By Jacob Devaney
Dec 9, 2016
Many people are telling us who to believe and who not to believe using lists of “fake news” outlets that inevitably encourage censorship, yet there is a much more sensible way to approach the issue. Humans live their lives based on stories, we make choices based on beliefs and many of these beliefs are influenced by what we read and see through various forms of media. Media can be like fire, which can warm your food or burn down your house depending on how it is used. As children we are taught how to use fire in a safe way, yet we are rarely given advice on how to surf the endless waves of media that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Below is an introduction to the topic of fake news that will help you deepen your ability to navigate while also giving you some tools to understand your own human nature.
Trust is Earned Not Freely Given
Would you give your car keys to a complete stranger? Probably not, yet we trust complete strangers to tell us important information that guides major decisions in our lives. The first step in this process is to question the sources you already trust. Did they earn your trust or are they just what everyone else reads so you assume they are credible? If so, maybe everyone else reads them for the same reason…
Consider the agenda, financial, and political interests of the person or brand that is delivering your media, and assume that these things are influencing their narrative. Follow the money and factor that into their motive. We all want to trust, but when it comes to media, it is best to employ suspicion, doubt, and reservation by exploring opposing opinions on issues and forming your own ideas. There are no lists that can take the place of critical thinking. If you do want to rely on lists, please make sure that you trust and vet the people who make them.
It is worth repeating again and again that the bulk of America’s mainline media is owned and controlled by a mere 6 corporations. -Vic Bishop, The Illusion of Choice
Changing Media Landscape
Recently National Geographic was purchased by Rupert Murdoch, a climate change-denier who also owns right-wing news outlets like Fox News. Though National Geographic has decades of acclaim and trust built up by their readers, this change in ownership will certainly influence the editorial directive to some degree. The Washington Post was recently purchased by Jeff Bezos, billionaire CEO of Amazon.com with socially-progressive Libertarian political views. Billionaire George Soros, who has made lots of money manipulating markets and believes in a neoliberal, globalist agenda, heavily funds left-leaning outlets like Moveon.org, Media Matters and others through his organization, Open Society Foundations.
This is not meant to argue which of these billionaires political, social, or economic philosophy is correct, but to underscore that they have invested huge amounts of money to spread their narrative. Are they invested in having you buy these narratives because they stand to gain directly from these stories? Are these stories in your best interest? A little critical thinking, and searching the internet will help you to develop an informed opinion.
Media Brands vs. Individual Journalists
Media brands can be purchased. One example is Huffington Post, which sold to AOL for $315M. The brand was started by Arianna Huffington but made popular by independent, progressive journalists. Upon purchase, many (not all) of the original journalists quit writing for Huffington Post. A few short years later, Verizon purchased AOL for $4.4 billion. Owning a large media company buys, among other things, social influence. Guess who they are paying to influence? You!
So there are financial and political interests in owning media and controlling the spin. The traditional approach to media in a democracy is that it is to be the Fourth Estate. This means that it is almost like a branch of the government that is supposed to question elected officials and provide citizens with critical analysis of government policy. This has changed dramatically in recent years as we saw in the lead up to the Iraq War. New York Times, Washington Post, even National Public Radio colluded with the government to lie to the American People in order to get public support for the invasion of Iraq. So the power to influence the public can be profitable, can cost tax-payers billions, and can also be deadly. This is yet another reason why lists of “fake” news can easily become politically motivated and eventually lead to censorship.
Journalism has long been regarded as an important force in government, so vital to the functioning of a democracy that it has been portrayed as an integral component of democracy itself… The fact of the matter is that democracy requires informed citizens. No governing body can be expected to operate well without knowledge of the issues on which it is to rule, and rule by the people entails that the people should be informed. -Journalism in the Digital Age, Stanford University
Individual Journalists live or die by their reputation. If I were to lie to you, you might not be too quick to read my pieces in the future. If a large corporate media platform lies to you, they may fire a few people or apologize and you may be more likely to feel that the problem has been addressed. If I wrote for a large corporate platform and lied to you, I could pin it on my editors and avoid accountability. If I was paid well enough, I might not even be upset if I lost a few fans so long as I kept my job. The point is that independent journalists are more likely to be honest because they have to work very hard to build trust, and keep it. This does not mean that they are unbiased, everyone has a degree of bias, even you as the reader.
