Fake news: When fiction becomes ‘fact’


President Donald Trump – Wikimedia.org

If you have been following the news during the 2016 election, you will know that the definition of the term “fake news” has drastically shifted in recent months.

A phrase that was once used to describe satirical comedy news outlets such as The Onion and The Daily Show has recently been used by President Trump to refer to any news that he does not agree with. It is a new definition that many Trump supporters are embracing and using in their critique of the media.

President Trump has openly criticized the news media throughout the election with little reservation. On Feb. 17, he took his criticism to the next level, tweeting, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

According to NPR, this was the 15th time that Trump had tweeted this phrase about news media. He also asserted this phrase into his press conference on Feb. 16 seven different times.

Early in 2016, this term was used very differently by media and politicians, often to characterize libelous and inaccurate stories from websites that tried to appear as legitimate news sources. Now as Trump rebrands the phrase “fake news,” people’s ability to discern fake news from real news is becoming increasingly difficult.

According to a January 2017 study by Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University, the average American remembered 92 percent of pro-Trump fake news stories and 23 percent of pro-Clinton fake news stories, with more than half of those who recalled believing the stories they read.

In response to negative approval ratings, Trump tweeted on Feb. 6, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”

With an administration presenting false information as “alternative facts,” it is apparent to both political sides that Trump and the topic of “fake news” poses a legitimate threat to freedom of press and democracy.

On Feb. 17, Democratic California State Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “A free press is the bedrock of our democracy. We can’t lose sight of that, no matter what the administration is saying.”

Criticism has come not only from the Democratic Party. In an interview on Feb. 17 on NBC’s Meet the Press, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona warned that censorship of free press “is how dictators get started.”

Digital media provides an accessible and unfiltered domain for people to rapidly pass information along. This allows for false news to cause exponential reverberations in the social and political sphere.

People are inevitably making choices based on false information because of fake news or alternative facts. The event named “Pizzagate” serves as a clear example of how dangerous fake news can be.

On Dec. 4, 2016, Edgar Welch showed up armed with an assault rifle at the Washington D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong in order to investigate a conspiracy about Hillary Clinton running a child sex trafficking business using the pizzeria as a front. Upon hearing about this conspiracy on the internet, Welch drove from North Carolina to “rescue” children from sex slavery. Although no one was hurt, Welch fired his gun inside the pizzeria before being detained and arrested.

While the long-term impact of fake news is yet to be seen, WCC journalism instructor Kimberlee Bassford said “ the proliferation of fake news has unfortunately and unfairly damaged journalism’s reputation as an industry.“ She added, “Journalists work hard to report accurate and verifiable information, to be ethical and to build trust with their readers and viewers. Their work is extraordinarily important in a democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry.”

To distinguish between fake and real news, Bassford said we must assume a role as “active consumers.” A story’s sources are the most important indicators when looking for potentially fake news stories, she said. If sources are not balanced and from a variety of sources, that should be a red flag.


by Ian Roesch, Ka ‘Ohana Co-Editor in Chief