Where there’s an appetite, there’s a market. This is how the world works, and digital news consumption is no different. Fake news hits all of the sweet spots: it’s cheap, satisfying, emotionally stimulating, fun to share… plus, it makes the publishers money. If this description bears a striking resemblance to, well, most news in 2016, it’s no coincidence.
A lot of media attention has been focused on fake news lately, and not without reason. Abetted by advertisers and social media, the newest form has spread like wildfire, particularly surrounding the recent election.
Fake news is nothing new, in fact, fallacious falsehoods have been spread in newspapers dating back to the founding fathers, when prominent political figures including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were painted with wild strokes to a gullible public. Rest assured, the appetite is as old as time. The serving platter is a different story.
Though we don’t know the origin of every clickable con, it’s not hard to determine the motive. Reporter Laura Sydell tracked down the man behind one fake news empire: an LA resident named Jestin Coler who started publishing fake news, he claimed, to expose impressionable readers. What he discovered not only confirmed his suspicions, but turned out to be lucrative to the tune of $10,000 to $30,000 a month.
Coler, a registered Democrat, noted that conservatives took the bait more often than liberals, which is why so many fake news articles have been targeted toward conservative audiences. The question is, why? It’s certainly not because the left isn’t susceptible; 9/11 conspiracy theories were famously a product of left-wing paranoia. If anything, the nature of digital news has weakened us all, and the mainstream media has too often served to alienate conservative-minded readers.
The numbers support this alienation, as a quarter of all journalists reside in New York, DC, or California — deep blue states — and just 7 percent identify as Republican. The dominant news cycle doesn’t reflect middle America or conservative values; naturally, this is a climate that erodes trust. It doesn’t help that today’s news cycle is driven by clicks, increasingly prioritizing the scandalous scoop over fact-checked, objective journalism. Social media dishes out content by the second, making authority difficult to detect truth among the noise.
All the while, mainstream news spread the overwhelmingly false narrative that Trump could not possibly win. This oversight alone calls into question the credibility of websites that claim to rely on facts alone. Let us not forget the many journalistic failings of the mainstream media, including Rolling Stone’s campus rape fiction and the “hands up don’t shoot” narrative, rated one of 2015’s biggest “Pinocchios” by the Washington Post.
So who is to blame? The Internet? Many have criticized Facebook for allowing fake and misleading news to run unchecked on their platform. Their plan to weed them out, however well-intentioned, probably won’t work. If we police the news, where is the line drawn? Do we scrap satirical websites like The Onion because some people don’t get the joke?
While Facebook is a convenient boogeyman, the real problem lies with human psychology, and we all have a personal responsibility to do better. Think of it this way: when eating, it’s up to us not to mistake a Cheeto for a string bean, no matter how good it tastes or how much we want it to be a vegetable. We don’t need the government or Facebook to grab junk food out of our mouths. We need common sense and will power.
It’s good to be skeptical of powerful behemoths like the government and the media—this is how we keep institutions accountable, transparent, and reflective of the people’s needs. But we can’t abandon this skepticism the second someone says something we want to hear.
A large-scale solution won't be simple, but individually we can all take useful steps in the right direction. Conservatives and liberals alike should double and triple check sites for authenticity before adding to the problem with a share. Journalism has changed, so we need to take an active role in challenging everything—even and especially that which jives with our politics. The rejection of fake and misleading news should be a bipartisan goal. If we learn to expect better, the press just may follow.