Skip to main content

Fake news: Symptom of post-truth era

Associate Professor John Huxford

Associate Professor John Huxford

The term “fake news” has become a rhetorical weapon of choice for American politicians, angry citizens, and other critics of news media.

Today, there seems to be a conscious effort to destroy the credibility of mainstream journalistic institutions via the claim of “fake news.” However, what may appear to be an era of misinformation is in fact a more complicated issue.

“Our contemporary news media environment seems to be experiencing an era of post-truth,” said School of Communication Professor John Huxford. An associate professor in journalism at Illinois State University, Huxford has researched the fake news phenomenon extensively.

Huxford said in a post-truth era, “the truth is no longer seen as important.” Yet, this phenomenon is more than just a time where falsehoods thrive in our political system. “Rather, it seems that politicians and institutions who convey lies face no consequences in terms of their reputation,” said Huxford. Interestingly, lies and fabrication even seem to bolster one’s reputation and political prowess among their core supporters.

Consider President Donald Trump’s widespread “fake news” attacks on mainstream media outlets during and after the 2016 election. In a recent interview with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Trump even claimed to invent the term. “The media is—really, the word, I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with—is fake,” said Trump.

Ironically, Trump’s claim to his invention of the term is false. In a recent blog post, Merriam-Webster cited examples of the phrase “fake news” from three American newspapers in 1890 and 1891. Moreover, fake news has been an issue for centuries.

During the 1830s Penny Press, The New York Sun newspaper printed a series of stories now referred to as “The Great Moon Hoax.” The articles spotlighted a Scottish astronomer named Andrew Grant who was said to have discovered, through a giant telescope, that the moon was populated with humanoid bats, unicorns, and other mystical creatures. The stories caused a sensation and boosted the Sun’s circulation, but Grant was later found to be a fictional character and the “discoveries” deliberate fabrications.

“Sensationalism sells—story fabrication is not a new practice and, in fact, was a lot more prevalent in earlier periods, before there were journalism schools and the systematic training of reporters,” said Huxford.

However, Trump has continued to accuse mainstream media outlets of fake news including CNN, The New York Times, and ABC. This makes it seem as if these falsehoods are distributed by mainstream journalism. “Actual fake news is not produced by these mainstream institutions, but instead it is found frequently in extremist outlets,” said Huxford.

According to Huxford, extremist news sources are “outliers which frequently offer inaccurate or highly exaggerated and biased versions of news to the extent that the published stories can be deliberately misleading.”

In the midst of this confusion, it is clear that the problem lies within our understanding of truth and information, as well as the sources that disseminate it. In a post-truth society that increasingly fosters relativism, we come to believe that we can define truth as we wish and consider our own claims as the “right” ones. Relativism is apparent in the fake news claim because people have used the term itself several different ways. This makes it hard to clearly define the nature of the problem.

“People need to understand the difference between bias and fabrication,” said Huxford. Overall, bias is a matter of subjectivity. Huxford suggests there are three types of bias relevant to news media: interpretation bias, agenda bias, and audience bias.

Interpretation bias is about the news “angle” that a journalist may take on a story; the way certain facts within that story are interpreted. All news stories will inevitably have some, usually small degree, of subjective interpretation bias, Huxford said, regardless of how hard the journalist strives to be objective. Agenda bias is when stories are either covered or left out of the reporting from a news outlet in a bid to promote a specific political agenda. For example, stories of events that cast President Trump in a negative light are likely to be covered heavily by the liberal-leaning MSNBC while getting little or no coverage by the conservative Fox News.

Then there is audience bias. “This is when an audience views information that conflicts with their beliefs, which produces cognitive dissonance, or that awkward feeling interpreting conflicting information.” Based on this cognitive dissonance, people choose to either ignore or spin the information to align with their beliefs.

“So, when you hear people like Donald Trump yell out ‘fake news,’ they are actually experiencing cognitive dissonance and refusing to believe real news because it contradicts with their beliefs,” said Huxford.

