Propaganda, extreme partisanship, and verification continue to plague press
With the nation at an intense crossroads, and crippling anxiety facing perhaps half the American populace about the feared impact of Donald Trump ascending to the presidency, the specter of an increasingly post-truth era looms over the media.
Now a clear and present part of our information ecosystem, “fake news” threatens to upend confidence in established news organizations, confuse readers interminably, exacerbate political polarization, and cement the role of internet-based ideological propaganda.
By taking a look at the absurd, outrageous, and hilarious articles published online by some of these outlets on the eve of President-elect Trump’s swearing-in, our collective political psyche is exposed in all its bizarre splendor and schizophrenia.
In a sign that the issue continues to percolate -- after becoming the dominant election-related controversy in early December -- both Trump and President Obama referred to “fake news” on Wednesday. However, Trump cited negative reporting on his job-creation efforts as such, whereas Obama used the term to label false allegations of voter fraud.
With record-low approval ratings as he assumes office, undoubtedly many Americans may wish the fact were false that Trump will be inaugurated on Friday. While that reality is far from fake, there have been many stories surrounding tomorrow’s events that are entirely fictional. Maybe this is only fitting for a man with a long record of promoting fully fake news.
‘Down from his tower’
A notable rumor turned up on the fake news mill this week about alleged $2,500 payments to protesters to come out for Friday’s demonstrations, which Snopes quickly disproved.
And it is Trump fans who are reportedly behind a photo-centric hoax bragging about the volume of Bikers For Trump who have already arrived in Washington as part of an anti-protester “wall of meat.”
“With purpose and strength he came down from his tower,” the ode reads, alluding to Trump’s New York home, office, and campaign headquarters. “To snatch from a tyrant his ill-gotten power.”
Another recent spoof involved the assertion that Trump’s daughter Tiffany would be performing a Nelly Furtado song at the inauguration. But this was proven to be false after spreading on Twitter, amidst mass mockery that few entertainers are willing to perform for Trump.
Even further into the realm of the fantastic, DCClothesLine ran an article on Wednesday alleging that Trump advisor Roger Stone had been poisoned by plutonium in an attempted assassination attempt, based on Stone’s recounting during the Alex Jones Show. Lacking verification, such claims seem wildly fanciful.
But the line between obvious tabloid-style satirical pieces and “fake news” is incredibly blurry. One need only look at the site Fake News Watch to see how many joke sites are listed in the fake/hoax category that the difference becomes imperceptible. How does one know a story is not actually real?
‘Prank your friends’
One frequent assumption is that “fake news” -- amplified by the viral power of social media networks to spread memes regardless of truthiness -- is generally a pro-Trump collection of lies and distortions. Yet there is plenty of such material not terribly supportive of the soon-to-be 45th president.
WorldNewsDailyReport is a site with one story ranked by BuzzFeed among the top 10 fake stories of 2016. Two new articles there have the headlines: “RUSSIAN HACKER SAYS HE REGRETS PUTTING DONALD TRUMP INTO POWER” and “RUSSIAN HOOKER WHO HAD SEX WITH DONALD TRUMP MOCKS HIS ‘TINY PENIS’”. Many such stories are quite obviously jokes, fitting for an epoch in which, as many observers have astutely noted, Trump demolished the political status quo largely through clever use of “jokes”.
Another similarly satirical site categorized as fake news published an article on Tuesday with the headline: “BRITAIN QUITS SINGLE MARKET TO BECOME US’S FULL-TIME CARER”, a reference to the British exit from the EU, the Republican repeal of Obamacare, and the seeming U.S. propensity to engage in self-destructive political behavior that might require serious attention.
Meanwhile, some fake news is completely innocuous, like the story with 513,746 shares on social media about President Obama mandating grandparent time with grandchildren on react365. That site specifically invites users to “create your false news and prank your friends. Share them on social networks! What are you waiting for?”
While much of the fake news generated during the election was written from Russia, Macedonia, and Romania, American writers have also been eager to capitalize on the convenience of making a quick buck out of political content with which they typically agree.
Facebook and Google may both have taken significant strides towards limiting its impact, yet with a gullible electorate often more eager to be amused than informed, the job of tamping down the fakeness is becoming rather difficult. Entertainment drives more clicks than hard news, and with a President Trump fulfilling the role of carnival barker in an ever-more ridiculous spectacle, we enter an age of omnipresent fakery.
Despite existential alarms going off at most press organs, Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer has heralded the simultaneous arrival of optimal journalistic freedom from erstwhile neutrality constraints. Even if being squeezed out is the new normal, the expanding culture of leaks could redeem muckraking.
“In his own way, Trump has set us free,” Shafer argues. “Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles.”
But how will media institutions fare when trusty bulwarks of robust reporting are deemed “fake” and the mere perception of fairness is so colored by partisan lenses?
Will the “real” Trump inadvertently make “fake” journalism great again?