Fake news/conspiracy theories have been around for at least as long as the news media has existed. Tabloids may come to mind; those magazines near the checkout claiming celebrity alien abductions, Elvis sightings, and more. As society moved online, so did the fake news. Pranksters and conspiracy theorists created websites and forums. As social media became ingrained in our daily lives, more people were exposed. Friends sharing posts from fake news sites or blogs, often with outraged captions about how the mainstream media won’t report on it. People have trouble telling the difference between real and fake news. Young people especially seem unable to distinguish the two. This has led many in the media to publish how-to guides to help people recognize fake stories.
Fake news has made its way into the hands of public figures and officials, making it even harder to stop it from entangling people. The problem doesn’t just lie in the abundance of fake news, it’s that people believe it even when presented with the truth. This phenomena has sparked numerous discussions, especially since the US election. The Oxford Dictionary even recognized it in its 2016 Word of the Year.
This isn’t the first time fake news has caused trouble. The Washington Post notes fake news used to be called disinformation during the Cold War and it can have lasting effects on people even once it’s proven false. The Soviets weren’t the only users of disinformation. The US and other governments have used it throughout history in order to advance their objectives. This election season, however, has seen a remarkable increase in the extent and efficiency of fake news.
The latest in the fake news discussions is about the armed man who fired his gun in a DC pizzeria after he saw the popular fake news article about high ranking Democrats running a child abuse ring there. This man, like others, was duped by a conspiracy theory that has no factual basis. It’s also an incident that has made news across the country and abroad. The BBC wrote about The saga of ‘Pizzagate’ and how the conspiracy got started. While a majority of people seem to recognize the story as fake, it has a number of believers. A quick glance at comments on social media about the story show that rather than realize they’ve been fooled, they continue to believe in its authenticity. Only now the story has taken new turns and grown into even more of a conspiracy. They also tend to lash out at what they call mainstream media for being biased or even accuse those outlets of publishing fake news.
How can fake news be challenged if its staunchest believers don’t waver in the face of facts? This is something else journalists and academics are pondering. Active fact-checking became more common toward the end of the election and especially after election day, but fake news saw a similar increase. A Buzzfeed News analysis showed fake news stories outpaced real ones on Facebook as the election came to a close.
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple as to outweigh the fake news with the real. The internet, and especially social media, has made it incredibly easy for people to create personalized bubbles where the only ‘news’ they’re exposed to perpetuates their already held beliefs. People on all points of the political spectrum are guilty of this. It’s easier to accept things that confirm your beliefs than it is to accept a different perspective. The truth shouldn’t have a perspective. In that regard, the media shares the blame for the rising trend of fake news. The Newseum tweeted that the “era of non-partisan journalism is not dead, we now need fact based rather than opinion based journalism more than ever.”
There is no single way to stop people from believing in fake news. Guides on how to spot it will help some, but others will continue to believe. A multifaceted approach focusing on verifiable facts, education, and dissemination will be needed. The fake news problem didn’t happen overnight and it’ll take time to fix it. In the face of declining budgets and personnel, newsrooms will have to remain relentless in the fight. The good news is many people have shown their support for journalism by subscribing to newspapers and donating to nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s a hopeful sign that real news will be able to overcome the fake news business.