Fake news is everywhere. For the last several weeks it seems like every newscast and media stream has been filled with talk of fake news. But this phenomenon is nothing new. Recently, Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, pointed out that fake news is essentially the modern equivalent of the chain emails that used to clog your inbox. So why are we talking about it now?
On the right and left
More than any other reason, fake news has dominated the cultural conversation recently because of the unexpected results of November’s presidential election. Most major media outlets wrongly forecasted the election’s outcome. The President-elect’s surprise victory sent shockwaves through the media, leaving journalists and pundits desperate to explain how the consensus opinion could be so far off target.
In order to explain the results, many have pointed to the fake news articles that have recently become fixtures of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. These articles and websites are usually easy to identify. They employ outlandish or incendiary headlines that link to articles based on only the smallest sliver of facts. In some cases, the articles are outright fabrications, based on no truth at all. These fake news sites are nothing more than “click-bait” and in fairness, there are numerous right-wing versions of these articles and websites.
However, fake news is nonpartisan. It comes from the left and the right, and it can hardly explain the results of the election. In fact, in only a few weeks’ time, the term has become hyper-politicized, taking on the meaning “any news one disagrees with.” But all of this obscures the point. Fake news is a real thing. It exists to exploit people. It preys on ignorance, prejudice and biases.
Losing public trust
Many factors have contributed to this problem. In the age of the internet, there is an inexhaustible amount of information available at the touch of a button. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between real news, editorial, and satire. And the problem is compounded by the addition of fake news.
The press plays an invaluable role in our society. In a world as bleak as ours, we can all appreciate the role of satire—such as The Onion or The Babylon Bee—but we depend on real journalism to stay informed about current events and world affairs.
The news cycle is never-ending, and the majority of media outlets are for-profit entities. This means that their revenues depend upon subscriptions and advertising, which is driven in large part by web traffic seeking real-time updates on breaking news. Journalists and news organizations are under constant pressure to be the first to break a story or provide exclusive content, and this sometimes leads to errors, fraud or compromise which has weakened public trust in traditional media institutions. And while editorial and commentary are also invaluable, many reporters are often guilty of blurring the lines between news and opinion, which also damages their credibility.
This lack of trust has created a vacuum. In many cases, the void has been filled by smaller (and more overtly partisan) alternative news sites. However, the proliferation of news organizations has also made it more difficult to determine whether a particular source is a reliable or legitimate. This reality has created a major opening for purveyors of fake news.
The danger of fake news
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if fake news were simply the innocuous distribution of false information. But as it turns out, fake news has real consequences. Recently, a man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong, a pizza place in Washington, D.C., to investigate the claims of a fake news story about a child-abuse ring operating at the restaurant. After searching the building and firing his rifle at least once, the man surrendered himself to the police and was charged “with four counts, including felony assault with a deadly weapon,” all because of a viral fake news story. Fortunately, no one was harmed during the incident, but it serves as a cautionary tale; fake news is dangerous.
It may seem innocent enough to like or share articles on the internet that may not actually be true. But it is unwise for several reasons. If the example above represents the worst case scenario, a more likely event is simply the loss of your own credibility. Every person has a sphere of influence and each time you spread false information you either mislead other people or undermine your integrity. Either way, it is too high a price.
Truth as Christian stewardship
As Christians, we belong to Jesus who is himself the truth. If our primary task in the world is to know and reflect this truth to others, we cannot be complicit in the spread of false information. The world sees no distinction between the integrity of our politics and the truth of our gospel. We must tell the truth. Our public witness depends on it. So, let’s make it our aim in the next year to be the people God has created us to be—those who proclaim his truth and reflect that in our everyday interactions.