Fake News, Censorship, and Propaganda

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this outbreak of “fake news” running rampant on social media and goaded on by the bloodbath that was the 2016 election cycle and what it means for censorship as well as its influence on the seemingly ever-widening divide between liberal and conservative viewpoints. I have the unique place of not really being in a social media bubble. I grew up in a rural and very conservative place and lived there again for the last three and half years. But I also went to college at a liberal arts school and have cultivated a pretty diverse online friend group through YouTube. So Facebook has been a literal hell over the last year because I have the ultra conservative posts right next to the ultra liberal posts, and I’ve always considered myself pretty moderate–if nothing else just because I like to ask questions of both sides before making a decision. But let’s just say I’ve seen the vitriol that both sides have been throwing.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how many “news stories” I clicked on because of the inflammatory or interesting headline only to find myself halfway through and looking for the website name because it seems so far out of left (or right!) field. At first, I would just roll my eyes and click out of the tab because “Oh Crazy Uncle Joe Bob is posting nonsense again because he doesn’t realize what satire is.  But then slowly but surely, my entire news feed began to fill up with similar kinds of garbage from both conservative and liberal friends and “real” news stories blended right in because honestly, this whole election was insane. Donald Trump’s campaign, especially early on, was bolstered by these inflammatory headlines which were mostly true because he said inflammatory things.  So later in the election cycle, we were already preconditioned to these kinds of outrageous statements so the real and fake clickbait blended together.

Now we recognize that there’s been an influx of fake news, and whether it influenced the U.S. presidential election is really neither here nor there at this point, but it does raise questions about censorship. Because this fake news feels invasive and overwhelming. It’s made the Internet–a primary source of information for the majority of people today–feel sinister and unsafe (well…more than it usually does). You always hated being that poor sucker who didn’t realize the Onion wasn’t an actual news source and shared an article like it was real.  And now just going on Facebook feels that way. What’s truth? What’s a lie? What’s heavily biased opinion?

How do we stop the misinformation? On the one hand, there’s freedom of information and speech so we shouldn’t put regulations on news, right? Then it becomes censorship and the people who will be hurt the most are your average citizens and honest, hard-working news organizations.  You don’t want state-sponsored propaganda, right? How do you censor the fake news without vastly limiting the freedom of all news organizations and therefore create a propaganda funnel?

But if we can’t do anything to directly staunch the flow of fake news, we then rely on people to take the responsibly of vetting their own news sources.  And as a pretty critical reader myself, even I’ve gotten all the way through an article before thinking to look at the website name or the suggested ads for clues as to the site’s authenticity. Also, it’s pretty obvious from even mainstream news outlets like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC that most people fall into one bias or another. I’m sure very few people watch all three of those stations regularly (except for my dad, my dad likes to “know what the other side is saying” which is honestly, a pretty good tactic).  We want to hear or read news with a bias we agree with. That makes it easier to digest and move on.  It’s easier to call anyone who has a different bias than you “libtards” or “ignorant conservatives” than to actually sit down and say “Hey! I wonder why this person thinks this way? I wonder what they’re seeing and reading and hearing that’s influencing them that I’m not?”

I don’t want propaganda. I don’t want censorship. But I also don’t want fake news. Or so heavily biased “news” that it’s pretty much just opinion pieces. Biased entertainment–that’s enjoyable, but I hope that no one watching The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver thinks that actually qualifies as news.

But then we also live in a world where people (and mostly my generation) trusts comedians more than news anchors. They may be biased but at least they’re honest about it.

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