how the fake news monster grows stronger
Hard to believe that the “fake news” moniker only entered the mainstream a few months ago, although let’s face it, the last few months have dragged on in an unrelenting horror show on social media and the real world. At first, it seemed like a perfectly fine term used by millions fed up with journalism’s problems in doing actual reporting and analysis, and the proliferation of all too thinly veiled partisan mouthpieces and outright hoaxes posing as news some grand media conspiracy is trying to suppress. It was basically the Fox News strategy of pretending to be the only honest, objective voice in danger of being silenced by a sinister cabal adopted by anyone wanting to publish partisan clickbait, and it ravaged social media. Finally, there was a rallying cry to do something about it and fight back against the armies of trolls and partisan propagandists. Until partisan propagandists turned it on its head, smearing fact checkers, and now, setting up their own fact checking sites to feign legitimacy behind their own claims for their faithful fans.
While there are certainly narratives and groupthink in every media source, the trick being deployed is to point out the narrative and condemn its very existence as evidence of propaganda, then sell your own narrative because it’s different. When challenged by fact checkers, attack the fact checkers as being in the pocket of the media source you’re attacking since it confirms the details of the narrative and is thus obviously in on in, and in this new development, cite your own “fact checkers” who look official and mine the web for supposed proof of your narrative. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who to believe because that’s a feature, not a bug. When you simply aren’t sure who to trust, you will instinctively pick the narrative that you’re most ready to trust and they’re there to provide it for you. This also allows them to plant disinformation from governments across the world and push their meta-narrative, usually something along the lines of “we’re awesome and anyone who doubts this is a meanie who’s lying about us.”
Independent journalism not held hostage by advertising clicks and with real budgets, allowing reporters to investigate and collaborate to dig into all the purveyors of fake news and operators of troll factories who happily launch thousands of tweets labeling every story with which they disagree fake news regardless of its veracity, is the only way to make a dent in this problem. But that raises the thorny question of where the funding for this will come since at the moment, billionaires willing to absorb the losses of running real news organizations are doing much of the heavy lifting. Should the media switch to more subscription driven models, it might create a major rift between the consumption of more credible news and partisan spin as ever more content is walled off behind paywalls and cedes the widest possible platform to fake news. Both approaches have downsides and if I were to tell you that I have a great solution for this, I’d be either lying or a multimillionaire from my new media consulting biz, and sadly for me, I am not a multimillionaire.
At the same time, I do know that there has to be a way for the real news to survive and sustain itself, otherwise, there will be no one to challenge all of the competing narratives vying for our attention and calling each other fake news with ever-increasing ferocity in feats of cargo cult journalism in which each source has its own ecosystem to claim that it and its partners are only truthful ones in a digital ocean of liars, scam artists, and propagandists. It’s well known that all major media agencies rush and get things wrong just to keep up with what’s trending, and fact checking has not been prioritized as much as it should’ve during critical years where they could have shown that they’re indispensable. However, we also know that the vast majority of what these agencies report has at least a factual basis and they know how to run proper newsrooms and do investigative reporting that doesn’t rely on some random Twitter feeds and troll forum posts. Simply letting them die off is by far the worst thing we can do for our sanity in the near future.