Boston University

Fake News and Its Strain on Democracy by Sam Beermann @ Boston University

“Fake News” has been a hot topic ever since the Presidential election in 2016. One main question people have is what exactly constitutes “fake news”? The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term fake news as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.” The rise of these false stories in media sources has caused many Americans to distrust main stream news sources, which are providing, while biased, more factual information. In fact according to a politico poll 46% of Americans think the news media fabricates stories about President Trump. Within this poll it was found that 76% of Republicans believed the news media made up stories about Trump. One of the driving forces behind this is Trump himself. He once said in a radio interview, “Actually, dishonesty in the media is one of the things that surprised me the most.” He goes on to name networks such as CNN and NBC as the perpetrators of fake news; News which is critical of him. Trump makes no mention of the actual perpetrators of fake news who disseminate fake stories all over the internet but instead go after mainstream outlets. This sentiment is then seen to resonate with his supporters.

This distrust in the media due to fake news within the media has grown into a more broad trend which can possibly have consequences for our democracy. American consumers have begun to lump all media together because they is now no consensus on the facts due to the hysteria of fake news. In a Columbia Journalism Review article the author examines focus groups and finds that a similar theme appears when breaking down fake news. People view it as a “spectrum” or differences in “degree” of how fake they are. While one can do research in an attempt to find out whether or not they just read is factual, most consumers don’t. Instead the media is put on a scale and whatever one wants to believe is fake they can simply claim to be fake news while insisting the media, whatever it may be, which they agree with, is fact. People have generally begun to question mainstream news media because of its extreme bias in one political direction. For this reason all media is the same and it doesn’t matter whether or not the media is based in any fact or not.

What has happened because of this is that only 38% of Americans trust the news overall, while only 53% even trust the news that they themselves consume. The spreading of fake news has directly impacted how Americans think about the media. Generally it is not trusted by the citizenry. This distrust allows people to believe in fake stories and question those that are factual. I do not see a clear solution to this issue but it is important that we are able to, as consumers, differentiate what is based in facts and what is not, regardless of how partisan or biased it may be. We all understand that media is bias, but what we cannot do is undermine factual stories by labeling them in the same category as deliberately falsified news.

The consequences of this are already being seen. Chris Cilliza, an editor at CNN, wrote in an article, a detailed account of unfolding events related to the allegations that Roy Moore sexually assaulted multiple women when he was in his 30s and those women were teenagers. The Washington Post, he writes, went through a journalistic process to gather facts from many parties before producing the story with the allegations against Roy Moore. There are facts to back up these claims, along with corroborating witnesses, the fact that all of the women did not know each other and have gone on record with their claims, along with many other pieces of evidence.

“ ‘Fake news,’ Moore insisted – and lots and lots of people believe him.”  This is a consequence of the recent rise of fake news. People simply do not know what to believe anymore which translates into a less informed public on what are the actual facts and issues. A Pew Research Center study claims that 64% of all American adults believe fabricated news stories have caused a “great deal” of confusion towards the real issues at hand. One scientist who focuses on misinformation in media says, “On page one of any political science textbook it will say that democracy relies on people being informed about the issues so they can have a debate and make a decision. Having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to cope with.” Whether fake news stories themselves gain traction and deceive consumers, or have the impact of making consumers distrust more honest media is unimportant they both effect our democracy because it limits the publics ability to understand issues clearly and fully. A solution to this problem is unclear but we need to start by getting citizens to trust mainstream media again for its basis in fact, and to question all those sources which have no backing.

 

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