Of the many things I’m thankful for in this week of Thanksgiving, I suppose I should be thankful for fake and misleading news, since it certainly keeps me hopping.
But it also keeps quite a few letters off the Voices page.
No, that story about someone being paid $3,500 to protest at Trump rallies is not true. The first clue should be the “.co” at the end of the supposed “ABC News” Web address … and the fact that the logo on the page is oval, not a circle like the actual ABC logo. But sure, close enough.
And no, Target has not banned “Christmas.” Why does this get passed around every winter??? At just about every retailer, Christmas is in full force, and in some stores has been so since at least a couple of weeks before Halloween. (Memo to Wal-Mart: Please ditch the most annoying version of “Jingle Bells” known to man, or at least don’t play it on a loop. My dreams are jingling now.)
Also no, Donald Trump has not won the popular vote, despite the story by 70News that said he had. As of this writing, about 7 million votes still are to be counted, and Hillary Clinton holds a more than 1.7 million-vote lead. And the report of 3 million illegal immigrants voting for Hillary is also doubtful; when asked for evidence by PolitiFact, the person responsible for the tweet cited as proof provided none. (It couldn’t possibly be from his imagination …)
Did fake news help Trump win? Who knows, but it definitely has given fits to journalists who must take responsibility and face consequences for what they write, such as losing a career if they dare make up their stories (remember Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair).
Fake-news writers, though, get paid for the number of clicks they get, regardless of what they write, which can be based on nothing but opinion and innuendo dreamed up simply to drive more traffic to sites operated out of their homes, which sometimes aren’t even in the United States (apparently Trump is a big industry in Macedonia). Who needs editors, fact-checking and any other due diligence designed to keep real news writers and their organizations from being sued?
Prolific fake-news writers like Paul Horner, who is responsible for the paid-protester story and whose name turns up frequently as a source in his own stories, can earn $10,000 a month for their fabulism. Horner told the Washington Post that he feels some responsibility for Trump being elected, noting that Trump’s supporters believed everything he wrote. “I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse. I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters—they just keep running with it!”
William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (and BatBoy too) would be so proud!
Outfits like National Report, Daily Currant and LibertyWritersNews keep cranking the fake stuff out, and people keep eating it up as long as it confirms what they already believe, facts be damned. Others such as Bipartisan Report and Breitbart often take small bits of truth and wrap it in conspiracy and confabulation, complete with breathless click-bait headlines that have little to do with the story. And because we’re too lazy to check the veracity of our news sources, we keep believing the unbelievable (but Obama does want to ban the pledge of allegiance—this story says it’s true!!!!). Even obvious satire from the likes of the Onion and Andy Borowitz hasn’t been immune from being believed as truth (because that satire tag is obviously a plant).
But responsible news sources verify facts before publication. (Yes, there are legitimate alternative sources that do just that, but there aren’t enough that do.) As the Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke wrote: “[Y]ou won’t read a story on a newspaper website or watch a news segment on television that is fabricated. You may not like what it says, but your opinion doesn’t override reality. When people lazily trust fake news that serves only to affirm their world-view, they disconnect from the real world. That can feel nice, but it leads us all down a rather dark path.”
Dark paths like making death threats to the staff and owner of a pizza parlor tarred in a fake news story that claimed owner James Alefantis and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta were kidnapping, molesting and trafficking kids at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant (what a name …). The restaurant manager told the New York Times that attempting to swat down the rumors was akin to “trying to shoot a swarm of bees with one gun.”
I know, some people want to believe the unbelievable, and they don’t want to think. Yet that’s what we have to do: We have to become adept at sorting news from opinion and be skeptical enough to want proof (and no, proof isn’t what Crazy Cousin Earl told you last week … or how much alcohol he can drink). We need to have an objective eye to recognize what may be nothing more than partisan fancy heightened by emotion. And we need to be honest with ourselves and others about information we share.
You don’t really believe the pope endorsed Bernie Sanders … or Trump … or Hillary—do you?
What causes even more headaches is when partisans remove all context (and inconvenient facts) so that something goes viral, such as the mostly conservative uproar over a list of “fake news sites” being passed around. Checking closer, one would find that the professor who compiled the list did so for students in one of her mass communication courses, and that it was not simply “fake news sites” but “fake, false or regularly misleading websites.” Additionally, sites were coded as to what sort of shenanigans went on, including “click-baity” headlines (one reason Breitbart made the list). And yep, liberal sites were also on the list. Funny how that was sorta glossed over …
Now the professor has removed the list from Google Docs because of threats and harassment.
Yep, that really speaks well for us when anyone who hopes to encourage people to seek facts is shouted down. Believers in truth, exit the stage, please.