Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re well aware that the topic of fake news has been heavily discussed since it helped Donald Trump “win” last November. And by fake news I mean actual fake news — not partisan analysis and opinions some people don’t like. You see, while there’s definitely a very real problem of legitimately fake news misinforming millions of people, not just in the United States, but all over the world, fools like Donald Trump and other clowns have hijacked the term to use it as a weapon against news outlets, blogs, writers, journalists, or fact-based opinions with which they disagree and don’t want people to believe.
As I pointed out in this article, people don’t get to change the definition of “fake news” just so they can push their propaganda or to fit their personal agenda.
All that being said, legitimate fake news is a real problem that needs to be addressed because it’s definitely having a very negative impact on just about every corner of this planet.
So, what is fake news? Well, it’s news that’s not-at-all true, real, or factual.
Just because an opinion is partisan, and you don’t happen to agree with it, doesn’t mean it’s “fake.” Keep in mind, however, that the basis for all of this is still reliant upon the source for that opinion being credible. I’m not saying that all opinions are credible — clearly they’re not — I’m simply pointing out that being partisan doesn’t instantly qualify someone’s opinion as “fake.”
That’s part of the “fake news debate” that’s rather tricky to navigate. Obviously the determination of the credibility of a source is a subjective matter, which only makes determining which opinions qualify as “partisan opinion” and which are basically “fake news” that much more difficult to determine.
I would say one of the best ways to weed out who is or isn’t credible is by looking at how “matter-of-fact” they present their opinions. If any source or writer you follow is presenting their opinion as news (though not to be mistaken with offering their opinions on actual news) then that’s a problem. An opinion should be clearly expressed as a writer’s thoughts on an issue, not as an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theory presented as “fact.”
When it comes to how fake news became such a problem, there’s plenty of blame to be spread around. Algorithms utilized by companies such as Facebook and Google that seem to reward “viral, clickbait” stories no matter where they’re coming from or how credible they are (a fantastic but lengthy breakdown of Facebook’s role in this can be found here) deserve part of the blame, as they’ve made it extremely easy for con artists to appear legitimate and generate traffic. However, this is not an issue that’s as easy to solve as some might think.
Unfortunately, when you get to the heart of the “fake news epidemic,” it exists for one reason and one reason alone: All of us.
Rhetoric aside, fake news is really nothing more than basic economics. It’s supply and demand. When consumers demand a product, there’s always going to be someone out there who’s going to supply it, with the know-how to market it successfully.
As humans, we have a tendency (especially nowadays) to reject information we don’t want to believe is true, while seeking out news or opinions that confirm our bias. Over my 4+ years writing for Forward Progressives, I’ve lost thousands of followers because I dared to express an opinion with which they disagreed. Some of those opinions were 100 percent subjective based on my own thoughts on an issue. However, I’ve lost more than just a few followers for pointing out an indisputable fact that they simply didn’t want to believe was true.
Case in point, some Bernie Sanders supporters. In particular, the “Bernie or bust” folks who, to this day, still believe the primary was rigged.
Just about a year ago, right after the last primary election was held, I spent many hours compiling data from every single state putting together an in-depth breakdown based on indisputable math showing why Hillary Clinton ultimately won the nomination.
If you want to see that breakdown, feel free to check it out here.
Ultimately, the math showed that Sanders didn’t lose to Clinton because of some “nefarious scheme by the DNC to rig the primary,” it was because minority voters, in particular African Americans, overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. As I said last year about the overall findings of the primary backed by the raw data from every single state’s primary/caucus:
There are 21 states in this country with an African American population of 10 percent or greater — Sanders won exactly 2 (9.5%). Of the 22 states that have Latino populations of 10 percent or greater, he won 11 (50%). However, in the 23 states with white populations of 70 percent or greater, Sanders won 16 (70%).
Think about those numbers. He lost 90.5 percent of states with an African American population over 10 percent and half the states with a Latino population of 10 percent or greater — but won 70 percent of the states with a white population over 70 percent.
