I’ve been intrigued lately about the “fake news” phenomenon. Facebook and Twitter are now trying to root out and kill “fake news.” Why bother? I’ve read opinion after opinion on the impact of “fake news” and what it may have meant in the presidential campaign.
My take is a bit different. It comes — not from one of the wizards of the tech world — but from an old saying attributed to P.T. Barnum. Appropriate for this discourse, there’s more proof that Barnum didn’t actually say it, but whatever the original source, there is no evidence to its inaccuracy: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
You can throw away the idea that social media sites created “fake news,” they are just the latest delivery vehicle. It does travel at the speed of light now, but that just means it hits more suckers, faster.
A week does not go by where my email in-box is not hit by all sorts of spam. I just did my weekly spam folder dump and there were 1,239 emails as of Thursday. By Friday morning I had already received another 200. I understand the difference between what is now being called “fake news” and “spam,” but both rely on reader gullibility.
Here’s a spam example from last week: “I have important transaction for you as next of kin to claim US$8.37m email me at email@example.com so I can send you more details.” Yeah, right.
“Fake news” is where someone purposely sends out a story in an attempt to deceive, (that’s a nice word for lie), generally for political or ideological purposes, or like many, to attack and inconvenience.
It can be dangerous for the dupable. Edgar Welsh sits in jail because he believed a “fake news” story circulated on the internet that a pizza joint in Washington, D.C. was part of a child sex ring. What had the owners of Comet Ping Pong done that drew the wrath of whomever started this nefarious fake story? The owners had corresponded, according to The New York Times, with the Hillary Clinton campaign about a fund-raising dinner.
This was more than Welsh could stand, so he drove from Salisbury, North Carolina to Washington, a 350-mile jaunt, went into the pizza joint with a military-style assault rifle and fired it. Fortunately, no one was hurt. He had come to rescue the children, but there were no children to be rescued, only pizza dough.
Michael G. Flynn, son of the Michael T. Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser got canned last week from the transition team because he was spreading “fake news” that led Walsh to end up in the D.C. jail. The son was expected to follow his dad to the White House. That’s probably not going to happen now. Oops.
Was this the fault of “fake news”? Absolutely not. We have generations of Americans who have been watching idiot boxes and turning off their brains. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before and yet we’re more clueless than at anytime in our history. We are in a “post truth” society, so much so, the term is Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. It basically means people don’t know about facts, and if they know, they don’t care.
I see it almost everyday. People want to consume only media they agree with — factual or not. We call that “affirmation journalism,” which isn’t journalism at all. It’s not “fake news” we should be concerned about, it’s “fake intelligence.”
Let me define what I mean. When reading or watching, whatever the source, we shouldn’t let our skepticism go to sleep. For example, what if Mr. Welsh had stopped, just for a moment, during his five hour trip to Washington, and asked himself a question: If this child-sex ring is all over the internet, why haven’t the police been notified, or have they?
While he might not trust The Washington Post, he might have done a search on The Washington Times website and wondered, why not a word about the Comet Ping Pong pizza joint in the conservative newspaper?
“Fake news” has been around since our founding — and so have suckers. Now, we just have more of both.