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The Fake News Phenomenon

In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, suddenly America has a new crisis:

FAKE NEWS cue sound effects

Fake news has been around for a while, but it seems that the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States has suddenly brought this crisis into the limelight. We're not talking, of course, about satire sites like The Onion. Most times when you see fake news, it actually looks fairly real, unless you know what to look for. People's increased reliance on social media for news has made it a lot easier for fake news to make the rounds. As the famous saying goes, "a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on."

This crisis is reached such proportions, the president Obama has found it necessary to speak out on the issue. However, like most on the left, his agenda with the fake news crisis has more to do with shutting down right wing media than with actually ensuring that people are getting honest news.

I myself have noticed a lot of fake news permeating Facebook and Twitter, especially during the Republican primary. The first sign of fake news is usually (though not always) a sensationalistic headline, commonly known as "clickbait." Clicking on the link would take you to some obscure blog which, if it had any source material at all, would usually refer to another blog site that posted the exact same thing, word for word. By the time you make it to the source article, there may have been a few sentences added, but there was no real source at the source. The more nefarious sites are actually dressed up to look like legitimate news outlets, but if you look at the URL, it doesn't quite add up.

The deception gets compounded, of course, by the fact that many people don't actually read the articles they see on social media. A misleading headline is all they get, and you could end up shaping your opinions based on headlines crafted around generating web traffic, devoid of any actual truth.

When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government our Founding Fathers had created, he replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." With so many lies floating around these days, doing a little bit of basic research on the news we ingest every day is becoming ever more vital in keeping our Republic.

Recently, when a terrorist attacked at The Ohio State University, the initial media reports stated that it was an active shooter situation. As it turned out, the man attacked people with this car first, and then slashed at them with a large knife. But American politics being what it is, the politicians, activists, and talking heads all came out of the woodwork calling for more gun control. And they weren't the only ones who got the wrong message. My cousin both attends and works at Ohio State, and that morning I texted her that I'd heard it there was a shooting, and was she okay? As it turned out, she was working in the very building where the attack happened that morning, but was able to evacuate safely with several other staff members to her apartment nearby.

While it may be somewhat amusing for conservatives to bash someone like Senator and recent Democrat Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kane for his calls for more gun control on Twitter, it should also elicit an eye roll, considering the fact that his bloviating was based on the same information that everyone had at the time.

The sad fact is, "fake news" is not a phenomenon that's limited to the blogosphere. Several major media outlets have been found creating their own fake news, which has contributed greatly to the public's distrust of major media. The New York Times had Jayson Blair. Brian Williams was a trusted journalist for many years, until it was finally discovered that he had been making things up. Major media outlets jumped all over stories like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, spreading bad information far and wide, until false information was held as true, and the Truth didn't matter. This has lent itself to the situation we now find ourselves in, where we no longer trust the media sources we were supposed to be able to rely on, and have been left to fend for ourselves in a jungle of information. Our distrust of mainstream media is likely also a factor in why the "crisis" of fake news is in the spotlight. We don't trust them anymore. We don't rely on them anymore. And they're becoming afraid that they'll go the way of the horse and buggy.

This is the 21st century, and more and more people aren't relying on the major media to get their news. Social media is a very popular source for news, which presents its own dangers. Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter use algorithms to analyze your activity and show you what they think you want to see. Every time you hit like or share or retweet, your every mouse click shapes what you see moving forward. There's also the nature of social media itself to consider. When you "like" that page on Facebook, you "like" it because you really do like it. Most people don't go on social media to be challenged or to look at a bunch of content that they disagree with. In this way, we create our own news bubble, "liking" ourselves into our own arena of social media yes–men. This is how we end up with some idiot opening fire on a pizza joint all because some nut posted a conspiracy theory on 4Chan.

This is why, in the world of new media, it's important that we don't play the ostrich, burying our heads in the sand and only hearing what we want to hear. We need to look up, look around, and take stock of viewpoints that we may not agree with. We shouldn't just be affirmed citizens, we need to be informed citizens. And that means getting outside of our comfort zones and doing a little bit of research. When the politicians and the pundits start talking about fake news, they have an agenda. For them, "fake news" means "news that disagrees with my worldview." With the prevalence of the Internet, they don't control the narrative anymore...but they'll that control back, by hook or by crook. If we don't start policing the media we consume, they will do the policing for us.

Question everything. Even – ESPECIALLY – if it's something you agree with. Our Republic deserves no less.

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Updated Dec 8, 2018 9:33 AM EST | More details


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