All in all, 2016 was a trying year for the truth. Fake news is flourishing, and the U.S. has elected a president who not only does not hesitate to lie, but also appears determined to exploit an increasingly apparent lack of shared reality. Even objective facts are being marginalized. In a recent poll of 1,011 U.S. adults, more than half of Republicans (52%) said they believe Trump won the popular vote — in bold defiance of the widely distributed fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million. False information today seems to spread more easily, and then stick.
In fact, the Oxford Dictionary 2016 word of the year is “post-truth,” which it defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
“Clearly, the acidity of the recent election brought a lot of this stuff out of the woodwork,” says Joseph Turow, associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Much of the Trump campaign’s sowing of confusion around facts appears to have been quite purposeful, and it’s had a corrosive effect on the nature of … the ways in which people talk about the democratic process — the sense that it is not clear whom to believe anymore, and what is the role of the press in giving us what’s happened. Do people believe the press anymore?”
Almost 40% of Trump supporters responding to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey said the stock market has declined during President Obama’s tenure, when in fact the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled. Normally, rational media analysis could combat that kind of false impression. “But that is going to be a really tough [battle], because the narrative is out there that the media is part of this,” says Wharton marketing professor and identity theorist Americus Reed. “Trump’s really smart [move] was to create a distrust of the media, and [to cause people to question] where would you go to get rational, objective analysis? …The media has been tainted for Trump supporters. That’s the real danger here — that argument is out there, creating a precedent around it being okay to just make statements that have no basis in reality. That is perhaps okay in the entertainment world, but not for all these sensitive relationships that might go wrong when you are Tweeting about Taiwan in the middle of the night.”
Disregard for established facts festers in the political realm, but is not confined to it. Indian officials have grappled with several fake news stories surrounding the release of new 2,000-rupee banknotes, including one claiming currency was printed with radioactive ink, the BBC reports. In another case related to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting, a 57-year-old Florida woman was charged this month with threatening the father of a six-year-old boy killed in the 2012 attack. She had been frequenting websites promoting the conspiracy theory that the government staged the shooting to press an anti-gun agenda.
“We’d like to believe there is a marketplace of ideas, and that the truth will win out. It’s not true; that’s not how the world works.” –Maurice Schweitzer
Having a president-elect who is, so far, unwilling or unable to distinguish truth from falsehoods creates great uncertainty, says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “Part of the danger here is that people may start to believe that no one can be trusted, that everyone is peddling a story. It makes it so you don’t know who to trust and who to believe,” she says. “If one side is making these bold, inflammatory claims that are getting a lot of attention, it’s awfully hard for the other side not to want to do the same thing. On the one hand, I keep thinking of Walter Cronkite — where is there a Walter Cronkite? Where are those trusted, middle-of-the-road figures everyone can believe? On the other hand, when you have this kind of poisonous atmosphere, would people believe even Cronkite? Is there room for such a person?”
The Rise of Fake News
One clear symptom of our current state of affairs is the increasingly harmful impact of fake news stories. Shortly after the U.S. presidential election, for example, some Trump supporters called for a boycott of PepsiCo products after reading fake news stories with a fabricated quote from PepsiCo CEO and chairperson Indra Nooyi saying she didn’t want their business. In a flash, the parent company of Doritos, Quaker Oats and Gatorade was on the defensive.
If you are a certain kind of discerning reader, you know the drill: You scroll across something on Facebook too outlandish to believe, or merely fishy, and rather than clicking, you toggle to The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. If you don’t find it there, what you saw on Facebook probably wasn’t true. But for every reader willing to go through that routine, millions of others click on fake news, read it and believe it.
Some of these nuggets fall squarely into the category of the ridiculous. But many are more artful, like the fabricated Nooyi quote. Increasingly, fake news is sending out ripples of chaos – where it undermines public discourse, puts businesses on high alert and perhaps threatens the orderly functioning of democracy itself.
Facebook, with 1.79 billion active monthly users worldwide in the third quarter of 2016, is a major bazaar for fake news, and many observers say that it played a role in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. A fake news item about the Pope endorsing Trump was shared about a million times on the site. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that the site influenced the election as “pretty crazy.”
Not so crazy, actually, some observers say. Headlines on fake online news stories were deemed accurate by readers about 75% of the time, according to an online survey of 3,015 U.S. adults conducted between November 28 and December 1 by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News. The survey found that The New York Times and CNN were cited as “a major source of news” by 18% and 27% of those polled, respectively. But also highly read were Facebook, Twitter and other sources where fake news is found in various shades from outright fabrication to more subtle forms of deceit.
“In a way, the problem with ‘fake news’ isn’t really the ‘fake’ — supermarket tabloids have been doing that for decades,” notes Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, and author of “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” a popular essay on theconversation.com.
Think Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave!, he says, referring to a Weekly World News cover story from 1992 that caught on. “The bigger problem is the fracturing of the media…. Until recently, the media largely agreed on a given set of facts, even if they differed on which facts to report and how to report them. But increasingly, it seems you can choose your media in order to