Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fake News vs. Poor Journalism

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

When journalists report on real events and get the facts wrong, or spin the facts to fit a point of view, that's bad journalism. When a non-journalist makes up a story about events that never even happened, that's fake news.

Fake news is a real phenomenon. It is a new phenomenon as well. It's fake news because it makes up totally fictitious stories from scratch and publishes it as news... to make a profit. These merchants of lies are not citizen journalists, but hucksters motivated by internet ad revenue. They do it for the hits and clicks that generate their income. Some may fall into the category of propagandists with an ideological agenda, but it hardly matters. Either way, the internet trolls pick up these fictitious stories and run with them, spreading the lies far and wide. The damage is done. Reputations are ruined. Public distrust is multiplied. Misconceptions are created, fears are stoked and ill conceived ideologies are reinforced. American's have become more hopelessly divided because we no longer form our opinions based on a similar sets of facts.

Business is brisk for the fake news scammers. They are filling a vast and pernicious need for the folks who no longer trust conventional journalism, corporate media, their government or the establishment. The creators of fake news are tapping into the anger, frustration and despair of millions of American's who have been cut adrift in our declining middle class. These are mostly good folks who feel forgotten and betrayed by the broken promises of politician's pretending to represent them. Establishment leaders have hidden the truth behind our economic and social decline. This opened the way for false and divisive narratives to fill the gap in our understandings about what is happening to us. It made us vulnerable to propaganda and exploitation to win our votes. And, it has created a financial opportunity for these unscrupulous fake news scammers.

Most of the fake news internet sites can't be traced to their original source or owner. It is hard sometimes to tell them from real news sites. Some of the sites have a URL address and a look of legitimacy, such as the ABcnews.com.co site that has no connection with ABC News. An explanation and list of the 58 most prominent fake news sites can be found at "Here are all the 'fake news' sites to watch out for on Facebook"  Some of the sites are well know satirical sites, like The Onion, which sometimes is mistaken for real news. Other sights, however, just make stuff with no higher literary purpose.

A recent investigation by NPR (National Public Radio) enlisted the help of an internet tech company to track down the owner of a fake news website called "Denver Guardian.com" and uncover just how the fake news industry operates. This is a brief excerpt explaining their reasons for this investigation:

" A lot of fake and misleading news stories were shared across social media during the election. One that got a lot of traffic had this headline: "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide." The story is completely false, but it was shared on Facebook over half a million times.

We wondered who was behind that story and why it was written. It appeared on a site that had the look and feel of a local newspaper. Denverguardian.com even had the local weather. But it had only one news story — the fake one."
More and more American's are getting their news from the internet, including you if you are reading this. The NPR report is a cautionary tale of what to expect as we move forward. Once these scammers get a taste for the profits to be made on fake news, there is no reason to believe the market for lies will dry up any time soon. And given the way our President Elect ran his campaign, the prospects for a private/public partnership between his administration and the budding fake news industry is frightening.

It is important to maintain a distinction between fake news and bad or biased news reporting. If we blur that distinction we completely undermine confidence in journalism, the only institution we have to investigate the real events that matter in our world. We need to hold journalists accountable for accurate, unbiased news accounts but we shouldn't confuse them with unscrupulous creative writers who publish pure fiction as if it were news in order to make money on their websites.

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