Fake news is nothing new

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Much ink has been spilled about the rise of so-called “fake news” stories. These articles spread virally on social media and contain highly biased stories or information that the authors have invented out of whole cloth. Many people became aware of these stories during the last presidential election, when fake news outlets seemed to go into overdrive and threatened to drown out legitimate journalism.

Social media and our hyper-polarized political culture have led to the dramatic rise in popularity of online news agencies that have low or no journalistic standards. These agencies typically exist solely to generate ad revenue by drawing in credulous consumers with eye-grabbing conspiratorial headlines or to muddy the political discourse with false claims and misinformation that support or attack a particular politician or political issue.

People tend to selectively suspend their skepticism and critical thinking skills when they are presented with a headline that confirms their pre-existing biases. With the amount of terrible news sources out there, it’s entirely possible for one’s social media newsfeeds to be dominated by falsehoods, partisan mudslinging and conspiracy theories.

That said, this phenomenon is not entirely new. Extremely biased news has been around in some form for as long as mass media has existed. The advent of 24-hour news networks that constantly blur the line between news reporting and opinion journalism has enabled news consumers to wall themselves off into separate, non-overlapping political echo chambers. Partisan news outlets reinforce the ever-diverging and increasingly antagonistic worldviews that define our modern political culture.

The comparison between cable news networks and Macedonian teenagers who write fake news stories for hits on Facebook is not entirely fair. Even networks like MSNBC and Fox News have serious news divisions to fall back on. NBC News has fairly strong journalistic standards, and Fox News does a decent enough job when it comes to reporting on breaking news.

The problem is that the legitimate news reporting of these operations is inseparable from the biased opinion-based political coverage that most viewers tune in for. Sure, Fox News and MSNBC will report the weather accurately and air adequate coverage of current events, but those networks still work hand-in-glove with the leadership of their favored political party to create skewed political news coverage.

These networks have developed a business model that allows them to be successful by confirming their viewer’s beliefs and convincing their loyal audiences that their brand of partisan news is in fact the only acceptable and honest form of journalism. Their output may be of higher quality than fake news outlets, but their strategies used to gain ratings are really not that different.

People aren’t really that complicated when it comes to the relationship between their politics and their media consumption. It’s natural to want to settle into an ideological camp where one feels accepted. Many of us think that we are being responsible media consumers by getting our news from multiple outlets, but we often fail to realize that the current media landscape makes it easy to inadvertently construct a seemingly vibrant web of sources that all end up confirming the same viewpoint. The groupthink this fosters encourages us to feel that our views are constantly being validated and backed up by “evidence” in the form of partisan news coverage while allowing us to paint everyone who disagrees with us as gullible fools who have been duped by “fake news.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that the tactics of fake news proliferators are so successful. Years of partisan, biased opinion journalism portraying itself as legitimate news have primed the American public to be preyed upon by the trend of fake news stories. We have turned ourselves into the perfect suckers – as long as a story makes us feel good, strengthens our biases and makes those who disagree with us look bad, there’s a good chance that many of us will unquestioningly believe it regardless of its veracity.

Being a savvy media consumer is frankly not that complicated. Many of us fail to do it simply because it goes against our natural instincts. It requires us to constantly be skeptical and occasionally question our most deeply-held beliefs. It requires us, in other words, to be critical thinkers – and not just when presented with something we disagree with.

There is no perfect formula for quality media consumption, and I’m not interested in pushing any particular news organization here. Our media consumption should be composed of a multitude of different sources, all of which should have the highest journalistic standards. It should consist of a mix of corporate news, ideological outlets of different viewpoints, independent news and public media. Our news consumption should be predicated on the recognition that there is in fact no such thing as an unbiased news source and that everyone has some sort of agenda to push.

The news media we consume should, above all else, serve to inform and challenge our beliefs. This is a process that does not always feel good and requires some effort but is essential to being an informed and serious person in the age of fake news and partisan hegemony on the airwaves.