Aiding that bizarre mindset was the proliferation of glaring falsehoods on the internet, thanks to social media, whose users shared them as though they were true. The sensational headlines accusing Hillary Clinton of murder, promising the impossible (say, a Bernie Sanders re-emergence any day now) or claiming the Pope endorsed Donald Trump were everywhere, and people spread them without checking their validity. It was like a barrage of grocery-store tabloid covers cascading through our social media feeds unchecked. And that is still the case.
Yet even though it was everywhere, no one really bothered to name the phenomenon until after the election. By then, an untold portion of the voting public had bolstered their views — if they didn’t change them all together — thanks to the deluge of fake news, as it was named in the weeks following the election.
Of course, it’s impossible to quantify its impact on the general election, if it even had much of one, and nobody is trying to.
“I think fake news feeds into perceptions we already had and further polarizes [them],” said Craig Silverman, managing editor at Buzzfeed News, during a recent keynote at the American Copy Editors Society conference, which took place in St. Petersburg earlier this month. “It also creates confusion. It just adds to the noise out there.”
But observers of media and politics are trying to figure out how to deal with it, and how to equip journalists and the public with the ability to discern what’s real and what’s not.
That’s why the First Amendment Foundation and the League of Women Voters are putting on panel discussions across the state that aim to tackle the issue, with help from the likes of Politifact’s Amy Hollyfield, Matt Brown of WFTS and Graham Brink of the Tampa Bay Times. On Thursday, March 30, they’ll be at the Poynter Institute for a discussion called Fake News vs. Real News — and how to tell the difference.
Fake news is nothing new. Political rivals making up salacious stories about one another goes at least as far back as the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s people accused Adams of, for example, being a hermaphrodite; Adams’s camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Yikes.
In the 1830s, penny tabloids became popular among working-class readers (most newspapers cost six cents). The cheap papers ran sensationalism and gossip — just like fake news sites. They were accessible, both in their cost and the level at which they were written — just like fake news sites.
And some fabricated events, courtesy of yellow journalism, may well have impacted history.
At the turn of the 20th century, publisher William Randolph Hearst shaped the run-up to the Spanish-American War when he sent an illustrator to Cuba to cover a conflict that wasn’t happening, telling him, as legend has it, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Perhaps ironically, it’s unknown whether that conversation even took place. But it shows how pervasive the problem has been.
“This is a part of the country’s history,” said Bob Shaw, a retired Orlando Sentinel editor and vice chair of the board at the First Amendment Foundation. “It’s not an especially noble part, but it’s there, without question.”
And it’s protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Even though fake news has been around essentially since the country’s founding, technology and various cultural and political factors have made for a perfect storm in terms of its proliferation over the past few years. Just about anyone can set up a website for free and share content through social media. That means traditional media outlets, which tend to vet information (and journalism job candidates) thoroughly, suddenly had competition, and lots of it.
And trust of the “mainstream media” has been waning for decades, Shaw said, from the time Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for her (fabricated) story about child heroin addicts in 1981 to news organizations that beat the drum for the Iraq invasion in 2002 and 2003. Plus, major news outlets can appear to have their own agendas (even if the boundary separating reporters from commentators is clear).
“Media make mistakes, and critics pounce on those mistakes and say this is an example of the inherent bias [...],” Shaw said. “Then there was Fox News. ‘Fair and balanced.’ Which oftentimes produces a whole different take on the news than you would get from watching CNN. On the other side, MSNBC has a whole different take on the news than you would get from watching CNN or Fox. So as trust in the media has deteriorated, so has people’s reliance on it as an objective source of factual information.”
That deep-seated distrust lent itself to the proliferation of alternative sources, even if those sources themselves were producing dubious, easily debunked content (think Occupy Democrats on the left and InfoWars on the right).
In late 2016, Buzzfeed published its analysis of the phenomenon, a study that found that fake news from dubious, heavily partisan sources outperformed content from mainstream outlets by jaw-dropping measures, especially in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election.
“What we found was that the more false you are, the more misleading you are, the more rewarded you are with shares,” said Silverman, who was part of the team that conducted the study. “The election to me was the high-water mark for this stuff.”
But when it was at its most polarizing, no one was calling fake news out for what it was, save for a Buzzfeed profile of the young Macedonian men who were making tens of thousands of dollars off of creating sensational yet factually challenged content for fake news sites — especially ones that were pro-Trump.
Some seemed motivated by the money, others by the power to sway the public via propaganda telling users what they wished were true (think “Pizzagate,” the internet-generated conspiracy theory accusing the Clinton campaign of running a pedophilia ring out of a restaurant called Comet Ping-Pong, a claim for which there was no evidence). At least one fake news purveyor, Jestin Coler, whose URLs included NationalReport.net and USAToday.com.co, was trying to write satire no one could possibly believe — but people did believe it.
Exacerbating the problem were social media algorithms, especially that of Facebook, that helped create ideological echo chambers on user feeds that worked to reinforce users’ beliefs rather than expose them to a range of viewpoints, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out after the election.
Of course, after Nov. 8, when larger outlets began to run profiles of fake news purveyors and the term made its way into the public sphere, Trump and others who had an interest in shutting down unfavorable (however credible) coverage co-opted “fake news” for their own use. There was that press conference in which he called CNN reporter Jim Acosta “fake news” the morning after the network reported on the existence of a dossier featuring damning claims about the Trump campaign’s Russia ties collected via opposition research — though not on the content of the dossier itself, which Buzzfeed compiled.
“He hasn’t called us fake news, but he did call us a failing pile of garbage,” Silverman joked.
Even if the media’s efforts to root out fake news are ongoing, including a 60 Minutes report on the issue in late March, it may be too late.
“My suspicion is that until the partisan divide in this country starts to close, this problem is going to continue and even get worse, because partisans on both sides have become very good about churning out fake news, and partisans on both sides have shown a considerable willingness to adjust to this fact,” Shaw said. “Until people start feeling less partisan and less hateful of the other side, I think there’s going to be a tremendous market for fake news.”
In the meantime, professional fact-checkers recommend treating all content that scrolls through your feed with skepticism — especially links from unfamiliar sources with sensational headlines that confirm your biases.
“If it seems too big, too good, too fabulous, too expensive, you should be questioning it,” said Gerri Berendzen, editorial advisor at the University Daily Kansan, at last week’s ACES conference.
Easy ways to determine if something has veracity include visiting Snopes.com or Politifact (though some fake news consumers are so entrenched they’ll tell you those two sites are agenda-driven).
You can, Berendzen said, also look for a site’s “About Us” page, to see if it’s admittedly satire (like The Daily Currant). And if a site doesn’t offer any info about what it is, one should probably discount it. Same goes if there’s no author name or date of publication attached to an article.
But the fact remains that, skepticism over traditional media outlets aside, journalists and columnists at newspapers and other outlets still have to adhere to professional standards that prevent them from simply making stuff up out of thin air.
“If you go to an establishment website of any national or local publication, like the Tampa Bay Times or the Orlando Sentinel, or whatever, then the odds are pretty good that what you’re reading in there is certainly going to fact-based,” Shaw said. “If conclusions rely on interpretations, then it’ll be pretty clear whose interpretations they are, and often there will be dueling interpretations. But if you’re just clicking on links and opening them up and not doing any more checking, God knows what you’re going to be reading.”