During a 2017 interview on the Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network, President Donald Trump claimed his use of the word “fake” to describe the media was “one of the greatest of all terms [he’d] come up with.”
While he was mistaken about his creation of the phrase “fake news,” Trump’s frequent use of the epithet to describe news media has no doubt popularized the label – and may have even led to the phrase’s inclusion in the Dictionary.com database.
It may seem at times like fake news is an epidemic unique to our current political climate, but it’s actually been around for centuries. Let’s take a closer look at what it is, how it spreads, and what you can do to detect it.
What Is Fake News?
As its name suggests, fake news is false or counterfeit information reported in a newspaper, news periodical, or newscast.
Fake news differs from satire, farce, or hyperbole in that it’s a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion for political, financial, or social gain. Inaccurate content is packaged to appear as fact, thus duping the audience into believing it’s true.
A story doesn’t have to be totally made-up to mislead; it’s enough to present subtle misrepresentations, critical omissions, or out-of-context information. Examples of recent misleading or false information include claims that:
- President Barak Obama was born outside the U.S.
- Senator Ted Cruz was bribed to pass legislation that put America’s public lands in the hands of the Koch brothers for mining and other business pursuits.
- The Affordable Care Act established a “death panel” to determine healthcare benefits for the sick and elderly.
- Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President. (A later report revealed that the Pope supported Hillary Clinton.)
- Millions of illegal voters voted in the 2016 presidential election.
Why does fake news spread so rapidly? As Craig Silverman of Neiman Reports writes in the Columbia Journalism Review: “[T]he forces of untruth have more money, more people, and… much better expertise. They know how to birth and spread a lie better than we know how to debunk one. They are more creative about it, and, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they aren’t constrained by ethics or professional standards. Advantage, liars.”
The History of Fake News
False stories have existed since the beginning of human interactions. The effects of these stories became especially virulent after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1439.
For centuries, the veracity of any printed story was hard to prove, mainly since publishers were more interested in circulation and profits than truth. As a consequence, fake news frequently led to widespread injustice, rebellions, and war:
- Saint Simon of Trent. According to one Catholic website, a two-year-old Italian boy, Simonino, was kidnapped in 1475, “crowned with thorns and crucified by the Jews on Good Friday, in mockery of Jesus.” A Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, said that the child’s blood was drained and drunk to celebrate Passover. As a consequence, members of the city’s Jewish community were arrested and tortured, with 15 burned at the stake. Although the Church eventually disputed Jewish involvement and forbade the veneration of Simon of Trent in 1965, the myth of the Jewish assassins persists.
- Ben Franklin’s Fake Newspaper Story. To aid the cause of American independence, Ben Franklin published a fake edition of the Boston Independent Chronicle containing a report that the Senecas had scalped hundreds of colonists, including infants, as part of an alliance between the Senecas and the British. This falsified report bolstered American resistance during the Revolution.
- The Spanish-American War. In the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and the New York Tribune frequently overlooked facts, exaggerated and misinterpreted information, and featured garish headlines to boost circulation. Their sensational drawings of Spanish soldiers strip-searching female passengers are considered a significant impetus for the resulting war.
- The German Corpse Factory. During WWI, the London Times and Punch published a fake story about a German factory that processed human corpses into glycerin to make ammunition. The story was based on a fabricated account by the head of the British propaganda department designed to draw China into the war on the English side.
Fake News & Politics
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press to ensure transparency and accountability of government. The Founders’ intention was for the press to serve as a counter-balance for the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. Unfortunately, history is littered with instances of newspapers publishing fake political stories to increase circulation or advance their owners’ financial interests. Since those under attack invariably claimed the information was a lie spread by political enemies – regardless of the underlying facts – “truth” depended upon the biases of the teller and hearer.
Using techniques pioneered by hucksters and snake oil salesmen, political operatives quickly learned to spread false, often lewd stories about their opponents while attributing only virtues to their clients. As a consequence, false stories about public figures in the media (and subsequent claims that the reported information was false) have been a part of American politics since George Washington’s presidency:
- Thomas Jefferson. The Richmond Reporter published the then-unproven claim that Jefferson “keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.” (The results of a DNA test in 1998 indicated that Jefferson was the father of at least one child of the slave Sally Hemmings). While Jefferson surely knew the report was real, his reaction and public defense were to deny the account and attack the news media. As he subsequently complained to a friend, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
- Andrew Jackson. The Daily National Journal of Washington, D.C. questioned Jackson’s morality and claimed that he was a slave trader. Another newspaper claimed that his wife, Rachel Jackson, was a “convicted adulteress.” As a result of these stories, Jackson himself became a master of press relations, manipulating the news to suit his purposes.
