Targeting the Innocent and Vulnerable with Fake News

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Throughout the world, altered perceptions regarding the veracity of “factual information,” and trust in journalism are being eroded worldwide through the proliferation of claims of “fake news, ”giving birth to a crisis in the news business in general. “Fake news” is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019). With the plethora of news sources, ‘fake news” can take many different forms. However, there are four broad types: deliberate misinformation, false headlines, social media sharing, and satire. Through the use of modern technology and social media in particular, fake news can be spread instantaneously, discredits journalism and makes many consumers unsure of what to believe.

The creators of “fake news” profit from running websites and false news stories which target often vulnerable audiences, seeking to manipulate opinions, political beliefs, and subsequent behaviors of the readers. According to CNN, there is an entire industry focused on supplying “fake news” in order to successfully fool their targets by implementing strategies such as mimicking professional websites, distorting truths and capitalizing on emotionally charged topics in an effort to stifle rational analysis. Many of these groups have become so good at deceiving people that it is extremely difficult for the average citizen to distinguish their disinformation from true journalism and research-supported arguments; it is hard to know what is and is not factual. In their efforts to suppress the truth, these people create a smokescreen of sorts, labeling truths as “fake news” and falsehoods as the real story. With the modern media environment, these falsehoods or “fake news” can persist, and according to The Atlantic (2018), “fake news” and false rumors now penetrate deeper into social media and reach more people than accurate stories.

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The United States has, in general, been divided regarding a response to fake news, and as a result, the issue has not been addressed at a government level; this differentiates the United States from many other countries in the world, several of which have government groups tasked with rooting out misinformation. Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, “fake news” has increasingly become a part of the national vernacular as Trump consistently claims that any news which is critical of him or that which contradicts his rhetoric is “fake news.” This sets the stage for an environment in which the President is able to craft his own narrative and plant seeds of doubt in citizens minds regarding the trustworthiness of well-established, vetted journalistic sources. When a political figure such as President Trump begins to criticize news platforms, many of his followers and vulnerable consumers can fall victim to uncertainty regarding the actual content or veracity of the information, trusting the source (their leader) instead of engaging in critical thinking.

In the United States, journalism has traditionally been held to a high standard, and the ethics of truth, fairness, public trust and accountability are paramount to the integrity of the field. A leader such as the President of the United States has a broad stage and a great deal of influence, and that leader has the ability to use his/her influence to discredit the very journalists who might well be trying to shine a light on corruption, malfeasance, or unjust behavior of the government. This manipulation, especially by a powerful world leader, leads to a veritable “house of mirrors,” where it is extremely challenging to discern what is real and true from what is merely propaganda or misinformation for the sake of manipulation. One of the great dangers related to this confusion is that it can lead to a certain news fatigue, a phenomenon by which the citizens become so worn out by the constant flood of disparate information that they cease to seek out news in general, even about crucial issues (Tavernise & Gardiner, 2019).

Due to the prevalence of the rising issue of fake news, or intentional misinformation, some countries around the world are establishing approaches to combat it. Finland is one of the more progressive countries in its proactive response to fake news and the government has implemented a multiplatform response to educate its citizens and combat the nefarious results of fake news. When international trolling increased in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto addressed the entire Finnish population and urged them to take responsibility in the battle against “fake news.” After that, American experts were recruited to advise officials on how to combat false information; this resulted in the implementation of new strategies such as courses designed specifically to prepare and inform citizens about “fake news.” Finland now regularly holds classes and informational sessions for journalists, politicians and citizens alike on how to identify, combat and debunk false news stories and, as a result, its citizens are better equipped with tools that help them to assess for themselves what is real and what is more likely fake. Many other countries are beginning to look to Finland as a blueprint for strategies on the battle against this increasing issue.

Perhaps one of the most complicated examples of “fake news” at work in different ways, China is widely thought to engage in “fake news” with its own citizens while at the same time claiming to be extremely troubled and diligent about rooting out “fake news” coming from the residents of China itself. For many years, Chinese leaders have warned its citizens of the dangers of what they call “rumors,” implementing “anti-rumor” regulations and a wide range of punishments for citizens who spread information that does not clearly support the Chinese “party line.” In addition, there is a fine line between what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate, for according to the censorship rules, one may not post anything which “hurts national unity, provokes ethnic tension or promotes superstition” (Zhou, 2016). China has also been under scrutiny as the government has removed a large amount of online articles and websites annually without informing the public or authors. They have cracked down on social media platforms, environments that activist citizens have attempted to use in order to communicate with one another and with people from more democratic Western cultures. As information from the west has leaked in, China has gone to great lengths to catch the stories, to label them “fake news,” to combat the information, and to come down hard on the messengers. What the Chinese call combating “fake news” and “rumors” most democratic nations and cultures call “censorship.” As a result, it is widely believed that there are hundreds if not thousands of journalists in jail, not for spreading “fake news,” but for telling the truth when that truth was inconvenient to the Chinese government.

As one can see, the rapid spread of fake news is a serious issue, and with the proliferation of social media and fast information, citizens around the world who take in “information” in quick soundbites and tweets are especially vulnerable. One of the most useful tools for identifying and combating “fake news” in any form is the ability of people to think critically and to go beyond the headlines and dramatic, declarative statements of conspiracy theorists and corrupt politicians alike; this requires sustained attention on the part of the citizens, a willingness to verify and seek information beyond what is presented. It is ironic that in countries where real, true information seems hard to come by, those citizens are often willing to persist in their efforts to discover truth, even when the outcome could be perilous for them. Yet in a country such as the United States where many citizens can access information, research, and critical facts about anything in the public domain, the residents are vulnerable to misinformation often times because of the sheer failure to check, to verify, or to ask important questions. Perhaps one of the reasons Finland has experienced such success in combating “fake news” is that they have essentially taken their citizens back to the classroom of Socrates, the place where people learn how to think critically, how to ask probing questions, and how to analyze and evaluate information for oneself to arrive at the truth. It is in engendering this ability in its citizens to persist cognitively beyond the soundbyte or oft repeated trope that has the greatest promise for combatting the “fake news” phenomenon worldwide.

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