Fabrication, however, implies a purposeful misrepresentation of information. “This is when people make up lies for the purpose of fooling others,” said Huxford. “It is either simply making stuff up on purpose, or a reckless disregard for the truth pieced together by sloppy reporting.” Fabrication is overwhelmingly produced by extremist news outlets, not mainstream institutions. Huxford explained that fabrication is what fake news is usually taken to mean, but due to cognitive dissonance and attacks from politicians, mainstream news has become labeled as fake news.

Huxford claims people should stop using the term “fake news” because it perpetuates the notion that all the media are engaged in fabricating news stories, rather than just a few media outlets on the fringes. One hinderance on searching for credible news today is that anyone with Internet access has the power to post “alternative facts.” “There has been so much confusion built into the system that often we don’t know where we are at anymore and we don’t know what is true anymore,” said Huxford. “In a time where people want answers, confusion is the last thing we need.”

Interestingly, mainstream news is currently practicing better journalism than ever before within the post-truth era, with several established journalistic institutions working to combat this mass confusion.

Huxford suggests that “we live in a golden age of watchdog journalism,” the news function where reporters hold the powerful to account by exposing lies and corruption. Similarly, several mainstream outlets like Politico and The Washington Post now frequently publish “fact checking” articles that distinguish valid information from fallacious claims. “If we didn’t have journalism stepping up to the plate, we would know nothing,” said Huxford.

Beyond confusion, fake news claims are also detrimental to society as a whole, feeding into and escalating fear and prejudice. Worse, even hard evidence often cannot override an existing belief in the mind of the believer. This is why fake news claims still continue to exist even with credible news sources providing valid information.

Fake news is also an easy and fast way to mass-produce information and draw audiences to a website, and extremist outlets have capitalized on this content. This is because fallacious and outrageous claims attract attention, which boosts viewership and ratings that ultimately make extremist outlets profitable. Therefore, an abundance of power and money is earned from gaining popularity and profits in a short amount of time from producing poor-quality online content.

A more menacing reason for the perpetuation of fake news is to attack American democracy. The 2016 election was a prime example of Russian bots cultivating fake news and ads to sway American voters. These bots were used to spread fake anti-Hillary Clinton news through sophisticated and realistic-looking posts and social media profiles. Moreover, these attacks have continued.

“Too many nonjournalists are having an influence. During the recent ‘take-a-knee’ controversy with the NFL, we had Russian agents sending out stories both for and against these protests simply to create division in our society and to bolster up anger,” said Huxford.

Huxford believes that one way American citizens can protect themselves from falling for fake news is to study the original source of the story. If the source is not a reputable mainstream media outlet with an extensive history of credible reporting, then Americans should be skeptical. Mainstream news outlets may fall into some agenda-setting and interpretation bias, but they have the responsibility to not fabricate their stories.

Americans should also be aware of the difference between balanced and honest news. Balance entails representing both sides of an argument equally, as if to say both sides are equally as credible. Honest news is about backing up claims with hard evidence and data.

“News is not just about balance. Balance may be important, but ultimately, journalism must be about what is true. We cannot give equal time to lies and truth as though they have equal value,” said Huxford.

The best way for the American public to avoid being tricked by fake news is to become educated about the differences between credible and false claims. Fake news often misleads by relying on the authority of the person giving the quote rather than by examining the concrete, verifiable, and timely evidence that the source is offering.

Politicians with high authority may not always have the public’s best interests at heart or the right expertise. These politicians may attempt to divert the public’s attention away from the issues in favor of their own political agendas.

Ultimately, educated viewers are the only ones who can save themselves from deception. Not every news story has honest intentions. Knowing what to look for in a news story will help viewers avoid the spread of fake news.

“Moving forward, our solution is to help the public to become more educated and actively engaged with the information they read,” said Huxford, who teaches a class in News Literacy at Illinois State. As consumers of information in the post-truth era, we can reverse the superficial nature of fake news claims by seeking truth over profit and power.