I have always viewed the emergence of digital publishing as enabling the democratization of information. Almost all of us have computers in our pockets, broadband home and away, and anyone who wants to can be a publisher. Yes there are still gatekeepers but the newspaper editor, the TV producer and the book publisher are only controlling a gate to their paper, their TV show or their own published titles.
I can make a video, bypass every TV news producer, and upload it to YouTube. I can write this piece and publish it online irrespective of whether any newspaper editor anywhere thinks it’s worthwhile. Now before you point out that my blog doesn’t exactly have the prestigious masthead of the New York Times, think about how you got here. For most of you is was social media or search. How do you think most mainstream media stories are accessed these days? Home delivery? The distribution of information has also been democratized and make available to all.
Personally, I want to celebrate this democratization of information. Just last week I read an eloquent account of what it was like to be in the Mexico City earthquake written on the blog of a Mexican-American woman from California who was visiting family in Mexico City when the earthquake struck. I found a story on Medium by a tech guy a week before that explained the implications of the Equifax hack and what we should do about it, far more succinctly than anything I read in the mainstream media. I follow bloggers from England and Australia, India and Italy. They write about things that I never had access to when all my news and information came from newspapers, TV and radio.
But in celebrating the ability of all of us to be publishers and the volume and breadth of information that is now available to us, I perhaps overlooked what the scoundrels, conspirators and profiteers might do. One of those things is fake news, a term we are all by now not only familiar with, but sick of. A term that can be used for a few different things, none of which are good.
There is fake news that is just flat out made-up bullshit. Maybe it comes from the Russian government that sees it as a way to destabilize the U.S. and other rival nations. What in fact can be more destabilizing than trying to swing an election toward the great destabilizer himself? The Russians don’t have a monopoly on this. Three years ago I wrote a post about how a U.S. government agency had created a phony Twitter like service in Cuba (Is Uncle Sam a Hacker?).
But it’s not all about government spies and subversives. It also turns out that there is no quicker way for a tech-savvy teenager in say Macedonia to make a buck. Sadly if you make up a preposterous story like “The Pope Endorses Donald Trump” it gets hundreds of thousands of hits more than any legitimate story about a Presidential candidate endorsement or something the Pope might have really said. And that’s where the money comes in. When it comes to placing ads on the Web, there is not a human brain in site. It is all done programmatically and the sites or stories with the most hits get the ads and charge the most for those ads.
Fake news wasn’t invented for the American presidential election. I wrote another blog post in 2014 (Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?) in which I cited some of the sensationalist and completely false stories about Ebola (such as “17 Texas Kindergarteners Contract Ebola After Exposure to Liberian Foreign Exchange Student”). But it turns out that Americans during an election season were massively gullible and thus a goldmine for the kids in Macedonia. What does that mean for our democracy? Are our electoral choices being swayed by the fictitious creations of some Eastern European teenagers? Or is our direction being steered by a foreign government?
While the media itself wrings its hands and bemoans the proliferation of fake news, they are themselves responsible for another type of fake news. One of the things that digital publishing did was create a way to measure not only how many folks clicked on a story but also how many clicked on the ads that surround those stories. And the answer was, almost nobody. So the now disrupted advertising industry and the struggling news industry got together and invented something called native advertising. The word native is a polite way of saying you make it look like a news story even though it’s really commercial content. Oh yes, everyone says it is clearly marked as what it is, but the concept itself is based on creating a deception that what is not news is news.
And then there is “fake news” as the term is used by Donald Trump. The Trump definition is anything that he doesn’t agree with. Just about all presidents and other world leaders try to control the narrative about themselves. But few venture further from the truth than Trump. Fact is he’s a chronic liar whose commentary can’t really stand up to the fact checkers. So his response is to just delegitimize them. Outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post will make mistakes. They sometimes show that they lean left or lean right. But they aren’t fake news. And if the most prestigious and productive news sources in the country are summarily dismissed what information do we have to go on to effectively govern “by the people.”
None of this would matter without the complicity of the news consumer. Perhaps the most outrageous example of a reality-challenged news consumer is the guy who read the phony story about Hillary Clinton trafficking in children from the back room of a Washington pizzeria and not only bought into it, but headed to Washington with his gun to do something about it. What do we do about that? Stupid is stupid. I’ve heard better education suggested as an answer. But we now have a U.S. Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in or support public education. I’m pretty sure that the guy hauling his shotgun Into the pizzeria didn’t go to any expensive private school. Nor is he likely to turn his kids into preppies.
Aside from such outrageous examples, the American news-consuming public has so many sources to choose from that most have chosen to simply follow the news organization that most closely reflects the beliefs they already hold. Liberals aren’t watching Fox. Conservatives aren’t watching MSNBC. And that’s not even touching upon the issue of Web sites like the one run by that degenerate who claims the Newtown shooting never happened (presumably because he thinks everybody should be walking down the street packing heat). So a national citizenry that is already clearly divided consumes only news and information that will make those divisions even deeper.
The idyllic vision of a democracy involves a citizenry that can consider the issues that face the country, evaluate different ideas of how to deal with those issues and then choose the leaders who pose the best solutions. Wow! How are we ever going to get there?