many media outlets and Americans that Fake News led to the election of Donald J. Trump, both directly through Fake News spread by his supporters to discredit his opponent, and indirectly through the pushing of inaccurate claims and articles by conservative outlets such as Fox News.

Fake News Effects On Social Media

Social Media has been a key catalyst in the spread of Fake News by both the right and the left, corrupting Americans’ news intake at their most frequent source: their social network. Facebook, a platform consisting of primarily older Americans (Baby Boomers and Gen X) was the source or vector for most Fake News articles. This was, in part, because of the greater confirmation bias and low scrutiny demonstrated by these main demographic groups, Facebook saw the highest amount of Fake News sharing, and was ground zero for many of the Fake News stories, which then spread to other platforms such as Twitter and Instagram (Strong). However, that is only one distribution avenue; “Many more come from people we now term the “alt-right”, who cook up stories on boards such as 8chan, 4chan, and social media, and are then co-opted either by genuine right-leaning sites or shill sites, and are then shared again on social media” (Parkinson). Facebook has also been the epicenter for the spread of Russian propaganda, with Facebook itself saying that “as many as 126 million Americans may have seen content uploaded by Russia-based agents over the past two years” (BBC). Facebook has also been criticized as of late for allowing Fake News and propaganda to spread on its platform and taking entirely too long to address the problem before it grew out of control. The article goes on to explain how the Russian Fake News content blended in, stating that “many of the pages such as Heart Of Texas, Being Patriotic and Secured Borders were designed to look like they were created by US citizens” (BBC). These pages often appealed to partisan values, such as a Facebook page titled ‘Army of Jesus’ that compared Hillary Clinton and a handful of her supposed political views to the Devil, whilst likening Donald Trump and several core conservative values with Jesus, invoking emotions and stereotypes held by most conservatives about Democrats, and fusing them with Fake News designed to keep the reader hooked. These Russian Facebook pages were continuously added to with a steady stream of misinformation and confirmation bias which duped millions.

The rise of Fake News has spurred controversial reforms on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, with users voicing concerns and anger over disenfranchising policies that affect profitability and censor content. After identifying the thousands of bot accounts and falsified pieces of content on its site (both foreign-oriented and domestic), Facebook has undertaken the task of clearing as many of them as possible from its platforms, as well as changing algorithms and user feed mechanics that determine what users see, negatively affecting content creators and users by decreasing their traffic flow. A prime example would be the case of Cyrus Massoumi, who ran both a questionable right-leaning website and a website that catered to liberals. He made sure it abided by Facebook’s stricter rules, especially concerning clickbait — headlines manipulated solely to attract page views, a common characteristic of Fake News. Even with all of these precautions and content changes, Massoumi’s liberal website, TruthExaminer, was hit hard. “When Facebook changed its algorithm to disrupt the financial incentives for fake news, the tweaks had a collateral effect on the whole ecosystem of businesses built on its news feed, including Massoumi’s liberal property. Traffic for TruthExaminer went down 60 percent starting in March and hasn’t recovered, according to Nicole James, his editor-in-chief. “We never broke the rules that were constantly changing,’’ James said. “I did everything I’m supposed to do. We don’t steal, we don’t cheat. But I get people who message me and say, ‘I don’t see your posts anymore.’” ” (Frier). Massoumi is only one of many content creators that have effectively been rendered invisible by the content reforms that Facebook has enacted in response to Fake News, and he is in a better position because his other sites have generated enough income for him to ride out the storm for the short term. Many other legitimate news sites aren’t as lucky.

These anti-Fake News reforms are also causing a torrent of criticism and anger from conservatives, who argue that some of these reforms, such as “fact-checkers” have a liberal bias and a history of being very un-impartial. When Facebook announced in December 2016 that they were partnering with “impartial” fact-checking organizations such as ABC News, Snopes, and Politifact, the conservative community immediately became alarmed that these fact checkers would discriminate against conservative content. Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative commentator and editor-in-chief of the conservative outlet The Daily Wire, criticized the decision, saying “This is a disaster for news coverage. It’s an attempt to restore gatekeepers who have a bias as the ultimate arbiters of truth” (Heath). These fears are not without merit. When asked how exactly Facebook would guarantee that the fact-checkers would be 100% impartial in their decisions, Zuckerberg could not give a firm answer, simply remarking that the network would “proceed carefully”. Another top conservative journalist, Katrina Trinko, explained a common sentiment shared by many conservatives: subtle bias exhibited by these same organizations in the past. “When you look at the signatories on the Poynter list (a group of “impartial” organizations), you’ll find seven from the United States: ABC News, The Washington Post, Snopes, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Climate Feedback, and Politifact. Talk about the devil being in the details. These are hardly unbiased fact-checkers—conservatives have raised alarms about several of them” (Trinko). Many “impartial” news organizations have been at loggerheads with conservatives for decades, fueled by various inconsistencies such as the controversy surrounding former President Bush’s war record and the Clinton Benghazi incident/subsequent investigation. The measures being put in place in order to drive away Fake News are inadvertently driving away conservatives who feel that these social media sites and news organizations don’t represent them or their values; this ironically has the potential to increase traffic to “alternative” news sites, which are more prone to being the Fake News that the original policy was designed to prevent.

Conclusion

After extensive research, it is clear that Fake News has completely revolutionized the American political climate. It has had a significant effect on almost every area, from where and how voters get their news, to how they filter it, and how they apply it to their daily lives and civic duties. Fake News has proven to be extremely dangerous under certain circumstances which are becoming more commonplace as Fake News is allowed to fester, such as the Pizzagate incident. It has also been demonstrated that Social Media and its vulnerable users played a huge role in extending the reach and scope of Fake News, and the subsequent investigations have caused voters to become much more skeptical of ‘social media news’; these investigations and polarizing political tensions have also had the unintended effect of creating a thick cloud of animosity overall news networks, both partisan and impartial. This has the potential to create an even more uninformed electorate and affecting the future in uncertain ways. The reforms put into place to eradicate Fake News are also slowly eroding conservatives’ trust in social media, with the installation of organizations that are seen by them as oppositional to their views being placed in positions of often indisputable power over free speech on some of the biggest media platforms. Overall, though many other forces have been at work changing American politics, the phenomenon of Fake News has radically mutated the relationship between the electorate, social media, and the news organizations that they all depend on, with no solution in sight.


Works Cited

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Infowars Statistics: https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/infowars.com

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