A free press is the watchdog of the people. The media holds the sacred responsibility of alerting the citizenry of actions by governments, elected politicians, corporations and even private citizens. It is the fourth estate guaranteed by the First Amendment. For democracy, this is the fire alarm.
But now the fourth estate is in crisis. The news media has been reshaped, redefined, and side tracked by commercial interests, biased ownership, the phenomenon of social media, the Internet, and a failure to police itself. As a result, fake news has become a threat to democracy.
Recent examples of poor or misleading journalism has severely impacted the journalism craft.
Rolling Stone magazine was forced to retract the article, “A Rape on Campus,” after it was proven that the account was close to a total fabrication. Even with fact checkers and editors questioning the rape victim “A Rape On Campus” was published. In November 2014 the article was read by 2.7 million people.
Pulitzer Prize winner and Columbia School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll was invited by Rolling Stone to investigate the situation with no restrictions. Coll’s conclusion? “A Rape on Campus” was a journalistic failure that was avoidable. The investigation went on to state that “The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”
The news media has been reshaped, redefined, and side tracked by commercial interests, biased ownership, the phenomenon of social media and the internet, and a failure to police itself.
Fake news can have potentially deadly consequences. Recently an armed man entered a Washington, D.C pizzeria to conduct his own “investigation.” The gunman believed a fake news story that the restaurant was the hub of a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton. The man fired several shots from an automatic weapon before he was arrested.
The internet and technology has compressed the news cycle from hours to a mere few seconds. Many news outlets are capable of delivering the news as it happens rather than after any legitimate journalistic research has been completed, leaving an open door for fake news. So the question must be asked: is a competitive immediacy for news more powerful than telling a truthful, accurate news story?
More to the point, how does fake news influence or affect democracy? The media is supposed to be the tripwire for lies and misinformation of the government and politicians. Yet some news outlets have been justifiably accused of siding with one political viewpoint over another. Few even bother to question the fact that Fox News is a conservative-leaning news outlet. Even though this is their right in a free press nation, is it a problem for democracy? Have these news outlets dismissed their responsibility of providing unbiased news for the sake of serving a market based on political beliefs?
According to a 2015 report by PoliticsUSA.com, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC/NBC are not providing accurate news. Fox News was considered the worst with 60 percent of Fox News’ stories were found to be “Mostly false or worse.”
Can we expect to have an informed populace when we can’t get accurate information? The lack of a reliable and unbiased news outlets has tainted an already under-informed voting public. Humans are creatures of habit and this applies to news sources as well. Most people read the same newspaper, watch the same evening news, listen to the same radio station, and go to the same news websites. There is little or no variety or research into opposing views. Because of this loyalty, misinformation can survive and thrive.
Social media has become another journalistic trouble spot. A Pew Research study determined that 62 percent of adults get their news from social media, with Facebook being the number one source. Facebook reaches 67 percent of American adults, but it was never intended as a news source.
Because of their influence and reach, Facebook has come under scrutiny for its news practices. The social media website has been accused of suppressing conservative news topics by former employees. This triggered an investigation by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. But is such an investigation fair? Is the Senate investigating Fox News for its conservative news? Facebook issued a strong denial of any bias yet announced changes to its news offerings.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said his company was taking measures to curb what he said was a “relatively small” percentage of deliberately false stories. Facebook is developing new tools to detect and classify misinformation and to make it easier for users to report suspected fake news. The company also is considering partnering with an established fact-checking organizations to evaluate content and possibly issue warning labels for stories flagged as false.
Social media as a news source is a powerful influencer and the research bears it out. Studies by the Pew Research Center reveal that 20 percent of social media users admitted that they had changed their position on a social or political issue because of content they saw on social media. Another 17 percent said social media helped to change their views about a political candidate. So fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets can impact the direction of the nation.
Twitter is another social media platform that is coming under more and more scrutiny for fake news and misinformation. President Elect Donald Trump continually uses Twitter to make clams that are factually untrue. Most recently he claimed to have won the election by the largest landslide in history. Not true. Trump tweeted that it would have been even more if the votes of millions people who voted illegally were deducted. Again, not true. Yet millions of Americans continue to believe this.
Private citizens also produce fake news that quickly become believable. In Austin, Tex., the founder of a marketing company tweeted a story and pictures to 40 followers about paid protesters being bused to demonstrations against Donald Trump. The post was re-tweeted more than 16,000 times on Twitter and more than 350,000 times on Facebook. There were no such buses packed with paid protesters.
20 percent of social media users admitted that they had changed their position on a social or political issue because of content they saw on social media.
News producers serve a market. They provide focused and tailored content that drives advertising sales to their audience. But providing fakes news is the not what true journalism is. In fact, even slightly misleading news was considered an ethical violation and grounds for ending careers. However, those standards have been eroded by the hunger for news right now fueled by the technological capability to provide it. Too many news outlets are broadcasting news that is tailored for the audience thus creating a collective ignorance among the people it claims to be serving. In addition, too many people are trusting news coming from dubious sources and semi-anonymous social media “friends.”
Americans are not totally ignorant of the fake news crises. Yet another study by Pew Research revealed many Americans believe fake news is affecting voters and the direction of the nation. Sixty four percent of American adults say fake news stories cause confusion about the basic facts of current news and events. Regardless of incomes, education levels, political affiliations and most other demographic characteristics this belief is common.
But this belief does little to curb the onslaught of fake news or foster further research into news stories. Twenty three percent of those surveyed admitted to sharing fake news. Another 14 percent said they have knowingly shared a story they knew was fake and 16 percent shared a story only to later realize it was fake.
This is the crises of fake news.