Editorial: We have to choose to stop invasion of fake news

Young women tweet messages during a conference in Washington in a 2012 file photo. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

A sense exists across the spectrum of political inclinations that the recent presidential campaign was, above all, an unremitting and damaging assault on valued traditions and decorum. Perhaps no departure from the norm was so dangerous as the ugly attacks on standard journalism and the concomitant and utter disregard for facts that, sadly, won the day.

Negative campaigning was taken to unprecedented levels. Donald Trump is president-elect because he was such an outrageous bully and provocateur from the start that the normal canons of political decency — strained as they always are during a presidential campaign — were unable to contain him or subject him to any degree of accountability. Gaffes, revelations, and sheer ignorance of the world and current events that would have sunk dozens of campaigns in the past hardly mattered in Trump's case. He played so far outside the lines for so long, pandering to the anger of a portion of the electorate, that his political amateurism was not nearly as detrimental as it would have been to almost anyone else.

A second bully entered the political arena in the United States in full force during the 2016 campaign season: The internet, as conveyor of undifferentiated lies, exaggerations and fake news. Cyberspace, that new element of our political experience, threatens the equilibrium of the republic beyond the term of a single president. If facts don’t matter, if what a candidate says doesn’t matter and if fiction is not separable from reality, then we are free to indulge fantasy, no matter how cynical or sinister.

Among the ingredients of the current toxic mix are a pervasive, fundamental distrust of political and other civic institutions, the bold and consequential cyber interference by Russia in the U.S. election, and the savagery of the new, borderless warfare that seems increasingly unbound to any previous conventions. We are left with a sense of a frightening unraveling underway.

If an upside exists in all of this, it is that people are perhaps more aware than ever that civil society and democratic institutions are far more fragile than imagined. We have been put on alert that democracy is threatened when income gaps are enormous and the opportunity for social advancement is made impossibly narrow for too many.

The country is perilously divided, and the media — in all of its manifestations, traditional and otherwise — has played a major role in bringing us to this point. In a self-criticism of what some are now referring to as the "legacy media," mainstream outlets were stung for their growing tendency to engage negativism and false equivalencies to a degree that has seriously distorted the mission of news gathering.

A recent study released by the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy concluded that, ironically, while right-wing outfits are often blamed for rousing antigovernment sentiment, it is mainstream media that feeds the disenchantment.

"For years on end, journalists have told news audiences that political leaders are not to be trusted and that government is inept," the report states. "And when journalists turn their eye to society, they highlight the problems and not the success stories. The news creates a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety — sitting there waiting to be tapped by those who have a stake in directing the public’s wrath at government."

When healthy skepticism turns to cynicism, we all suffer. And the press, which often has the initial closeups of the worst of government, is perhaps particularly susceptible to souring on government’s noble purposes.

Self-correction would be difficult in any circumstance, but it is made all the more challenging amid the mess of self-declared "news" sites, bloggers, fake news generators and aggregators of all sorts who exist — and create their mischief — largely on the work of others. The "non-legacy" media, if you will, have so distorted the political and cultural conversation that they, too, must be taken into account in any attempts to gain back public trust in newsgathering. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently addressed the scourge of fake news. Her main point: Fake news has to be confronted, but the government should stay out of it.

The difficulty in dealing with falsehoods in a society that guarantees free speech is resisting the urge to censor. That is why, respectable publications come to the defense of tawdry publications like Hustler magazine and the right of neo-Nazis to march in public demonstrations. The rights of free speech and assembly are so important that we tolerate such repugnant displays to maintain the same protections for the broader society.

The problem with media today, however, is that with 24/7 outlets needing to fill airtime and with junk produced in the ether indistinguishable to the undiscerning from valuable material, we are in danger of being overwhelmed by the repugnant and the nonessential.

It is one thing to walk past a display of tabloid publications on the way to the checkout counter. Those who want to indulge have to make a choice and a purchase to bring it into their homes. The internet, on the other hand, floods us all with the same trash, and we have to choose not to have it invade our homes.

Facebook, for one, can certainly be more diligent, as it has promised, in ferreting out fake news with the cooperation of third-party fact checkers. Most important in the long run, as Sullivan correctly points out, is educating ourselves and our children about how to judge what we’re seeing. "Schools should be redoubling their efforts to teach news literacy, civics and history," she writes. And we should all engage "a slower trigger finger on the share buttons."

We owe it to ourselves to take control of what we can within our own homes and on the screens of the increasing numbers of devices we consult constantly.

Be diligent. Question. Support media literacy programs. Demand of our schools — and of ourselves — that our kids learn how to determine what is credible. The truth may be complex and, at times, difficult to get at. But it isn’t false.

This story appeared in the Dec 30, 2016-Jan 12, 2017 print issue under the headline: Edtorial: We have to choose to stop invasion of fake news .

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