No matter where you’ve stuck your pin on the political map, everyone can agree that the 2016 U.S. presidential election was not business as usual for American democracy.
Fingers pointed a thousand different directions on Nov. 9, looking for something to valorize or vilify for their victories and defeats. But through all of the infighting and name-calling, it quickly became clear that the real winner in this campaign was not a person or a movement, but a tool: fake news. It was so well used in this election that PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website, named fake news its 2016 Lie of the Year, saying the concept consists of nothing more than “made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”
In our Orwellian mediaverse, where doublespeak masquerades as hashtags and trending topics, #FakeNews certainly provides good content fodder and the occasional straw man, but the term also muddles the truth that it’s nothing more than propaganda with a Google AdWords account. Intentional or not, obfuscating the specter of propaganda through these doublespeak strategies ultimately distracts from the ethical implications of “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” (That’s a dictionary definition of propaganda, by the way).
The first step in regaining ethical control over fake news is to call it what it is: propaganda. This puts the onus on us, the public, to wade through the mess of the modern media landscape which, now more than ever, is full of trap doors and mazes without exits. It’s only going to get worse, largely because the man that fake news helped to elect to one of the most powerful offices in the world is guilty of disseminating propaganda himself, while turning “mainstream media” into an insult – in much the same way Nazi Germany used “Lügenpresse” to discredit and ultimately silence any media opposing the regime.
Putting the burden on the public to be discerning goes against the emerging idea that Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms are at least partially responsible for the spread of disinformation. After all, you can’t have fake news if there’s no way to discover or share it. Plus, more than 62 percent of adults get their news from social media, so if we can blame these platforms for the proliferation of fake news, then we’re exempt from ethical responsibility. Calling propaganda a rose of another name and blaming social media platforms for circulating fake news renders us mere bystanders, scot-free and light as a feather.
Blaming Facebook and Twitter for fake news is like blaming roads for bad drivers. It distracts from the fact that the public took its own discernment and intelligence for granted. By shifting the blame in this way, and blindly sharing and clicking through content that reinforced our own opinions, we contributed to the viral nature of such propagandist lies as “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide” (2.7 million shares), “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” (961,000 shares), “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna (sic) Leave America” (802,000 shares) and hundreds more instances of tactical misinformation deemed “news.”
While there remains the million-dollar question about whether foreign interference impacted the U.S. election, there’s no doubting the influence propaganda had in its outcome (and the continued affirmation of that result). In the past few months, several outlets have conducted their own investigations into the culprits behind fake news websites, exposing opportunistic individuals generating salacious clickbait for the promise of earning a few extra bucks from advertising and private sources.
What fake news creators have in common, aside from their unabashed cynicism, is their intuitive understanding of the public’s vulnerability to misinformation – and the understanding that propaganda only works when people lack the interest or diligence to explore the provenance of claims. Because it’s easy to make information on the internet look authentic, it’s even easier for people to accept and share it as such. At that point, fake news creators like to wash their hands of the situation, stating like gun sellers that what people do with the information is not their responsibility, even if it results in a man bringing AR-15 into a pizza restaurant.
Fake news wouldn’t be so prevalent if there was not already a willing, receptive audience raised entirely on media that caters to pre-established biases and opinions. This idea relates to what communications scholars call cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we experience when faced with new beliefs or ideas that contradict our own. The discomfort leads to confirmation bias, or the idea that – when faced with a dissonant concept – we’ll adjust our view of that problematic thing to make it fit with what we already believe. It’s safer, because who wants to change their ideas all the time? It’s why creationists reject the science of evolution, or why you’ll never see Kim Kardashian driving a rusty ’96 Ford Escort (because even if you did, you’d block it out). As novelist Saul Bellow once said, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
While there’s a neurological basis for some degree of confirmation bias in our day-to-day lives, it’s a mental vulnerability easily exploited by the mechanisms of propaganda. Because propaganda plays on our defense mechanisms against dissonance, it’s hard for us to see it – admitting we’ve been duped goes against our cognitive biases and defense mechanisms. To save face, we instead call our susceptibility “fake news” and blame social media. It seems like there would be no ethical implications of this placement of blame (except maybe the loss of some common sense), but it’s now one of the leading reasons why we’ve appointed a racist, misogynist, wage-thieving, litigious and totally unqualified man to America’s highest office.
Despite the question of who or what is responsible for fake news, Facebook and other social media platforms are working to combat such organized propaganda efforts. Still, this effort is simply a technological Band-Aid on the open wound of modern democratic culture. Organizations such as the Media Literacy Project and Snopes are advancing media intelligence and fact checking, but propaganda isn’t going anywhere. “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” as American linguist Noam Chomsky says. As it has been since the dawn of mass media, the ethical imperative is on us to sort truth from lies; to separate journalism from propaganda. As our skies darken and our new Commander in Chief continues lambasting the “liar media,” flaunting power over truth, our individual ability to ground ourselves in truth and sift through distracting noise might be the only skill that will stop America’s slow decline toward totalitarianism.
Benjamin van Loon is a writer, researcher and communications consultant from Chicago, Illinois. In 2016, he was awarded a Folio Award for his writing on technology. Learn more at benvanloon.com.