The Gradual Causes and Long History of the ‘Fake News Crisis’

It seems undeniable that the specter of fake news has taken control of the media. It seems that we’ve now entered a dark age of journalism, where the fake is indistinguishable from the real. It seems that we have entered an unprecedented era of hoaxing and counterfeiting.

But journalism has never been free of fake news. The Columbia Journalism Review published a detailed history of fake news in the United States. In short: fake news isn’t new, and it has real impacts. For example, people fled the city in droves and marched into public parks with guns after the New York Herald published a fabricated report that dangerous animals had escaped the zoo.

And fake news existed even before Gutenberg invented the printing press. In 1475, an Italian preacher claimed that Jews had drunk the blood of an infant (source). This led a local Bishop to order the arrest of all local Jews, and fifteen Jews were burned alive. The fake story spawned even more hysteria about vampiric Jews, which spread across Europe despite declarations from the Pope to try and end the panic.

Fake news has unbelievable power. In Journalism: A Critical History, Martin Conboy demonstrated its dramatic role in history. In 1898, the USS Maine exploded off the coast of Havana, killing over 250 people. The cause was never explained. The Spanish government, which controlled Cuba, expressed sympathy for the disaster and denied any involvement. The captain of the Maine, one of the few survivors, urged Americans to withhold judgement to prevent conflict with the Spanish.

The headlines after the Maine explosion – based on fake news.

Regardless, Joseph Pulitzer, editor of the New York World, quickly condemned Spain, claiming that they sabotaged the Maine. The World published a cable showing that the Maine was not an accident – even though this cable was completely fake. Newspapers published imaginary drawings of the explosion – even though no one had seen it.  Sales of the World skyrocketed, and the public demanded revenge. Fake news helped start the Spanish-American War. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the namesake of the highest award in journalism, the Pulitzer prize, was a purveyor of fake news.

So is there anything new about the recent fake news? Yes – because Americans are far more dependent on news. News, both print and digital, takes far more forms than at any other point in history – videos, images, blogs, tweets, posts, articles. Almost all Americans can read basic English (source), 84% of Americans use the internet (source), and 79% of American internet users are on Facebook (source)

Never before the last decades has the vast majority of the population been simultaneously connected to a source of instant news. A meme, story, or fake event can spread across the public awareness in a few hours. The fundamental nature of fake news hasn’t changed. It has just become far more common and accessible – just as the modern transportation system allows viruses to spread far more quickly.

A map of global disease spread – not too far from the transmission of fake news.

Furthermore, perhaps the American public has become increasingly vulnerable to fake news. While this claim is hard to demonstrate and somewhat unverifiable, it’s possible that the average reading level has declined. In 1776, the relatively complex, sophisticated pamphlet Common Sense sold 500,000 copies, roughly 20% of the colonial population (source). Now, less than 13% of Americans are proficient in “reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts” like Common Sense (source). It seems that the percent of Americans who can understand Common Sense is smaller than the proportion that owned Common Sense in 1776. Plus, the most recent studies show that American reading proficiency has declined over the last two decades (source). Even among college graduates, the proportion that can understand and reason about complex texts has decreased to less than 31% over the last decade (source).

It’s a viable theory that these two trends – increasing access to news and decreasing reading ability – have shaped a perfect storm for fake news. Americans aren’t as likely, or as able, to make nuanced, reasoned analyses about complex texts. They’re more likely to have access to the oversimplified and sensationalized world of internet news (and news in general). More people can be infected by the virus (fake news), and less people have the vaccine (critical thought). As a result, a single tweet can spawn a flurry of fake news that quickly becomes an accepted part of the American psyche.

However, the concept of fake news is also dangerous in other ways. It has already been used as a political weapon to shut down opposing journalism. The left has used it to deride right-wing sources, and the right has coopted it to attack left-wing news. Already, the LA Times and Washington Post have claimed that right-wing sites like the Ron Paul Institute and are ‘fake news’ (source).

These sites could be derided as biased producers of dangerous propaganda, but this is not the type of fake news I’m interested in. Breitbart may be skewed, but it does base news loosely on actual events. Fake news is completely counterfeit – without referent in the real world. To avoid ‘fake news’ becoming a tool to eliminate enemy voices, we need to delineate the concept clearly and create solutions carefully.

This is an intro to some of my further research into fake news. This week, I’m going to write another article about the philosophy of fake news, and then one about the solutions to the problem. I’ll try to relate the issue to Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, examine the differences between Kantian and utilitarian journalistic ethics, and look back to Plato’s critique of postmodernism. Maybe I’ll even make up some ideas of my own.

Why am I so interested? I think that fake news is a microcosm into the larger issue of the ‘postmodern condition,’ which is what I’m focusing on for my three-week independent study. It relates to the need for classical education, which is what I’m studying in a directed readings class. And it’s a good area for philosophical research that hasn’t been fully delved into.

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