Fake news and alternative facts in the Trump era

It is widely accepted that we live in a post-truth era, in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” according to The Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, this is one of the few things that we can agree on. Though politicians have a poor reputation for truthfulness, Trump’s total disregard for plausibility and consistency, coupled with people’s willingness to listen to the outspoken tone of his speech, and not its content, makes post-truth politics more dangerous. In addition, post-truth accurately describes how people respond to new information; instead of constructing opinions after conducting research, people tend to search for articles which support their existing beliefs, while dismissing those containing opposite viewpoints. This psychological bias easily applies to both ends of the political spectrum.

The awareness that fake news was circulated during the presidential election, and its continued influence on public opinion, should make us wary about clickbait headlines on social media. Although the majority of fake news is conservative, there has been an increase in fake news targeted towards liberals. For instance, in early February, an article published by the website Alternative Media Syndicate claimed that police had set fire to protesters’ tipis at Standing Rock; however, the article was accompanied by a picture of burning tipis, which was found to be a still from an HBO film. Though the police evicted some protesters, no shelters were set on fire. While it is easy to classify opposing views as fabricated news, it is also easy to be too quick to believe anything that confirms our own beliefs. Moreover, the outrageousness of Trump’s words and actions makes for real news which is shocking in itself, confusing the distinction between reality, and satire or hyperbole. Fake news, no matter its political leaning, warrants caution.

However, discourse on fake news has had the unintended consequence of simplistic skepticism, with people suggesting that all right-wing writings are sensationalized, and that all left-wing articles are propaganda. Accusations of falsity become an easy means of discrediting arguments. But how can we tell what is fake and what is not? Fact-checking websites such as Snopes and Politifact are themselves vulnerable to accusations of being liberal propaganda, or at the very least, vulnerable to doubts about their methods and their claims to provide politically neutral access to “the truth” about Internet rumours.

What is even more troubling is that Trump has manipulated public wariness of being fooled by false information in order to further his political agenda, calling traditional media outlets such as CNN “fake news.” In January, CNN published a report on a 35-page dossier containing unflattering information about Trump, and did not publish the file because it contained unverified claims which could easily be misconstrued. BuzzFeed then published the entire dossier with minimal commentary. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer accused both organizations of using the story as a “sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks.” Perhaps Spicer and the Trump administration are simply using “fake news” as a provocative insult to any media organization which he perceives as oppositional. However, his rhetoric builds on people’s pre-existing doubts: at a time when websites are being debunked, it is not too far of a stretch for people to doubt mainstream media which disagree with their views. In fact, when you google “mainstream media,” the first three suggestions are “mainstream media fake news,” “mainstream media fake,” and “mainstream media lies.” Since Trump’s speech varies in its degree of exaggeration, the extent to which we choose to read what he says at face value depends on our own interpretation and biases. Some people are more likely to underemphasize his bombast.

In early February, Trump indicated that he does not watch CNN because he believes that it is “fake,” but he does watch Fox News because the network “has treated [him] very nice,” exemplifying emotional post-truth thinking. The falsity of news depends on how much the reports favour him. Last week, he also tweeted that “the failing @nytimes writes total fiction concerning me,” an extremely unfounded accusation considering the paper’s famously extensive fact-checking procedure. He also claimed that “any negative polls are fake news, just like CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election,” taking advantage of the real issues behind polling, to incorrectly argue that any news which criticizes him must be false.

Trump continues to undermine the credibility of mainstream media, while simultaneously releasing fake news himself. He posted an article on his Facebook page, with the headline “Kuwait Issues Its Own Trump-esque Visa Ban for Muslim-Majority Countries.” This proved to be an unfounded claim which was denied by the government of Kuwait, as well as the governments of several countries who were supposedly affected by the ban. The more people suspect traditional sources, the easier it is to believe untraditional ones, including Trump’s own communications, because Trump has demonstrated that you can, in fact, choose your truth.

In effect, mainstream media is not perceived to be politically neutral. Trump maintains that he sees them as an “opposition party.” Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, claimed that the media’s objective is to “attack a duly elected President.” It is troubling that the press is unable to denounce Trump’s government without criticism being construed as an ad hominem attack.

We should be concerned about fake journalism that panders to our fears and expectations, but it is a hasty generalization to extend that suspicion to all news outlets. Trump did not distinguish between BuzzFeed’s report on the dossier and CNN’s. BuzzFeed’s choice to publish the entire dossier “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect” presents raw information that may or may not be true. The media have the responsibility to do more than that. First of all, they have a basic duty to provide accurate information, but moreover, journalism needs to analyse, criticize, and evaluate. When so many articles cannot even guarantee factuality, there is all the more need to have stringent standards for critical and nuanced analysis. Just as it is a mistake to conflate BuzzFeed’s article with CNN’s, it is incorrect to hold the nihilistic view that “all news is fake news.”

In an age when people consume news from social media, we need traditional media more than ever. The participatory nature of social media is supposed to promote discussion, but it has also created “echo chambers” which allow like-minded people to repeat and reinforce the same opinions, isolated from the divergent views which are necessary in a democracy. Facebook’s algorithms which promoted the most popular stories, even if they were hoaxes, were a simplistic view of democratic discussion. Democracy is not clickbait. We need the well-researched investigations carried out by traditional media, and most of all, we need to realign ourselves with the media’s mission to seek out the truth, especially when it disagrees with preconceived notions and beliefs.

Update on 02/19/17: An earlier version of this article quoted President Trump with saying BuzzFeed and CNN publishing the dossier was a “sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks”—this was in fact stated by Press Secretary Sean Spicer.