What these numbers tell me is that I could find someone who knows nothing about politics or either candidate, show them a list of states listed “State A, B, C..,” and they would be able to most likely accurately predict around 90-95 percent of the time which candidate would win each non-identified state based on nothing more than knowing the racial demographics and whether or not the state used a primary or a caucus.
That last part is especially important because it shows a predictable pattern based on raw data — not opinion. I could take someone who knows nothing about politics, show them these numbers, inform them of the racial demographics of each state, and this completely politically ignorant person would be able to predict, with a good amount of accuracy, which candidate won each contest.
Common sense dictates that if the primary were, in fact, rigged, then this pattern wouldn’t exist, let alone be fairly predictable.
I bring this up not to take a jab at Sanders supporters, or to rehash a debate that, unfortunately, is still being discussed by some, but to point out that I had many of his supporters look at these numbers — yet still claim that the primary was rigged. They’ll ignore and reject this raw, non-partisan data because it doesn’t confirm what they want to be true. Instead, they’ll find cherry-picked comments from a handful of emails — out of tens of thousands — many of which were taken out of context, to “prove” the primary was rigged, because that’s what they want to believe. In their minds, certain people at the DNC expressing less-than-flattering opinions about Sanders in an email validates their “rigged conspiracy” — even though they can’t explain how those opinions literally rigged elections and votes. I’ve also yet to have any Sanders supporter explain to me why the “DNC’s rigging” only seemed to impact minority voters.
My point is, even in the face of fairly basic (though extensive) math, those who want to believe the primary was rigged by the DNC will probably always believe that it was.
That’s what I mean when I say fake news is largely about nothing more than supply and demand.
Another example I wrote about a few weeks ago was about a guy named James McDaniel who, as kind of a joke, started a fake news site to see how gullible Trump supporters were. In less than two weeks, doing nothing more than pumping out blatant fake news articles specifically designed to pander to what he knew Trump supporters wanted to hear, his articles received over 1 million views and they had been shared all over social media. The guy even put a disclaimer at the bottom of his website that said the stories “are fiction, and presumably fake news” — but it didn’t seem to matter to many people.
Why? Because he was telling Trump supporters what they wanted to hear. Fake stories about Wikileaks finding Clinton’s “lost emails” or Obama saying Trump needed to be removed “by any means necessary.”
McDaniel told Politifact:
I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary is a demonic child trafficker. These are things much more widely believed among Trump supporters than I had previously thought.
Like I said, supply and demand.
McDaniel set out to basically test a hypothesis — that Trump supporters were gullible enough to believe any source that confirms their bias — and he was proven correct as he saw many of his completely made-up articles go viral, generating many responses that showcased a complete belief in the story.
Though make no mistake about it, this is a problem on the left, too. I’ve just found it to be less of a problem than it is on the right. There’s definitely a percentage of the left (especially those on the far-left) who are prone to believing fake news and conspiracy theories. But you typically don’t see well-known and respected Democrats and/or progressives like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others quoting random, left-wing conspiracy blogs like you do, say, Donald Trump who views Sandy Hook-denying InfoWars and alt-right Breitbart as “credible sources.”
If you have some time to spare, check out this rather extensive list Politifact recently put together. While it’s by no means a complete list of every shady “news” site on the Internet, nor does it really address the problem of the many middle-of-the-road-sites that pump out highly sensationalized “breaking news” for quick clicks, it does provide a good visual for how extensive this problem is. It also shows how many of these fake sites are specifically titled to mimic legitimate news sources to deliberately trick people.
Fake news exists for many reasons (to push an agenda, peddle conspiracies, make money, influence politics, etc.). But it mainly exists because there’s a demand for it. As Ted Koppel recently told Sean Hannity:
You have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.
And that’s why fake news has become such a problem. Both on the left and the right, millions of people have determined that the ideology of what they want to be true is more important than what’s actually true.
