Colin: Is Fake News Fake?

The hype around "fake news" threatens freedom of the press.

by Sarah Colin | 9/26/19 2:00am

How many memes have you seen about “fake news” in the past year? While “fake news” has become a comical buzzword, this phenomenon of publishing blatantly false information has caused quite a stir in the world of journalism. Even though there is no substantial proof that the spread of “fake news” holds any significant influence over the population, some are advocating for a change in policy forbidding “misinformation” from being published. While it is important that the public reads the truth, striving for a lie-free media is not worth surrendering our freedom of the press in a vain attempt to stop the age-old and inevitable spreading of lies. 

Even though the term “fake news” was coined during the 2016 presidential election, people have been using false claims as propaganda since the inception of mass communication. In fact, our Founding Fathers proudly wrote exaggerated stories to garner public support for the American Revolution. In the ultimate colonial fake-news scandal, Benjamin Franklin published a fake issue of a Boston newspaper in France telling a made-up story in which Native Americans scalped hundreds of innocent colonists as a way of showing their loyalty to King George. While fake news in Franklin’s days could only gain a certain momentum because of limited technologies, it still serves as an example of the type of fabricated claims that modern critics would like to see forbidden. Today, people can spread misinformation more easily by taking advantage of our technological advances in communication. We see it all the time in advertisements, from magazines with Photoshopped models to commercials using camera cuts to falsely portray a product’s functionality. Yet, people have always been the root of the problem, not the media. 

Critics argue that lies in the media have led to a decline in the quality of our public knowledge. It is fair to say that people rely on the media for facts to make well-informed decisions for their country. However, the idea that a significant amount of readers are internalizing the lies they read and then voting on these conclusions is unsupported by any statistical data, even in the most recent presidential election, according to a 2018 study led by Dartmouth government professor Brendan Nyhan.

Should we try to stop the spread of fake news? In a perfect world, sure. However, there is no feasible way to censure what is “true” or “false” without violating citizens’ rights to freedom of the press. The power to make one’s opinion heard, whether it be speaking out against or endorsing the government and other institutions, is essential to the values of American liberty and justice. Freedom of the press also serves as a check on the government’s authority and a powerful tool for creating social change. 

If we decide to censor the media, we are not only sacrificing our publishing rights, but also taking a dangerous step towards losing our other fundamental liberties on which America was founded. According to Freedom House, an organization dedicated to statistical analysis of international human rights, the three countries with the worst ratings for government censorship of media are Syria, Eritrea and North Korea­ — all three of which are run by repressive, autocratic regimes. While the spreading of lies in the press has gotten out of hand in our current state of political polarization, we have to bite the bullet to preserve our other freedoms. Ultimately, the publication of fake news is inevitable, regardless of the political climate.

Even if we wanted to, do we really have the power to stop the spread of false claims? Publishers of fake news have capitalized on the most powerful weapon of the 21st century: social media. This new way of communicating allows people to instantaneously access millions of individuals, allowing the message to reach more people and increasing its chance of penetrating people’s newsfeeds. The bright side of this? The publishers of fake news are not the only people with access to social media. In the same way one can publish a false statement, one can also counteract or even preempt this by publishing the truth. 

Unfortunately, there are still cases of widespread panic where, despite the facts in front of them, people still refuse to believe the truth. The best tool reporters can use to combat this bandwagoning is to not only present the facts proving the truth, but also include negations of the masses’ counterargument. While instances like these are a threat to our public knowledge, even the media cannot control the individual biases and preconceptions that readers have going in to an article.

So what should be done about this fake news phenomenon? Nothing. While America’s freedom of press comes at the cost of allowing lies to be published, this concession is worth the political liberty. Trying to stop the spread of fake news would bring up technicalities as to what is truly “fake” or “real.” While there are facts that can be proven true or false, the line becomes blurry when it comes to dealing with heavily biased or one-sided arguments. 

For all the hype that “fake news” has gotten over the past year, this image of a population brainwashed by lies is far from the reality we are facing, which is simply the exercise of freedom of press. The idea that “fake news” is a considerable threat to our public knowledge is nothing more than “fake news” itself.