Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.
Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.
There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.
Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”
So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.
One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”
But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.
I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.