Oct 23rd, 2019, 12:37 PM

We are Fake News

By Sofia Smeigh
"I wish this was Fake News" sign at the LAX protest against Trump’s muslim ban. / Photo credit: Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash
Protesters at LAX protesting Trump’s muslim ban. / Photo credit: Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash
The media is biased, journalists are misleading, and we're confused

Some images or videos used may contain graphic content and strong language.

The term "Fake news" has been floating around the news sphere since it was made popular by the President of the United States Donald J. Trump. However, this term originated from The Daily Show, now hosted by Trevor Noah. John Stewart, the host of the show from 1999-2015, self-described the show as “Fake News” because they imitate real news reporting but don’t give entirely true or false information with a left-leaning perspective. Recent comparable shows include Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher, and in print The Onion

The definition has shifted from referring to satires and parodies to a much more serious subject. Public figures will refer to fake news when they believe it is invented with the intent to be politically divisive, the narrative is based on facts, but how it is spun is problematic, or news that they don’t agree with or that makes them uncomfortable. This makes people skeptical of the credibility of the media since comedy shows and satires have an explicit disclaimer whereas the politically biased news outlets do not.

Man holding a sign with conspiracy theories referencing Infowar.com / Photo credit: Capturing the human heart on Unsplash

Consequently, people are taking it upon themselves to identify and takedown “Fake news.” However, opinions and acts being called out as fake news are affecting individuals on a personal level. Brennan Gilmore was chief of staff to Tom Perriello, a Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, and was a United States Foreign Service Officer for 15 years, currently residing in Charlottesville, Virginia. On August 12th, 2017, he famously posted a video to twitter during the "Unite the Right" rally, a white supremacist movement, of a Neo-Nazi drove down 4th Street crashing into a crowd of counter-protesters, ultimately killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. After having posted this video to clear up some of the misinformation surrounding the incident, Gilmore was subject to conspiracy theories claiming he arranged the attack as left-wing propaganda. Conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones from InfoWars, claimed that Gilmore was part of what they call the “deep state,” using an altered video to discredit the right and President Trump. This led to dangerous situations, where Brennan Gilmore and his family were subject to harassment, hacking attempts, and even death threats. Gilmore wrote an article for Politico called "How I became Fake News" about these threats and how it's important to stand up and hold violent groups accountable for their acts instead of deflecting. Currently, he is in a lawsuit against Alex Jones and others for defamation. 

In a recent interview with the Peacock Plume, Brennan Gilmore states that "a truly neutral independent media is a critical cornerstone of a healthy democracy" and therefore "should always be protected."  However, “media of all types demonstrates a political bias to varying degrees,” but that “fact-based reporting should avoid political bias” and “political opinion should remain clearly designated ‘opinion’ sections.” Gilmore expressed that the current distinction between reporting and commentating “depends on the media source” and there are certain news outlets that “blur the line,” such as "MSNBC on the left" and "Fox News on the right." The political leaning of news outlets brings into question how they are being funded. Under free-speech laws, the media can be "funded by politically driven groups," Gilmore states. Because of this financing, it is more possible for "bias and political motive." Since this is a possibility under the law, news outlets should, however, disclose their funding to the consumers. The graph below shows the credibility and political influence of certain media outlets.

How biased is your news outlet? / Source: Isala Gray with data collected from marketwatch.com

Most of the news consumed by people these days is actually through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Social media connects people around the world, giving them the ability to share ideas and opinions. There is, therefore, an even larger risk of posting and sharing false or misleading information. This information can be for political gains, such as the creation of fake websites using their popularity to push an agenda. The algorithms of social media sites create epistemic bubbles, a situation when insiders of a sphere of communication aren't exposed to people on the outside and therefore have no knowledge of other opinions or facts other than what they are presented with, and echo chambers, a situation in which ideas and beliefs are being reinforced through their repetition and cause insiders to distrust everyone on the outside.

It has become more difficult with the rise of social media to be informed about the truth. However, we can argue that when our only source of information came from print media, the government often had control of what is being published. It is still the case in countries like France, where although the press is largely unrestricted, they are greatly funded by the government and indirect pressure is put upon news outlets as to not publish articles against the interest of the government or that could potentially create public panic.

The small scale censorship of media outlets, regulation of social media, and filtering of content shown to the people therefore put into question to extent of free speech. We can ask ourselves then what we can consider fake news, hate-speech, or freedom of expression.

Check out the video below from TED-Ed to learn more about the phenomenon of Fake News.


How false news can spread / Source: Ted-Ed on YouTube