It’s almost 32 years late, but “1984” has arrived. America now has its own de facto “Ministry of Truth” in a vast, corporate media machine that is busy spreading lies, rumors and half-truths to a dumbed-down, gullible, ignorant and paranoid public too pressed for time – or too lazy – to do any fact checking.
Furthermore, it’s being aided and abetted by an increasingly aggressive right-wing, which is gaming and skewing search engine results as well as self-serving, unethical individuals who create fake news and spread them on social media sites – whether for profit or their own amusement, or both.
The result of this appalling spread of “fake news” has had serious consequences, both for individuals as well as society. An example of the former was recently illustrated by a nearly fatal incident at a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant, precipitated by the spread of a rumor involving Hillary Clinton. As far as the consequences for society, it is quite possible – and even likely – that the “fake news” machine is responsible for the fact that we are now looking at having a bratty, spoiled, deceitful, manipulative and unstable over-aged 10-year-old boy sitting in the White House come January with his finger on the button.
Paul Horner, who has been making a great deal of money with his own “Fake News” empire on the social media website Facebook, claims that he is largely responsible for Trump’s presidential victory. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he was quite frank about it:
“People are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore.” He added, “It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And yet, when there was money to be made from such activities, it didn’t stop Horner from spreading lies and rumors.
Therein lies the root of the problem: the profit motive in false, misleading, and sensational journalism, but it’s really nothing new.
Back in 1898, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and other newspapermen ran fabricated stories of alleged “atrocities” committed by the Spanish government toward the people of Cuba. Why? Money. At the time, Hearst was locked in a competition for readers and revenue with former mentor, Joseph Pulitzer. Hearst’s stories eventually led to an all-out war against a geriatric, dying empire. According to Professor Paul Atwood of the University of Massachusetts, “The Spanish-American War was fomented on outright lies and trumped up accusations against the intended enemy.”
The advent of the Information Age and the Internet has taken this sort of “yellow journalism” to a whole new, dangerous level. But what can be done about it, particularly in an age in which profits trump all other considerations?
Some have been calling upon Facebook and Google to do a better job of policing their news feeds. However, so far, Facebook has had no comment. At the same time, a spokesperson for Google, replying to concerns over the search engine’s AMP (“Accelerated Mobile Page”) platform – through which millions get information through their hand-held devices – says, “It is what you make of it.”
Again, it appears that Facebook and Google are making too much money to give a tinker’s damn. It’s going to be up to all of us to restore and preserve the integrity of the “Fourth Estate” – the one institution that Thomas Jefferson believed was the most important to a healthy democracy. Fortunately, outside software developers are starting to address the problem.
The most recent development is a web browser plug-in aptly dubbed the “B.S. Detector.” Compatible with Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, this plug-in assists internet users in identifying fake news, conspiracy theories, and biased and satirical stories, enabling them to better separate the journalistic wheat from the chaff.
When it comes to the responsibilities of citizenship in a functioning democracy, being an educated and discerning reader is as important as voting. Prominent early 20th-Century reporter and political commentator Walter Lippman said, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”
For better or worse, the job of enforcing that law has fallen to all of us.