Get Ready for the 'Post-Truth Era: Why Fake News Can Be a Good Thing

By Tornoe, Rob | Editor & Publisher, February 2017 | Go to article overview

Get Ready for the 'Post-Truth Era: Why Fake News Can Be a Good Thing


Tornoe, Rob, Editor & Publisher


In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president, journalists have been stymied by an unrelenting and seemingly ubiquitous foe that threatens to undermine not only the integrity of journalism, but the truth itself.

Fake news has certainly left a mark this year, thanks in no small part to Facebook and its ability to promote networks of highly partisan media outlets to large audiences. During the election, a made-up story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump was shared by tens of millions of people. An outlet called the Denver Guardian saw stories about Hillary Clinton murdering people go viral. And don't even get me started on #Pizzagate.

Before we go too deep down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, made-up news purveyors and Russian hackers, it's important to note that fake news isn't new.

Ben Franklin, who among other things was a newspaperman, once printed a fake Boston newspaper with a headline story about murderous Native Americans that were bringing scalps of soldiers and civilians to King George III. It didn't take long for the widely-circulated fake news story to end up republished in more credible publications, which alarmed the public and led to widespread outrage against Native Americans.

In fact, looking at the history of fake news in the United States shows the rise of made-up stories and yellow journalism actually created an appetite for more objective news, and at the turn of the 20th century, modern journalism, with real reporters covering statehouses and beats, became a successful and powerful business model.

The internet is the first real challenge to the notion of objective news in the past 100 years. Not only has the shifting media landscape cost newspapers their former prestige and reporting power, algorithms on social media platforms like Facebook have no interest in the truth or facts--they just coldly serve the content readers have indicated they want to see. And people are taking notice.

According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 64 percent of U.S. adults say made-up news is having an impact, creating confusion about basic facts and current issues. Even worse, despite an overall confidence in their ability to spot fake news, nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) admit they have shared a fake political news stories online.

It's not just Facebook that's the problem. If you head over to Google and search, "Did the Holocaust happen? or "Is the Holocaust real?" the top results for both are fringe, anti-Semitic websites that deny the Holocaust's existence.

Google is aware of the problem. They just refuse to do anything about it.

"We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines," a Google spokesperson told Forbes, noting that the search platform doesn't endorse those views.

But there could be a silver lining for publishers.

"Fake news might trigger a good thing," Almar Latour, publisher and executive vice president for Dow Jones Media Group, shared recently with Nieman Journalism Lab. "A reminder of the extraordinary value of truth and perhaps a realization that, after much agonizing over the viability of the news business, there is a raison d'etre beyond the accumulation of digital eyeballs."

Unfortunately, other than ramping up fact-checking efforts during the presidential campaign and writing an op-ed or two decrying our "post-truth" era, newspapers and online publishers have done little to combat the rise in fake news. …

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