“We are a deeply stupid nation,” said Dana Milbank ‘90, now a columnist for The Washington Post. Between the advent of our fake news epidemic and the United States’ inferior academic record, it seems as though we Americans are as dumb and gullible as ever. And now, in the age of the internet, this stupidity has been fully unleashed, saturating our debates and reducing them to mere pissing contests. John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, aptly described the current level of American political discourse several months ago, scathingly summarizing it as “two people, who don’t really know what they’re talking about, condescending to each other nonsensically until one of them lands a sick burn.”
To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault; new technology and massive shifts in the news media industry have reshaped the ways in which we obtain information, while our public schools have failed to teach methods of properly vetting and questioning our sources. With this in mind, we need to recognize that fake news itself is not the underlying problem, merely a symptom of it.
But this extends far past dubious articles from Breitbart or InfoWars, for established media outlets also engage in agenda-setting and have been known to bend the facts. The bottom line is this: regaining argumentative legitimacy and remaining informed should be top priorities. In order to accomplish these tasks, we must first critically re-examine our sources and their validity in an effort to take back control of the truth.
Unfortunately, the fake news epidemic we’ve been faced with over the past few years was inevitable. With the growth of the internet and the rise of social media, our mechanisms for distributing news and information have experienced what Georgetown Law professor Joshua Geltzer describes as “hyper-democratization.” Previously, the American public could rely on sensible editors and trustworthy news anchors to stem the tide of misinformation and manipulation; but with more people turning away from newspapers and television news, these gatekeepers have lost their efficacy.
About two-thirds of American adults now rely on social media platforms for news, according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center last year. On sites like Facebook and Twitter, there exist no gatekeepers, allowing for an unadulterated torrent of fake news to reach the public. Seeing as how many Americans are not properly equipped to handle the misinformation, they fall victim to it. Meanwhile, politicians and pundits willing to capitalize on the phenomenon have only exacerbated things, and the formation of ideological echo chambers hasn’t helped either.
However, this isn’t to say that a return to reliance on newspapers and television news is any type of panacea. In his treatise on the news media industry, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky discusses the propaganda model of communication, a comprehensive theory explaining the existence of systemic biases in mass media institutions. The model posits that American mass media, beholden to the interests of profit-seeking stakeholders and corporate advertisers and all too often dependent on big business and government officials for stories and sourcing, typically possesses a pro-establishment slant. Applying the theory to the mainstream media’s reporting on a variety of issues and stories, Chomsky has revealed corporate and pro-American biases in coverage of the Iraq invasion, global warming, and US involvement in Vietnam (along with dozens of other events).
But tin foil hats aren’t necessary here; proponents of the theory aren’t claiming that journalists at The Wall Street Journal and ABC are diabolical, pro-war corporatists, only that marked biases in their reporting do exist. And if we wish to remain responsible and informed, we need to do our due diligence and begin to think critically about the news we’re consuming.
We should continually be asking questions about what we read and watch. Is there any biased or slanted language used? What are the sources? If there are links provided, do they actually evidence the statements made in the original piece? What possible facts may have been omitted? These questions (along with methods of evaluating bias) should be instilled in US students. The fake news epidemic has clearly demonstrated that our public schools have failed us in this respect. In order to combat fake news and biased reporting, we need comprehensive educational programs that teach our children how to thoughtfully examine their news. These programs would be an effective means of creating an informed citizenry, a safeguard against ignorance that our digital democracy now desperately requires.