Fake News and its Impact on the 2016 Election
In order to understand the impact of fake news, it is essential to understand first what real news is, what determines credibility, and what the purpose of news is. According to Bill Kovach, “Inherent in the First Amendment freedom provided to the owners of a newspaper is an obligation to provide the kind of public service information a self–governing people need” (Fuller, 1996). While this isn’t explicitly said in the First Amendment, it is still inferred that media’s purpose is to publish the information that is essential to the people to make their own choices (Fuller, 1996). In a democratic country, citizens must be able to make informed choices and they depend on the reliability of news for these choices. Therefore, the news must be independent from the special interests that they report on, including the government (Fuller, 1996). News ideally should not be biased and should be as truthful as possible.
Keeping up with news is essential to human nature (Stephens). Citizens have a natural curiosity to know what is going on and a desire to keep the government accountable and transparent through the news media. However, when the media becomes warped with false information, this leads to mass confusion and distrust. People so desire to know what the current events are that often they are not as cautious as desirable (Stephens). News must be read with a critical eye to avoid the production of fake news and keep organizations credible.
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Fake news describes sources that intentionally publish false information, deceiving content, or drastically change real news stories and events (Knapp, 2018). It can be applied to a large spectrum of news, however slightly biased sources do not fall into the category (Knapp, 2018). The term is currently used too widely – it is being used on news that is only partly fake or on news that is fake for a satirical purpose (Hunt, 2016).
The term has been tossed around by politicians, journalists, and citizens so often that it’s meaning is unclear to many people and an abundance of news can now be considered “fake” by people. Fake news is directly related to the authors and their intentions. Some may be seeking to make a profit and not care about content, some may want to sway political beliefs (Desai, 2018). An important way to distinguish credible sources is to certify they have nothing to gain by not publishing the truth.
The term changed from a phenomenon in the news to a catchphrase of Trump during his campaign and a cliché for journalism in a rapid amount of time (Wendling, 2018). The beginning mainstream instance was 140 fake news websites garnering attention of Facebook users that were all rooted in a small town in Macedonia (Wendling, 2018). While the teenagers behind these websites did not have much interest in politics, their fake news stories brought them major profit through advertising on Facebook and their stories spread quickly in the tumultuous political environment leading up to the 2016 election (Wendling, 2018)
Lying and misinformation have always existed but this new type of news designed to deceive and sway gained its own name because of the major phenomenon it became (Wendling, 2018). The first politician to use the term fake news was actually Clinton, not Trump (Wendling, 2018). “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn’t about politics or partisanship.
Lives are at risk” said Clinton in what is believed to be a reference to “Pizzagate”, a widely circulated theory that led to one man opening fire in a restaurant (Wendling, 2018). Trump adopted the term and it was seen frequently on his Twitter and in his speeches leading up to the election (Wendling, 2018). The term however became so ambiguous that it began to lose meaning quickly (Wendling, 2018). Now, fake news is spread rapidly on social media (Knapp, 2018)
Assessing the factual nature of the news is essential when weeding through stories (Knapp, 2018). Intelligent and otherwise informed adults can be tricked by fake news. It is manipulated to appear factual and given website names that mimic those of credible organizations. 75% of American adults have read a fake news story and believed it to be accurate (Knapp, 2018). This means that while a greater emphasis must be placed on keeping news sources credible an additional emphasis must be placed on educating the population to be critical of what they read.
Social media is a large component of the circulation of fake news. Facebook had more user engagement on fake news stories than mainstream news from August to election day leading up to the 2016 election (Knapp, 2018). Researchers from NYU and Stanford found that 40% of visits to fake news sources come from social media, while only 10% to top news sites (Kurtzleben, 2018). It is troubling that social media is significantly more of a vehicle for spreading false information than factual sources.
Another factor in the circulation of fake news stories is that news can be manipulated easily to look true and many stories that are actually true are unbelievable themselves, making room for equally unbelievable fake stories to pop up (Hunt, 2016). Various fact checking sites such as “AllSides” and “FactCheck.org” are useful for reviewing stories (Knapp, 2018). The most important way to prevent fake news from being circulated is to develop a “critical consciousness” when reading news and sharing it (Knapp, 2018).
Companies such as Google and Facebook are taking action to review content to try to keep fake news away from their platforms (Wendling, 2018). This is admirable in theory, but will need to be researched to see how effective their methods are. Governments are also attempting to take action but this may have an undesirable effect (Wendling, 2018). “Sometimes well-intentioned but ill-informed legislators will overreach and do more harm than the problem they are trying to fix, with legislation on fake news” said Alexios Mantzarlis in reference to the proposed legislation that is gaining speed in several European countries (Wendling, 2018).
Polls give credit to the theory that the 2016 Presidential election was heavily swayed by a belief in fake news by Trump supporters. One poll found that 73% of Trump supporters believed that billionaire George Soros paid protesters to interfere with Trump rallies (Hunt, 2016). This was a fake news report, but Trump himself repeated it to his followers which gave it significance (Hunt, 2016).
Additionally, Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for national security advisor repeated and tweeted various fake news stories (Hunt, 2016). People in positions of credibility must be held to higher standards, because Trump backing this allowed the claim to gain even more momentum and misled voters. An analysis by BuzzFeed shows that fake news stories had more user engagement in the three months leading up to the election than stories from reputable sources such as the New York Times and CNN (Hunt, 2016).
One of the most famous examples of fake news from the 2016 election cycle is one that had real life impacts – “Pizzagate” (Hunt 2016). A man opened fire in a pizzeria in Washington, of which a fake news story had circulated naming it the home location of a child sex ring that Hillary Clinton was running (Hunt, 2016). The key point of “evidence” for this theory were references to pizza from John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, in emails released in WikiLeaks (Domonoske, 2016). Theorists said that pizza was code for pedophilia despite the owner of the pizzeria denying the claims (Domonoske, 2016).
While the story is outlandish, people began to believe it (Domonoske, 2016). They were encouraged by a tweet from the nominee for National Security Adviser’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., who tweeted that “until #Pizzagate is proven false, it’ll remain a story” (Domonoske, 2016). A poll found that 14% of Trump supporters believed this fake news story and 32% of citizens were not sure.
The obsession with the term “fake news” is hurting the credibility of reliable news outlets (Wendling, 2018). People don’t know who to believe and the way that the issues are being discussed is causing damage on top of the original damage from misinformation (Wendling, 2018). People are susceptible to believing stories that reflect ideas they agree with (Kurtzleben, 2018). This led to fake but Trump biased stories being rapidly circulated by supporters. While there isn’t enough research to determine if fake news played a significant role on the results of the election, is isn’t a stretch considering Trump did win in unlikely circumstances (Kurtzleben, 2018).
There has been disagreement as to whether fake news had a real impact on voting patterns (Wendling, 2018). Primarily, more research needs to be done to find conclusive results. Research from Princeton and Dartmouth shows that 25% of Americans viewed a fake news source in the six weeks leading up to the election (Wendling, 2018). These visits were concentrated to a subsection of the population with 10% of readers accounting for 60% of visits (Wendling, 2018). Even if fake news isn’t changing people’s votes it is still troublesome for society, misleading people and creating so much confusion that they stray from politics (Kurtzleben, 2018).