At some point, certain facts must be accepted as real. Reality must not be up for debate. That is one of the jobs of journalism, and it’s why Donald Trump is working so hard to undermine the free press. If he succeeds in making you doubt reality, he can do anything.
Conspiracy artist, birther extraordinaire and now President-elect Donald Trump has ushered in an era of “nothing is real.” As a candidate, Trump positioned himself as arbiter of reality. Many of the people he is bringing into the White House subscribe to “fake news,” which is rooted in conspiracy theories, with no basis in fact.
The danger inherent in what CNN’s Brian Stelter calls “weaponized disinformation” became all too apparent Sunday afternoon when a man entered a D.C. pizza restaurant with what police described as “an assault rifle,” intending to investigate “Pizzagate.”
“Pizzagate” refers to a fake right-wing news story that went viral. The original “coverage” falsely accused Hillary Clinton of running a child sex-trafficking ring in the back of a D.C. restaurant. While this story is clearly a conspiracy, Trump’s National Security Adviser General Mike Flynn tweeted a story falsely referring to Hillary Clinton’s “sex crimes” with children, thus legitimizing this deceptive accusation to his followers.
The disturbing proliferation of “fake news” has opened the door for silencing legitimate arguments through accusations of “fake.” President Obama got the heart of the matter when he said, “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
An argument or a point of view is not propaganda. The President used climate change as an example of how propaganda comes to be seen as just as legitimate as actual science. How to deal with climate change is an argument, but Trump’s claim that climate change is a “hoax” created by and for the Chinese is propaganda.
Public awareness of “fake news” soared following a recent report by Buzzfeed that busted 140 U.S. political websites, “including sites propagating false and misleading pro–Donald Trump content,” for being based in “the small Macedonian town of Veles.” Many of these sites were the source of trending articles on Facebook during the 2016 election, falsely accusing Hillary Clinton of tinfoil worthy misdeeds.
After being called on to address this problem, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook wanted to be careful in its approach, after all who decides what is real, “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves...”
Zuckerberg raises a good point; those who put themselves in charge of deciding, without scientific methodology and sufficient publishing knowledge, what qualifies as “fake news” should be side-eyed sharply.
“Fake news” cannot be confused with spin, biases, or points of view. Anyone who is conflating these things hasn’t even a basic grasp on the problem or issue; however, it’s my contention that these biases should be disclosed. A good working list on possible ways to improve can be found here.
It is up to mainstream journalists, reporters, and readers to utilize critical thinking skills to determine if there is any basis for claims made by Trump and his entourage of conspiracy artists.
Jim Rutenberg at The New York Times observed that Zuckerberg’s comment “appeared to buy into the notion that truth is relative at a time when that notion has to finally go away. Do you really need an outside arbiter to determine whether a video suggesting — without basis — that Hillary Clinton was involved in John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash in 1999 should be allowed to stand? Really?”
Rutenberg is right; it’s beyond dangerous to pretend that blatant conspiracies are the equivalent of reality, as proven by the consequences of “Pizzagate.”
So what’s a reader to do?
Audiences should make an effort to read the “other” side of an argument or analysis. This not only sharpens our critical thinking skills, is serves as a fact-check for our own biases.
While there can be a fine line where it gets tricky, we should all agree that sites blaming Hillary Clinton for the death of JFK Jr. or running a sex-trafficking site out of a D.C. restaurant are offering up fake news and don’t belong in the public sphere. The rule of thumb must be ‘never trust an outlet that tells you that only they tell you the truth.’ If they try to delegitimize everyone else, we should be alarmed and fight back. We cannot allow fake news to be conflated with opposing arguments.
The real danger is crystal clear: anybody who claims “opposition” against reality.
Increasingly, accusations that ironically distort reality as “fake news” have become the newest form of attack by Trump supporters. See it for what it is, an attempt to make Donald Trump the decider of what is real.
Donald Trump will not stop offering up his personal feelings as “facts,” no matter how fake those facts may be. It is up to mainstream journalists, reporters, and readers to utilize critical thinking skills to determine if there is any basis for claims made by Trump and his entourage of conspiracy artists.
Conversely, we must guard against the idea that now “nothing is real,” and thus we don’t believe anything. If we give into that fear, the truth terrorists have won.
Sarah Jones is co-publisher and managing editor of PoliticusUSA, a “fiercely corporate-free political news and analysis” website and Reuters publishing partner that does not seek grants or foundation funding and is not affiliated with any other group, political PAC or party.