Local Politics: 'Fake news' trend not new, but worsening

Michael Curtin

Everybody's talking about fake news.

Like a virus threatening Americans' ability to reason, fake news suddenly is under the microscope of researchers everywhere.

The National Science Foundation is funding studies, including one recently completed by Ohio State communications professor Kelly Garrett, who found “scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today.”

The Pew Research Center reported nearly two-thirds of Americans say fabricated news is causing confusion about the basic facts of current events.

In late 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as word of the year. The definition: “Relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The Associated Press recently launched a weekly feature, Not Real News, a roundup of some of the most popular, but completely untrue, stories shared on social media.

The News Media Alliance, a coalition of traditional print and broadcast news outlets supported by foundations, now provides news literacy curricula (thenewsliteracyproject.org) to teachers and students in all 50 states.

The sudden urgency to inoculate Americans from fake news is striking, since it has infected politics, journalism and culture throughout history.

In 1710, Anglo-Irish essayist Jonathan Swift wrote “The Art of Political Lying,” in which he observed: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv'd, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.” A later variation, attributed to many over the decades: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

In 1835, at the dawn of the era of yellow journalism, the shamelessNew YorkSun published a series on the discovery of men on the moon who resembled bats. A century later, supermarket tabloids inundated America with tales of UFOs, occult atrocities, Sasquatch sightings and government cover-ups of them all.

Although fake news has existed forever, its recent surge to epidemic scale has been fueled by a convergence of factors: universal adoption of the internet; rapid decline of traditional media; ever-worsening political polarization; foreign interference; and a U.S. president unbound from fact-based narrative.

In his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump explained his widely known practice of making things up. “I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can get very excited by those who do. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

Under public pressure, owners of the largest social-media sites have begun to roll out tools designed to help readers identify fake news and flag it for third-party fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact. The task will not be easy.

On Oct. 19, Pew Research Center published an article titled, “The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online.” In it, media and information technology experts predicted whether the tide of fake news is likely to rise or recede in the foreseeable future. They split almost evenly.