“Fake News” in Informational Ecology
This essay grapples with the latest weapon in information warfare in the United States: “fake news.” The introduction of “fake news” into the political discourse by the Donald Trump administration has exposed the fragility of the political reality constructed and disseminated by media outlets. I contend that the effects of this phenomenon within the informational ecology of U.S. politics are not new. Rather, fake news is the latest iteration of informational partisanship within our democratic capitalist society, the (re)production of which has been amplified and accelerated by the rise of social media. As a remedy, I suggest abandoning claims to objective knowledge supported by media sources.
To be exact, fake news as a term dates to the Progressive era in American politics when William Jennings Bryan (one of the first “populists”) used it in his publication, The Commoner to attack anonymous articles unfavorable to his campaign. The term gained contemporary popularity after a bizarre incident in which a North Carolina man, having consumed “fake news” posted to Reddit, drove to Washington D.C. with an assault rifle to “investigate” an alleged child-prostitution ring run by Hillary Clinton in the basement of a pizzeria. His arrest sparked national attention to the political implications of online media and the dissemination of less than reputable information through outlets more interested in serving as advertiser click-bait than watch-dogs of democracy. Since the incident, and ironically, given its provenance, the Trump administration and the American right have shown little restraint in using the term and have weaponized it to attack news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, or as a label for any story potentially damaging to the image of the White House. Most recently, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to connect “fake news” to “fake education” in an assault on American universities through a sympathetic media outlet, Fox Broadcasting.
Fake news, as a term, has been used to dismiss information, questions, inquiries and stories threatening to the perceived standing, credibility or legitimacy of the Trump administration. The President, employing Twitter, has claimed that any inquiries into his ties with Russia, and its possible hacking of the November 2016 United States national election, are motivated by fake news propagated by Democrats to damage his administration and draw attention away from their election losses. The effect of the vacuity of “fake news” as a signifier is particularly dizzying considering the recent resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, following a news account exposing his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyev, after the Department of Justice had warned the White House that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the Kremlin. Indeed, Flynn had allegedly deceived Vice President Mike Pence concerning the content, frequency and duration of his contacts with Kislyev for several months. Trump and several White House officials have repeatedly denied any ties to the Kremlin and Kellyanne Conway, councilor to Trump, has downplayed what this episode might suggest concerning the President’s judgment or ability to make prudent staff choices. After NBC journalist Matt Lauer dismissed Conway’s comments as nonsensical, Trump used Twitter to condemn the news accounts of Flynn’s conversations, without elaborating on his relationship to Russia. Members of the press and Congress have repeatedly asked the President to approve an independent investigation of his relationship with Russia (and that of his recent campaign) since he has maintained such an effort would reveal nothing, but he has steadfastly refused to do so. Meanwhile, he has assumed a defensive posture and created a carnival-like spectacle as he has flung “fake news” charges against his perceived opponents calling for such an inquiry. Not surprisingly, his relationship to the mainstream media has descended into acrimony. For example, Trump was forced recently by several journalists to clarify a comment concerning the media as the “enemy of the American people” that he repeated at the recent annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He defended his contention by asserting that his comment was directed at “fake news.” The difficulty with his clarification, however, is that he appears to consider any critical or unflattering press coverage as “fake,” so much of the mass media was included in his broad claim.
In vertigo inducing displays, left and right-wing media outlets have adopted “fake news” as part of their political and epistemic vocabulary. Fake news is not a new phenomenon— think The National Inquirer—but its virulence in our nation’s political ecosystem has been aided by the internet, as its transmission occurs at virtual light speed through social media. In fact, recent research has exposed an elaborate network of social media sites as dissemination points for misinformation, mixed with legitimate news. Algorithms beyond the control of any single actor sort information based on popularity and user viewing habits, leading to an organic system of dissemination to individual viewers. This system is driven foremost by data analytics that are part of a pursuit of profits attached to website advertising fees. That is, “fake news” is, at bottom, propelled by capital interests and transmitted by the social media users’ consumptive choices.
