It would seem that the age of objective journalism is becoming increasingly threatened by the ever growing and insidious nature of fake news.
Perhaps the most notable incident in recent times,
(Image of Trump’s inauguration crowd; image courtesy of NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/trump-inauguration-crowd.html?_r=0)
(Image of Obama’s inauguration crowd: image courtesy of NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/trump-inauguration-crowd.html?_r=0)
President Trump’s inauguration crowd size was falsely reported by White House Spokesman Sean Spicer as being “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”. The numbers were greatly exaggerated, and when confronted about the incongruence with facts, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway generated the flimsy defense that Sean Spicer was employing the use of “alternative facts” in regards to the inauguration crowd size.
Facts are indisputable as they are based on objective data, therefore a fact should be able withstand any challenge and remain true, or be debunked and replaced with another fact. A hallmark of fake news is that they generally disregard objective facts in favor of artificial constructions that are heavily influenced by opinions. This was clearly the case with the “fake news” that arose from the inauguration hooha. The team at the White House clung desperately to their attempted portrayal of the truth despite being factually challenged by many sources.
Thanks to the scrutiny of the public and heavily publicized incongruence between the facts and the “alt facts”, the falsehood of Trump’s inauguration numbers have been well documented.
However not all instances of “alt facts” receive the same level of scrutiny that the inauguration numbers did. Instances of fake news that remain unchallenged not only continue to tout “alt facts”, but they also have the insidious nature of replacing reality and legitimate facts.
In fact, according to a research article written by Meital Balmas “When Fake News Becomes Real”, people who have a high exposure to fake news and low exposure to hard news perceive fake news to be more realistic, therefore mistakenly absorbing misinformation as facts. Compared to people who have a healthy information diet high in hard news, fake news junkies tend to have a skewed and inaccurate perception of the world.
This correlation between worldly perceptions and fake news consumption makes sense as according to Media and Communications scholar Stuart Hall in “The work of representation”, what is discerned as the truth varies from discourse to discourse. Fake news and “alt facts” certainly create a distinctly separate discourse from that of hard news and actual facts.
To make matters even worse, major search engines such as Google and social media sites like Facebook have been curating content tailored specifically to the viewing habits of their users. This creates a perpetual information loop that only shows people what they want to see. The influence of fake news is therefore multiplied by such companies as people who visit links leading to fake news will in turn be catered to with more fake news and less hard news as complex algorithms tailor search results and news feed elements in order to maximize click through rate.
These information loops form their own reality and discourse, leading to dangerously ignorant paradigms. Such effects have been documented in the research article “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity” by Regina Marchi, where it is revealed as the title implies, that teenagers are beginning to ignore objective journalism in favor of opinionated journalism.
Equally concerning, more and more people are losing their ability to determine facts from opinions! Documented through several experiments in the Stanford Executive Summary, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning”, it has been observed that a diverse range of students are increasingly mistaking fake news for facts. This loss in factual perception makes it even easier to fall prey to fake news.
The reason behind the rise of fake news lies in the business aspect of media. As explained by David Croteau and William Hoynes in “The Business of MEDIA”, there are two major media factions; the public sphere whose sole interest is informing the public and serving the people, and the market sphere, whose priority is profit at any cost. Fake news is therefore obviously a construct of the market sphere, designed to sway people’s opinions rather than unbiasedly informing them so they can come to their own conclusion.
Today, fake news is everywhere, pushing the agendas of the people who create them, whether it be to promote themselves or denounce their competitors. We must all be vigilant of the information we consume, making sure to consider the source as well as the intention of the source.
Balmas, M. (2014). When Fake News Becomes Real. Communication Research, 41(3), 430-454.
Hall, S. (1997). Chapter 1: The work of representation. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices London: Sage Publications & Open University.
Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity”. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), 246-262.
Stanford History Education Group (2016). “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning” Executive Summary
Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (2006). Media, markets, and the public sphere. In D.Croteau & W. Hoynes, The business of media: corporate media and the public interest. (15-40). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.