Like this woman who credited Trump for a “blessing from God” when her son’s health insurance premium drastically dropped even though he had nothing to do with that — Obamacare did. So not only is she wrongfully giving credit to Trump for this “blessing,” she’s supporting the man who wants to repeal the very law that provided the “God-inspired benefit.”
Because people crave being told what they want to hear, they seek out sources that will do exactly that — which is why fake news has become so successful at misinforming millions of people. If no one is reading this fake news, then it’s harmless. It’s just nonsense floating around on the Internet no one is paying any attention to.
Except we know that’s not the case. Fake news isn’t just being read by people, in many instances, it’s out-performing real news on social media. That in turn forces credible outlets to dedicate extra time focusing on it and trying to debunk it.
So, how do we combat this? Well, here are a few suggestions:
- Stop being stubborn. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing — it happens to all of us from time to time: Swallow your pride and admit that you were wrong about something, then move on. It’s better to be a factually informed person who admits that they were wrong about something, than a misinformed fool who doubles-down on fiction to avoid admitting they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Be the factually informed adult, not the stubborn fool.
- Research, research, research: If something sounds too good to be true, there’s a good chance that it is. While I know it’s unrealistic to expect people to research every single piece of information they hear or read, we should be trying to research as much as we can before jumping to a conclusion on an important topic.
- Don’t trust headlines: This one is simple, read the article — please. If the headline and lede seem extra-sensationalized in a desperate attempt for clicks, search for information about the story elsewhere.
- Avoid sources that frequently use ALL CAPS in their headlines: While not 100 percent, I’ve found most sketchy/fake news sites often USE HEADLINES that look LIKE THIS. If you do happen to follow one of these websites, please research the things they post before sharing. Usually they’re just trying to appeal to emotions for cheap clicks rather than inform or promote any sort of intelligent discourse.
- Avoid sources that seem to exist solely to divide people while playing to emotions: Some sources know division drives views so they sensationalize stories preying on emotion rather than pushing rational common sense and examining the facts in any sort of thoughtful manner. They’re not there to add perspective or something constructive to a debate, they just want to push whatever they know can get people worked up the most, even if they’re ignoring context and critical information.
- Make sure the source often cites other credible sources: If you follow a website that rarely (if ever) cites legitimate news media entities (CNN, CBS News, BBC, NBC News, ABC News, etc.) then you probably want to avoid them. Even a borderline-fake-news outlet like Fox News is still much more credible than other “mainstream” conservative media outlets like Breitbart, Drudge, The Daily Caller, Blaze, and WND.com. At least on some level Fox News has some accountability, even if it’s very little in many instances. But if a source you follow almost always cites some other source that’s questionable, you’re probably best finding other places to get your information.
- If they never express an opinion with which you disagree, you might want to be skeptical: I’m an unapologetic progressive, but I’m not afraid to call out “my side” when I think the left is being hypocritical. If the sources you trust never say anything you disagree with, then they’re likely pandering, and that’s a gray area when it comes to credibility.
- Above all else, care about facts: Politics, and life in general, should be based on facts, not ideologies. You’re not less of a progressive (or conservative) if you happen to believe something that doesn’t necessarily fall in line with the “purists” on the far-left/far-right. In my opinion, the first sign of an irrational person is someone who’s 100 percent all one thing or the other. Life is almost always about balance — and so is politics.
- Speaking of purists, avoid them: I do my best to avoid people who are driven by irrational, knee-jerk reactions. While I applaud the passion of purists, too often that “passion” renders them incapable of being reasonable. Many times it’s these purists who make rational discourse all but impossible, push misinformation, and are most prone to believing fake news.
We can do our best to counter the fake news epidemic all we want, but when you get right down to it, as long as our society as a whole continues to demand fake news — proven by how popular fake news sites seem to be — it’s not going to go away.
We control this. To paraphrase Ted Koppel, we can either believe in facts over ideology or ideology over facts – and that’s a choice every individual must make for themselves.