“It’s fake news!” This saying has rapidly secured itself a spot in current pop culture and is the basis of many jokes, but the repercussions of this relatively new phenomenon are far from funny. Fake news refers to media designed to look like news without meeting the minimum standards of professional journalism, and it, in large part, has caused the nation’s distrust of news outlets and has helped propel the divisive nature of modern-day politics in this country.
Essentially, fake news is fabricated false statements that are touted as truth, which purposely appear to be from legitimate news outlets despite having little to no factual support. The reasons for impersonating real news sources to spread misleading information vary from the intentional promotion of false news for political gains to the satirical use of false news to prove a point or make people laugh. People also report fake news as a means to generate more ad revenue through increased website viewership. For example, during the 2016 Presidential election, a Macedonian town of roughly 50,000 people hosted hundreds of pro-Trump websites.
Regardless of one’s motivations, promotion of fake news has an influential impact on public trust in the mass media industry generally and the current U.S. political climate. In fact, a recent Harvard University study looked at the relationship between public exposure to fake news and the subsequent level of people’s belief in both mass media and the U.S. government. Researchers found a direct correlation between exposure to fake news and a growing public wariness of mass media reporting. However, fake news concerning the current U.S. political environment has different effects on the level of trust given by the public in the federal government depending on one’s political affiliation. Liberal voters tend to trust the U.S. government less when they hear political fake news, while both moderate and conservative voters tend to trust the government more when exposed to the same reporting. What do these distinctions in public perception mean in terms of the integrity of news reporting now and in the future?
From a public information perspective, the increased erosion of public trust in mass media, particularly, mass media outlets committed to upholding standards of journalistic ethics, is dangerous for many reasons. First, the mere presence of fake news hinders news outlets’ ability to quickly process important information about newsworthy events and issues concerning public health and safety out to the general public. Indeed, the sheer volume of fake news can bury factual information provided by reliable news markets, thereby delaying or even preventing the public from uncovering the truth about events like natural disasters, as well as the recommended responses to these disasters, in a timely manner. Fake news also destroys the credibility of legitimate reporting sources by flooding the news markets with statements designed to contradict the truth and confuse people. Fake news even costs lives. One only has to consider the U.S. public reaction during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which people were pushing a variety of “cures” for COVID-19, such as silver suspended in liquid. These cures have absolutely no scientific basis, yet the hype around them makes it difficult for people to find the protective facts about the pandemic whilst wading through incorrect information.
From a political climate perspective, fake news positively or negatively affects people’s trust in our national government based on their political affiliations. The more polarized the political issues, the more fake news is likely to be generated, driving a wedge in our nation’s unity and reshaping people’s faith in our government. Furthermore, the Harvard research study found that exposure to fake news has a chilling effect on public participation in U.S. politics for those who distrust the government. In other words, a lack of trust in the government leads voters to believe like their voices and participation don’t matter. On the other hand, an unjustified level of public trust in the government can cause a frightening effect in governmental participation in politics. Political parties with unwavering public trust, in part due to exposure to false information about political issues, have no incentive to work towards the common good of the nation; they rest on their laurels instead of solving pressing crises, thereby reducing the government’s overall effectiveness. Either way, the uncomforting effects of fake news cut at the very heart of democracy and limit the effectiveness of any democratic organization.
Are there any solutions to the challenges posed by fake news? Can fake news be successfully debunked once unleashed to the general public in an effort to minimize the damage? Can it be stopped? A couple of foreign political entities have made progress in their attempts to curtail fake news. The European Union works with social media organizations like Facebook to encourage this platform to demote or flag content that does not hold up to fact-checking. The E.U. also built a digital media observatory that allows scientists, media literacy experts, and fact-checkers to more closely collaborate with each other and social media corporations to monitor posted content. Furthermore, the United Nations attempts to prevent fake news from spreading, especially in the wake of COVID-19, by coordinating with local news outlets, individual journalists, European governments, and other U.N. affiliates and volunteers to flood the public with factual information in order to minimize the exposure to conflicting and false information. Similarly, social media moguls and corporations are taking steps to combat fake news. As noted above, Facebook is taking steps to remove or flag fake content from its website, particularly after it was discovered that its platform was used for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Twitter is also taking steps to issue notification tags for misleading or false tweets before they can be read. While most fake news cannot be stopped, more must be done in the U.S. to prevent the release of false content especially when it concerns safety; it is the first step towards restoring trust in our government and media.