Regardless of its purveyor, or the administration’s use of the term, fake news is a kind of deliberative pollution that preys on information bubbles formed based on internet users’ digital footprints. Sophisticated click-bait advertising entices users into confirmation biases already dangerous to democracy and creates more doubt concerning the veracity of information counter to their existing beliefs. Again, this is no new phenomenon. In his farewell address former President Barack Obama mentioned a “great sorting” of information through media outlets as dangerous to the exercise of democratic citizenship.
Massive media conglomerates, for example, now move daily to capture the attention of viewers and hold their viewership by shaping information so as to ensure it is palatable to that audience. The subtlety of such media frames prime the deliberative environment toward debates concerning taste rather than reason, as news comes to resemble entertainment, rather than cultivating citizens to serve as “the anxious, jealous guardians of democracy.” To the extent this trend now holds popular sway, citizens are daily being molded into consumers of entertainment rather than true participants in the democratic process. The rise of the 24-hour news outlet and subsequent ratings war between CNN and Fox News have neatly split the polis into two broadly consumptive camps able to access information with the click of a TV remote. In the pursuit of profit, these news channels have created distinct identities that have become their brand signatures in their quest for ratings and advertising dollars. Capitalism created the need for spin and each of these channels has catered to the subtle and specific tastes of broad swathes of information-consumers. Regardless of the side of the aisle one may personally prefer, this great sorting has continued and new skirmishes between these institutions occur daily as they contest for market preeminence.
President Trump’s distaste for specific media outlets is also nothing new. The Nixon administration’s bald hostility toward the media is well known. However, Nixon stepped into an environment already charged with hostility toward the “mainstream media” and exploited that situation. Human Events, a well-known conservative publication, had already been at work carving out a conservative counter space in the media since 1961. That journal’s greatest contribution to the national discourse was the idea of a “liberal media,” which claimed that major media outlet frames were strong and structurally biased political force in the national dialogue. The idea that the most widely cited and admired mass media outlets were “liberal mouthpieces” accelerated the rise of media partisanship and news consumers began to divide along ideological and party lines. These differences are most conspicuous today when media organizations such as Fox or Breitbart claim to be “fair and balanced” because they will broadcast or print what other major organizations will not. This argument allows these news outlets to frame other journalism as biased as a part of their attempt to tear down the façade of journalistic objectivity. The counternarrative spun by their opponents is that outlets such as Fox serve the Republican party’s interests, or, in the case of Breitbart, cater to white nationalist sympathies.
The branding narratives and counternarratives mirror the challenges that fake news poses for democracy. Taste plays a role in citizen/consumer informational insularity and it appears to be working to undermine the foundational capacity of the demos to act in the public interest. The weightlessness of information transfer, the consumptive practices of viewing publics, the motive force of profit in producing informational bubbles and the clear partisanship of media outlets suggest that information transfer in our democratic capitalist society is inherently biased. Discerning “fake news” from fair and balanced representation rests on a citizen’s ability to parse reality and requires critical reflection. Fake news may represent the latest iteration of information challenge presented to the demos, but its effects, as I have argued, are not new. It is very easy to get turned around in the bewildering environment of online media. In order to see the forest for the trees, I suggest that readers and viewers abandon claims to knowing the absolute truth of any matter reported in the spirit of recognizing the limitations of their consumptive practices.
Recognizing that we are participating in a market when we read our standby publications and that this market will perpetually reinforce frames tailored to our tastes should help us remember that no news is objectively reported and that claims to objectivity fall apart when considering the larger political ecology of information. Rather than a weapon to demonize the opposition, the presence of fake news in our conceptual framework can humble our more rabid moments as it serves as a reminder of the power of the media in constructing our political reality.
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Alex Stubberfield is a second-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT). He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Philosophy at SUNY Brockport and continued his education at Virginia Tech earning a Master’s degree in Philosophy, and a Masters of Public and International Affairs with a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management. His research concerns political theory, media, social theory, culture and corporate citizenship. He currently teaches American politics as an instructor in the Political Science department.
March 2, 2017