- Ulysses Grant. Despite being a press favorite thanks to his role in the Civil War, Grant’s two presidential terms were plagued by one scandal after another, including Credit Mobilier, Black Friday, and the Whiskey Ring. While Grant was believed to be innocent of rampant corruption during his terms, he claimed that coverage attributing these frauds to him was false and malicious, saying he had “been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely equaled in political history.”
Journalism’s Code of Ethics
“Objective news” didn’t become popular until the early 1900s, when Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times. In an era when newspapers, the mass media of the time, were filled with political disinformation, corporate publicity, and “yellow journalism,” Ochs believed a fact-based newspaper would be profitable. The New York Times subsequently developed the nation’s largest circulation base while winning more than 125 Pulitzer Prizes.
By the 1920s, journalism associations had adopted formal codes requiring “objectivity in reporting, independence from government and business, and a strict distinction between news and opinion,“ according to Dr. Stephen J.A. Ward’s book “The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond.” As journalists and publishers incorporated the new ethics into their reporting, confidence in the veracity of their stories began to rise.
By the latter half of the century, most Americans believed that national news sources, including TV networks, could be trusted, especially during and after World War II. Examples of journalistic integrity include:
- Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, and Andy Rooney were national heroes for their battlefield reports during WWII, a tradition continued by Dan Rather, Morley Safer, and David Halberstam in the jungles of Vietnam.
- Walter Cronkite, a CBS news anchor for two decades, was named the “Most Trusted Man in America” in 1972. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley occupy a similar position on NBC’s Evening News.
- 60 Minutes, a CBS news program debuting in 1968, has been on the air for more than 50 seasons and is known for its hard-hitting exposes of corporate and government abuse and fraud.
The Erosion of Trust
Americans believe that what counts as “news” should not be determined by the press, but by events in the world as they occur. They expect news sources to be apolitical and factual, allowing the audience to interpret the impact or consequences of the facts.
Unfortunately, accuracy and objectivity can be difficult to achieve. In his book “Behind the Front Page,” David Broder of the Washington Post writes, “My experience suggests that we often have a hard time finding our way through the maze of facts – visible and concealed – in any story. We often misjudge character, mistake plot lines. And even when the facts seem most evident to our senses, we go astray by our misunderstanding and misjudgment of the context in which they belong.”
According to Gallup, Americans’ trust in the news media peaked in 1972, when more than 7 out of 10 Americans had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the integrity of news reporting. By 2016, less than one-third of the population trusted national news sources.
Factors in the Rise of Fake News
The decline of trust behind the increasing claims of fake news is due to several factors:
TV’s Replacement of Print Media
Television gradually replaced newspapers and periodicals as American’s primary source of news after 1950. John F. Kennedy, considered one of the country’s first “TV presidents,” was especially adroit at managing his image. Many credit his knowledge of the new mass media for his election in 1960.
The transition from print to TV news changed the focus and style of news presentation. Pew Research reports that viewers consider TV more believable than newspapers and periodicals, possibly because of the added visual media. However, TV often exaggerates and simplifies news to capture viewers with its time-limited broadcasts.
Critics say TV networks perform superficial fact-checking and are less likely than print sources to provide the five “Ws” considered necessary for accurate reporting: who, what, where, when, and why. While visual evidence is more credible than written claims, newspapers aren’t limited to space the way TV news is, and as a result, they can provide more detailed information and nuance in their stories.
The Growth of Social Media
The rise of the internet led to widespread social networking use in the early 2000s. At the end of 2017, Facebook had more than 2.2 billion members worldwide and Twitter had 330 million active members, including President Donald Trump, who has tweeted at least once a day since his inauguration.
The combination of instant communication and 24/7 access has led many people to rely on social media to supplement or become their primary news source. According to Pew Research, more than two-thirds of Americans use social media for all or a portion of their news today. Another Pew poll found that 74% of readers believed the information they got from friends’ social media posts was as reliable as that from traditional news organizations.
