The rise of fake news
In early December, Edgar Maddison Welch fired an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria as horrified customers and employees fled the restaurant, according to a report from The New York Times. No one was hurt, and the 28-year-old North Carolinian was arrested. The Times reported that Maddison told police he had been investigating a fake news story claiming that the pizzeria was involved in a child sex ring headed by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta.
What has been named “Pizzagate” across the internet is a reminder of how impactful fake news can become. Deborah Gump, the director of the university’s journalism program, says fake news is intentionally created to deceive and distract an audience, and are not not simply journalistic mistakes.
“When news stories have mistakes in them, we correct them,” Gump says. “But the fake stories in the news now were written with malicious intent.”
False news, and an overall lack of reliance on facts, has become such an impactful phenomenon that the word “post-truth” was named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. During the presidential election last year, people were inundated with fake news stories through social media. These fake stories include Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president, the murder-suicide of an FBI agent who was said to have leaked Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and President Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools across the country (the last of which was seen over two million times on Facebook, according to a Buzzfeed report).
Fake news, which communications professor Lydia Timmins defines as the false accounting of events to an audience, continues to evolve in 2017.
When President Trump took issue with CNN’s reporting, he told CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta that his news channel is “fake news,” and the accusation was broadcasted on all major news networks. President Trump also tweeted that “any negative polls are fake news.” Timmins says Trump’s comments expand the definition of fake news to include anything that an individual does not like.
Timmins, who has more than 20 years of experience as a television journalist, says individuals in positions of power have influence over what people believe is real. She says President Trump is laying the groundwork for his audience to question the truth.
“What he is doing is planting the kernels or the seeds of doubt in the minds of all who hear him,” Timmins says, adding that planting those seeds might make people doubt what is real.
And when people start questioning reality, it is difficult to correct their thinking.
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows how U.S. adults interact with fake news. The survey found that about a quarter of adults have shared fake news stories, both knowingly and unknowingly. Thirty-two percent of adults see false political news online, and 39 percent of adults say they sometimes see fake news.
With so many false reports circulating the web, it seems impossible to keep up with the truth. A study from Indiana University found a 13-hour gap between the publication of fake news and a subsequent publication debunking the false news. By the time a debunking article is published, it is often too late for a false idea to be corrected in the minds of many citizens.
Timmins says that it is difficult to fight the speed of fake news, but there are steps that both journalists and citizens can take to combat false narratives. It starts with verifying the truth before spreading a falsehood.
“The journalists need to do a better job, and the audience needs to care about having a place in our republic, in our participatory democracy,” Timmins says. “We need to care, as citizens, that what we are saying and doing is right and is true and is what is needed to put the country forward.”
Gump also believes that citizens can help reduce the impact of false reports. She says the best way to slow the spread of fake news is by using peer pressure on social media to demand the truth.
“As social media spreads it, social media can help stop it,” Gump says. “Fight back is what I say.”
Senior Reporter, Jack Beatson, contributed to this article.