There is an interpersonal component to being a conscious media consumer. Confirmation bias is when we only listen to or seek information that confirms what we already believe. It is a bad habit that is damaging to us in many ways. We have to be willing to challenge our own beliefs and assumptions. This requires the ability to not over-identify with our beliefs, as we are not solely defined by the thoughts or ideas that flow through us. It’s okay to be wrong, to recognize that we have been deluded in our own thinking, this is how we grow wiser… through humility.
If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies. -Moshe Dayan (often attributed to Desmond Tutu)
Being able to entertain dissenting viewpoints is crucial to intellectual growth. This is yet another reason why making lists that exclude opposing viewpoints can be detrimental. If our information is correct, then it can certainly stand to be challenged. Taking a little time to read what “the other side” thinks can also be valuable to understanding the world beyond your bubble, even if you disagree. It also gives you great tools to debate them on these ideas because you have taken the time to see the world through their eyes.
Sensationalism sells. This has to do with how we are wired. Scandal, gossip, fear, over-exageration always catches our attention. Since the beginning of time humans have evolved to respond first and foremost to fear. In the wild this strategy was a matter of life or death, and so our brains developed accordingly. There is a part in our brain called the amygdala, which is literally a switch that shuts off all of our higher reasoning in moments of terror and focuses all our conscious attention on the fight/flight reactionary response. This is why advertisers, news outlets, and politicians employ fear to make us buy their narrative, product or to vote for them.
The term yellow journalism was coined in the 1890s and is meant to describe wildly exaggerated journalism that used some yellow ink during the war for readership between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Things are not too different today as we have billionaires competing to dominate the market with narratives that serve their interests.
“All American journalism is not ‘yellow’, though all strictly ‘up-to-date’ yellow journalism is American!”
Advertising money rules the internet. Fake baldness cures, boob-jobs gone wrong, celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories are engineered specifically to get you to click. Every click generates advertising revenue. There are some reputable blogs that finance their operations through click-bait advertising, but there are many that are disreputable who concoct the most outrageous stories just to get your click. These are practically like National Enquirer, Star Magazine that you see when going through the check-out aisle in a grocery store. The ability to discern the objective of the publishing platform is central to media literacy.
The obviously sensational and fake stories are often less dangerous than the ones that come across as genuine news. The ability to see through spin can be developed with greater awareness of the motivating factors behind publications. For example, when a a corporate channel invests a lot of money in the campaign of a political candidate, they are less likely to scrutinize that candidate compared to the candidate that opposes their interests.
For decades prior to Ronald Reagan (since 1949), there was a code called the Fairness Doctrine which was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission as public policy. This rule required the nation’s radio and television stations to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.” Reagan vetoed the Bill that attempted to make the Fairness Doctrine into law stating:
“This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable.” -Ronal Reagan
In a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, the discussion about governments role is very complex and often passionately debated. Reagan’s ruling set the stage for the polarization along partisan lines of the media. MSNBC is the Democrats version of what Fox is for Republicans. The emergence of the internet and social media has birthed the democratization of media. Independent journalists have the ability to subvert the dominant partisan narratives, yet this very same freedom has also opened the doors to blatantly fake news channels.
Though some are calling for lists of “fake” media, and rules to limit it, others recognize that this would be impossible to police without endangering freedom of speech. Censorship is potentially more dangerous than “fake” news. Mainstream media that parrots the states’ march to war is also very dangerous, as exemplified in the lies that led to the Iraq War which cost the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and wasted billions of tax-payer dollars. Governments, advertisers, and the elite are invested in controlling the narrative, but they are losing their grip.
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Nobody is Perfect
Even the most reputable journalists and platforms make mistakes, and this is why having critical thinking skills is so important. For example, recently the Washington Post released a very factual, well-informed article about the controversy over Dakota Access Pipeline. Simultaneously the released their own “fake” news article that has been thoroughly exposed as unfounded propaganda by Glenn Greenwald. More than ever we need to be vigilant in demanding integrity from journalists and media outlets. With Twitter, Facebook, and social media we have more of a voice than ever. Let that be an informed voice!
We may never be able to stop humans from peddling false stories on the public for their own personal gain, but the public has the opportunity to sensibly navigate the information highway. When we are no longer so easily swayed, when we no longer fall for it, it will no longer be effective. This is a great opportunity to take the reigns on your own media diet and discern your own understanding of the world around you through conscious media consumption.
Talk to your friends, engage in lively, respectful debates, these are the building blocks for media literacy. Once you find a few good journalists that you trust, you will be on your way to discovering many perspectives on current affairs. This is the beginning of sharpening your critical thinking skills and strengthening the discourse in democracy. The best way to sensibly navigate fake news is not to suppress it with lists, but expose it with an informed response.