However, unlike traditional news media, there are few if any regulations governing the content of blogs, social media messages, and status updates. In other words, almost anyone can publish anything on the web without concern for quality or accuracy. Authorship is often unknown, as is intent, and opinions are easily represented as facts.
The lack of control over social media content allows foreign governments and other influencers to spread false information. American security services found evidence that Russian hackers and internet trolls attempted to influence the 2016 presidential campaign. In 2018, a Federal indictment charged 16 Russian executives with “information warfare” and attempts to “interfere with elections and political processes.”
The plethora of news sources, legitimate and otherwise, makes consensus over anything nearly impossible. Dr. Mary E. McNaughton-Cassel, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, states that the “ceaseless flow of news, social media, and questionable facts” enables us to favor information that reinforces our established opinions.
Consequently, we tend to think any information that conflicts with our position is fake news. This is especially the case when it comes to emotional topics such as politics and religion.
Conspiracy theories like the following demonstrate our willingness to deny facts that are too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into our belief systems:
- Vaccination for measles, mumps, and rubella causes autism. Relying on discredited research by U.K. physician Andrew Wakefield, groups like Texans for Vaccine Choice and anti-vaccine celebrities like Donald Trump, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Rob Schneider have persuaded many parents to forego vaccinations. As a consequence, outbreaks of once-eradicated childhood killers are recurring.
- There is no such thing as man-made global warming. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists, scientific societies, and government agencies agree that global climate change is real and caused by human activities. Yet President Donald Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have asserted that the conclusions of scientists are wrong, and plenty of Americans accept this assertion.
- The theory of evolution is false. A 2014 Gallup Poll found that 4 in 10 Americans reject the theory of evolution in favor of the theory that God created mankind in its present form. This view contrasts with the position of the scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences, which supports evolution.
Repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine
In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a report requiring radio and TV broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to controversial issues of public interest, including the airing of opposite views. Broadcasters were also required to notify anyone subject to a personal attack and allow them an opportunity to respond.
Broadcasters quickly challenged the FCC position, known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” on the basis that it violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The FCC successfully defended the doctrine in the courts for several decades but repealed it in 1987 under pressure from Congress.
Talk Radio & TV
Politically oriented radio shows exploded in the early 1990s after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Several years later, the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan Supreme Court ruling found that public figures could not sue for libel or slander even in cases where the information was false. No longer required to present a balanced viewpoint, radio stations focused programming on analysis and opinion rather than pure news reporting.
Attorney Steven J.J. Weisman, Legal Editor of Talkers magazine, subsequently stated that talk radio hosts “could be considered pretty much libelproof.” Anyone claiming to have been libeled by harmful, untrue statements, he said, “would have to meet that very high standard of having to prove that the radio talk show host had acted with malice. This is indeed a difficult standard to prove.”
According to WIRED magazine, conservative Republicans are especially likely to gravitate to talk radio. Conservative and Libertarian talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck became media stars in the ’90s, drawing huge audiences with their controversial statements. Their popularity birthed additional public outlets for questionable news masquerading as “opinion” and outrageous hosts on both sides of the political spectrum:
- Alex Jones. Jones is one of the nation’s most recognizable conspiracy theorists. He owns several websites, including Infowars and PrisonPlanet, that draw an estimated 10 million viewers monthly. He was a big promoter of Pizzagate, a conspiracy that falsely linked former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a pedophile ring supposedly operating in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant. One gullible citizen, Edgar Maddison Welch, subsequently shot up the Comet Ping Pong restaurant to “rescue” the fictional imprisoned children. A Louisiana man, Yusif Lee Jones, believing that Welch had mistakenly picked the wrong restaurant, threatened Besta Pizza, located on the same block as Comet Ping Pong, three days after the shooting.
- Ann Coulter. The Connecticut lawyer is the author of 12 books and a frequent guest on conservative talk shows. She told a Cornell University interviewer that she “likes to stir the pot” and doesn’t “pretend to be impartial or balanced, as broadcasters do.” Her controversial statements include, “It would be a much better country if women did not vote” and “Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do.”
- Bill Maher. The former comedian debuted as the host of “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” on Comedy Central in 1993. He moved to HBO in 2003 with “Real Time with Bill Maher.” While Maher identifies himself as a libertarian, some people consider him more interested in stirring up controversy than promoting any one party’s agenda.
