West Side Journal 101: The fake and the frank

 

Quinn Welsch

editor@thewestsidejournal.com

It’s a dark, murky world out there. I say embrace it. The best thing we can do is educate ourselves.

The first time the “fake news” epidemic really punched me in the gut was shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

I found a Facebook fan page for our newly elected president. Several thousand people liked the page, including a couple of my Facebook friends. Curiosity, got the better of me and I started to search the page.

I looked on, bemused by the ridiculously fake headlines:

“Trump just dropped the biggest bombshell on Hillary – Obama is furious!” is one example.

“SHOCKING: This woman tells the truth about the Clinton legacy that Obama doesn’t want you to hear,” another might have read.

“Clinton and Obama donate BILLIONS to support ISIS.”

You get the idea.

I scrolled through the comments section, devouring the incendiary remarks from Janice, Tom, Greg and Deb, only to quickly realize that none of what I was reading was satire. They believed the headlines.

The wry smile vanished and I sat there, dumbly, staring at the screen.

However, I often have to remind myself that this is not the low point. You don’t have to go back too far either. There was a time in our country when journalism was intentionally reckless, when news was entirely fabricated, when reporters carried blades under their coats and their sources carried bludgeons.

The great newspaper battle between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and their respective newspapers The New York World and The New York Journal, is maybe the best example of rampantly fake news in the late 19th century. The two men regularly fabricated and dramatized news stories in an effort to sell more newspapers. And it worked, so well for Hearst that in 1898 he whisked the country into a war with Spain. Thousands died in Cuba and the Philippines as a result.

“CRISIS IS AT HAND,” The New York Journal’s headlines read.

“Growing belief in SPANISH TREACHERY.”

“CALL TO DUTY!”

Unlike today, the American audience didn’t have nearly the number of options for news media.

Today, we are awash in media. Like Pulitzer and Hearst, bloggers and webmasters are also competing, but now they are competing for “clicks,” or unique page views, as opposed to newspaper sales. The mainstream media has also been forced to stoop to this level to some degree.

Propagators of fake news have made thousands of dollars in days by publishing completely fabricated news, according to a story in the Washington Post. Others just do it for fun. Some fake news media use half-truths, while others fabricate news entirely.

“Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” is a great example of the latter category.

A report about an Iranian ballistic missile launch might be a little more believable (though reports about that were also deemed fake when they were announced last September).

The goal of fake news isn’t to inform you. It’s to distract, confuse and mislead you. It’s easy to find information that you find agreeable, but “agreement” is not the point of news or facts. Fake news doesn’t just target one political group either. It exists everywhere.

Here are a few ways to tell if something is fake news:

  • It sounds too good to be true
  • The headline or text uses inflammatory language
  • The sources are not named in the article, or they can’t be double checked
  • The website doesn’t have a recognizable name, or has a parody name
  • The website doesn’t have an “About” section that explains its goal or founding
  • The website is satirical

I’ll admit there’s sort of a lot to take in and we can’t always be on guard, but it’s important to know.

“Knowing is half the battle,” according to G.I. Joe.

The last thing I want to discuss is libel. With all of this talk about fake news and who to trust, someone is bound to announce the loathsome mainstream media’s penchant for editorializing news stories about our beloved public officials. A lot of people believe the news media at large is guilty of libel. But this is an exaggerated claim.

It’s important to understand what libel is. Libel is a published false statement that damages someone’s reputation. You might think this is everywhere nowadays, but proving something false can be a tricky ordeal. It’s also important to note that public officials and public figures have an even higher burden of proof when suing for libel.

A libelous statement must be:

  • Defamatory
  • Knowingly false
  • Published
  • And in the case of a public official, published with actual malice.

Without this last one, public officials would undoubtedly crusade against publishers in an effort to shut them down. This is also good information for everyone to have. Ordinary people have also been sued after publishing libelous statements online.

It’s a dark, murky world out there. I say embrace it. The best thing we can do is educate ourselves. It’s easy to be duped. I am ashamed to say that it’s happened to me. The important thing is that we learn from it.

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