BY DIANE DIMOND
Here comes another one of those things branded as an imminent threat to public safety, a lurking evil that is poised to infiltrate our minds and poison the republic. It is described it in two words: fake news.
Some are clamoring to legislate, regulate or eliminate this thing called fake news. It has already been blamed for tipping the presidential election, inciting racist hatred across the land and forcing the country toward a form of authoritarianism. Beware the fake news and those who spread it, we are told, for their motives are surely impure! Even Pope Francis has warned against the evil of spreading fake news.
Hillary Clinton recently told a group at the U.S. Senate that fake news is “an epidemic” that if left unchecked “can have real world consequences.” The former presidential candidate now backs “bipartisan legislation” giving Congress more power to respond to “foreign propaganda,” an apparent reference to the idea that Russia bankrolled fake information about her, according to two studies, with the goal of influencing the election.
But what is this fake news phenomenon exactly? The definition seems to be as fluid as the number of people talking about it.
Some define fake news as the so-called click-bait found in the margins or at the end of stories on social media — you know, those small boxes with luring and often erroneous headlines, like “Jennifer Aniston Appears to Be Pregnant!” The Washington Post recently reported that click-bait writers could earn an estimated $10,000 a month sitting churning out claptrap text from their basements for advertisers who are eager to pair their ads with the enticing headlines.
Fake news has been described as originating on Twitter, where troublemakers urge us to believe — among other things — that a major child sex-trafficking ring is operating in a Washington, D.C., pizza shop and that its clients include top politicians. The story originated with a tweet, which caused a believer from North Carolina to grab his gun and travel to D.C. to save any children he might find at the shop.
Come on! Everyone capable of critical thinking should already know that what you read on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter should be taken with multiple grains of salt. The same goes for all those streams of reader comments online. They’re opinions, not facts, my friends. Think about it. Isn’t fake news what we used to call plain old gossip?
And can’t the fake news label also be applied to sassy opinion articles masquerading as objective journalism on news sites? They bear titillating titles like “Donald Trump Is a Professional Dominatrix and the GOP Can’t Get Enough of His Humiliation.” That article’s overt message — that President-elect Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler and a “cult leader” — is obvious hyperbole. Does anyone really believe he plans to force citizens to drink poisoned Kool-Aid, or that he has a strategy to exterminate millions of Americans? No person thinking clearly would believe that.
And, finally, readers who don’t agree with what they find in legitimate news stories written by career journalists will be label the report as fake news. Just look at the online comment section of any major newspaper or magazine. Even those ubiquitous cable TV pundits toss the epithet “fake news!” at other pundits who dare to offer a different point of view.
CNN describes fake news as “often blatant falsehoods passed off online as the truth and spread by conspiracy theorists.” But it is obviously more than that. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to pass on salacious internet stories to others. And the more a falsehood is repeated, the more likely it is to be regarded as truthful. That’s why PR operatives invented “spin” — alternative stories to counter negative news. Repeat the spin often enough, they figure, and the public will come to buy it as truth. Whether it’s a blatant lie or deliberate propaganda, wrap it up in clever language and someone will surely buy it. My, how gullible we have we become as a population.
Still, some remain convinced fake news is real, falsehoods that spring from sinister minds and are deliberately planted and designed to destroy our current belief system and way of life. Well, if that is true, it is time for every consumer of information to learn how to discern probable truth from fantastic fiction — and teach the distinction to their children. Schools better begin designing classes to teach critical thinking, because no matter which big name politician or religious leader calls for new laws to regulate this so-called fake news, the reality is, there is just no way to legislate away freedom of speech and naivete.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]