The Solution to #fakenews is Trusting People, Not Outlets
Folks have probably been hearing a lot about “fake news” in recent weeks, most likely from media types and pundits attempting to offer the perfect explanation as to how one of the world’s most inflammatory and unscrupulous characters managed to defeat one of the world’s most widely reviled politicians in a general election for America’s highest office. To anyone with a lick of sense, this is an extremely incomplete if not outright preposterous explanation of the 2016 election cycle. To everyone else, I’d imagine it sounds something close to insightful.
The problem with fake news -- assuming for the moment that it is indeed a real problem with concerning consequences -- is that the problem has always been with us. I can recall many an afternoon as a youngster standing in line with my mother at the local H-E-B grocery and gazing upon hundreds of copies of National Enquirer and US Weekly and Time.
Okay that last one was a joke. Sort of.
Arriving alongside the mainstream freakout over #fakenews is the inevitable invocation of the supposed opaque nature of news on social media sites. Facebook is likely the most common draftee in the war on fake news, and is often derided for having the fatal flaw of presenting its users with whatever random link to whatever random news story any other user sees fit to share with the wider community. The thinking then, is that there is no way for your best friend’s dad to know that the story one of his college buddies shared on Facebook is in any way legitimate. Trouble is, there are plenty of opportunities to run afoul of unsavory news sources in both the digital world and the meatspace. Maybe this is why sites like Snopes.com have been around almost since the internet itself...
Coming across a questionable news story in the course of your hourly scroll through your News Feed is the modern equivalent of standing in the grocery store queue. They put these things out in plain view for anyone to see and read?! People probably believe some of this stuff!
A reality of living in a (relatively) free society is that its citizens can choose to believe what they see and read in publications like National Enquirer, and for that matter, Breitbart and Mother Jones. If there is any lesson to be gleaned from the media landscape as it evolved over the 2016 election cycle -- not to mention over the advent and maturation of the World Wide Web -- it is that a fully objective media class or commentariat is at best a relic of a bygone era and, at worst, is something that never really existed at all. Still believe the channels you watch are “fair and balanced” or the sites you read publish only dispassionate evaluations of hard facts? I’m afraid you’ve been duped.
Where I find this discussion devolving into insanity is within the notion that bias and partisanship in media is a net negative in and of itself. I’ll always be among the first to call out blatant bias masquerading as objective reporting, particularly in the mainstream national media. But I fail to see the innate evil of reading and watching articles and videos presented with a perspective, or hell, even an opinion. An excellent microcosmic example of the promise of the Internet Age was that any individual would have the ability to publish for a worldwide audience anything they wished regardless of their education or connections or means. Close to 30 years in, that promise has largely been kept, and it’s an ethos that should be embraced instead of ridiculed.
The not-so-secret catch to this wondrous sea of perspectives is that it requires its audience to retain a perpetual cycle of diligent evaluation and reevaluation in order to achieve its fullest potential. Trusting NPR’s veracity as a news outlet may be an okay choice for now, but over time its chances of corruptibility and its proclivity for prioritizing certain political agendas under the auspices of “news reporting” increase exponentially. This is true of almost any media outlet, indie and conglomerate alike. Perhaps the premier example of this eventuality is Rolling Stone’s 2014 University of Virginia “Jackie” gang rape story, which culminated in a federal malicious defamation conviction of both the author and the magazine’s parent company. A formerly culture-relevant world-famous media magazine proven in court to have just plain made shit up; now that’s #fakenews.
The lesson is this: organizations, just like people, are capable of both astounding trustworthiness and phenomenal duplicity. The difference is that organizations are capable of both at the same time. It is much more satisfying and enlightening to find individual writers to trust with your time and mind than it is to blindly accept that NEWSCORP XYZ will never, ever, try to pull one over on you. Sabrina Erdely of Rolling Stone infamy isn’t one of those writers, but I promise you they’re out there. And they’re easier to find than you might expect.
My mother, who happens to hold a M.F.A. in English from a very good university, taught me to read widely and to constantly re-evaluate the quality and value of what I read. As a boy I learned that it was totally fine to read Animorphs and comic strips if that’s what I found most entertaining, but I’d do well to throw in some The Red Badge of Courage and some Old Yeller every once-in-a-while. In doing so, I might just experience a different view of the world around me.
Timeless advice, that is.
Andrew M.S. Boyd is a co-founder and editor of WriterDie. You can follow him on Twitter: @amsb