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Dan Liljenquist: News stories about fake news stories

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Maybe we should take the mainstream media's breathless denunciations of 'fake news' websites with a large dose of perspective.

Maybe we should take the mainstream media’s breathless denunciations of ‘fake news’ websites with a large dose of perspective.

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News stories about “fake news” stories are the latest rage. Last week, a media frenzy erupted after President Obama, in a post-election Rolling Stone interview, railed against the corrosive nature of fake news stories sloshing around on the internet. Among other media outlets, this “fake news” narrative was picked up by the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News, which I find incongruous because each of these venerable journalistic institutions have published their own credibility-cratering “fake news” over the years.

Remember the NYT reporter Jayson Blair who, over a extended period of time, engaged in “frequent acts of journalistic fraud”? What about “Rathergate” in 2004, when CBS News almost destroyed President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign based on poorly forged “National Guard records”? Or perhaps you recall the time NBC’s Dateline rigged Chevy trucks with explosives to spruce up their “exposé” on the dangers of faulty gas caps?

I find it particularly ironic that President Obama chose to deliver his apocalyptic message on “fake news” to Rolling Stone, which in 2014 published a sensationally phony “news account” about a gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. A jury recently found Rolling Stone guilty of defamation for its botched “A Rape on Campus” story, awarding $3 million to UVA’s former associate dean of students for how she was portrayed in the made-up article. Maybe we should take the mainstream media’s breathless denunciations of “fake news” websites with a large dose of perspective.

What I find fascinating is that these bastions of journalistic integrity appear to believe that “fake news” reports during the 2016 presidential campaign bamboozled the American public into supporting Donald Trump. For example, CBS points out in its article that “the top 20 fake election-related stories during the last leg of the campaign showed a consistent political bent that favored the Trump campaign.”

But what constitutes “fake news” and how much of an impact did it really have on the 2016 race? The Washington Post weighed in on the issue with an article titled, “This is a Real News Story about Fake News Stories.” The “reporter,” Callum Borchers, starts his “real news story” with this conclusion, “Fake news reports have been a problem throughout the campaign.” He then proceeds to offer seven examples of “fake news” stories that popped up in the final weeks of the race. Here is a list of those terribly deceptive, democracy-threatening stories Borchers cites as evidence of a problem.

  • Donald Trump is dead
  • Hillary Clinton will be indicted
  • Clinton’s campaign manager is into the occult
  • A postal worker in Ohio is destroying absentee ballots for Trump
  • President Obama is thinking about fleeing the country if Trump wins
  • Obama unfollowed Clinton on Twitter
  • An FBI agent investigating Clinton died under suspicious circumstances

I find it hard to believe that such obvious click-bait fodder — the online equivalent of grocery store tabloids — poses an existential threat to our democracy. I am far more concerned with those on the left who are demanding that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media sites block “fake news” altogether, particularly when these individuals are compiling and publishing their own catalog of websites that should be blacklisted.

Website marketers figured out a long time ago that confirmation bias — which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses” — drives internet traffic. I find it really hard to believe that “fake news” changed minds and swung the election to Trump. These stories are the internet equivalent of “preaching to the choir.”