- Rachel Maddow. Maddow hosts a nightly television show on MSNBC and is an avowed liberal. Openly gay, the former Rhodes scholar and author spars publicly with conservatives like Fox host Sean Hannity and has inspired plenty of backlash. (The New Republic magazine named her one of the “most over-rated thinkers” in 2011.)
Hyper-partisanship began in the 1980s with the election of Bill Clinton. Before that time, partisan political conflicts rarely spilled over into nonpolitical aspects of people’s lives. Today, political parties have become tribes, and tribal loyalty is intense. Each tribe considers the other’s members evil or dangerous people who will destroy the nation.
Dr. Sean Westwood, a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, describes this evolution in an interview in The New York Times: “Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are. It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era, we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race – the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”
According to a 2009 Stanford University study, people even tend to choose their mates based on party affiliation. Democrats and Republicans rarely marry members of the other party, and mixed-party couples account for less than 10% of marriages.
Fake news has a ready audience in today’s environment of hyper-partisanship as people seek out reports that confirm their biases. Stories that support their chosen narrative, no matter how outlandish or questionable, are embraced as fact, while information that favors the other side is discredited and labeled fake. For many people, facts are fluid – “alternative facts” according to President Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway – and are manipulated to serve the storyteller’s purpose.
How to Spot Fake News
While our digital world has made it easier than ever to spread fake news, the upside is that it also makes it easier to disprove fake news. As Silverman writes on Neiman Reports, “Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource, and bring technology to bear in service of verification.”
Before you accept a new story as fact, experts recommend taking the following steps:
1. Identify Your Biases
Few people are able to maintain a truly impartial view of current issues. We all have personal prejudices based on our culture, environment, and experiences. Knowing your self-interests and how they affect your judgment is key to evaluating information and making rational decisions.
2. Check the Source(s) of the Information
Are these sources legitimate? Have they proved reliable in the past? Do they have a discernible bias? Information reported in the The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times is likely to be more reliable than that in a little-known conspiracy website. Try to discern the motive of the source publishing the information.
3. Confirm That the Information Is Reported by Multiple Sources
Shocking, controversial, or surprising events are always reported by multiple sources across different forms of media. Be suspicious of significant “news” that’s limited to a single newspaper, TV network, or website. Check the details of the story on several sources, especially those from contrasting political stances, to differentiate between fact and opinion.
4. Read Past the Headline
Media companies depend on readership for revenue, whether through ad sales or subscriptions. Editors know that dramatic, exaggerated headlines attract readers even when the content is pedestrian and non-controversial, so don’t rely on a headline to give you the full story.
5. Check the Authors & Their Credentials
Established networks and periodicals rely on identified reporters and legitimate experts whose education and experience can be verified. Fake news often lacks an author or source.
6. Distinguish Between News & Opinion
Most reliable print sources clearly delineate between actual news reporting and editorial opinion. News stories on TV and radio talk shows are harder to categorize since the hosts can opine about current news from a particular political perspective. Free speech protects even outrageous, exaggerated, and false information under most circumstances, so be prepared to fact-check any information you hear on these broadcasts.
7. Watch Out for Older Information
Old news stories, especially audio and video sound bites, frequently reappear long past their original publication date. While their information may have been accurate once, it’s easy to take it out of context, dramatically changing its meaning. Views, opinions, and circumstances can change over time, so make sure you understand the information in its original context.
8. Use Fact-Checkers to Validate Content
While many social media sites are initiating new security measures to identify and remove fake news, their efforts are likely to be less than 100% successful. The following fact-checking sites can help you spot fake news:
Fuzzy facts and personal biases fuel our society’s current polarization. Driven by extreme partisanship, “alternative facts” undermine confidence in America’s fundamental institutions and threaten the bedrock of American democracy.
Testing and verifying the information you receive is the first step to counter prejudice and blind acceptance. As Scientific American magazine puts it, the best way to guard yourself against bias is to learn to “accept ambiguity, engage in critical thinking, and reject strict ideology.”
To avoid becoming a victim of misinformation, each of us needs to include fact-checking as part of our consumption of news media. Verifying a tweet, double-checking statistics, and researching rumors are all critical for an informed citizen and a democratic society.
Do you ever check questionable information, especially information that contradicts your position? Are you guilty of spreading controversial stories on social media before confirming the facts? Are verifiable facts relevant to your decision-making?