Why Fake News is Harmful to Our Democracy

  • Published on December 22nd, 2016

Fake news has been the talk of the nation since the 2016 elections, so much so that Stanford researchers warn that a psychological tendency of individuals to accept claims that align with their beliefs as true, even when the claims are not accurate, “will undermine the quality and ultimate productivity of democratic deliberation.”

fake news

Yet fake news is not a new. In fact, the phenomenon is as old as American journalism, according to Dr. Renee Hobbs, founder of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island.

“The first newspapers came out of colonial America,” she relates, noting that they “were terribly partisan and they had all kinds of misinformation, gossip, and other salacious news that was sometimes made-up by people, including our famous Ben Franklin, who was a purveyor of fake news.” Hobbs has created an interactive platform called Mind over Media as a way for individuals to analyze and respond to media propaganda. Digital media has exacerbated the degree of fake news in our daily lives through the speed of the internet, in which blatantly false information can be disseminated to millions in a matter of seconds.

The rapid-speed spread and proliferation of 2016 presidential election misinformation has made fake news one of the big stories of the year. What happened to journalistic ethics? How has the ubiquity of social media spread fake news into every household?

Clickbait as One Reason for the Spread of Fake News

Most web publishers measure their success by the traffic their sites achieve. In turn, they are able to attract or bill advertisers based on the numbers of “clicks” a site gets over a given period of time, usually a day or series of days. “Clickbaiting” is an overt attempt in an online forum such as news source, blog post, or website, to increase views by intentionally misrepresenting or engaging in hyperbole.

The monetization of viewing that makes fake news lucrative and the eagerness of people to embrace evidence that supports their opinions creates a cultural climate in which fake news becomes an unfortunate norm. A design feature such as a headline, caption, image, or lede paragraph signifies what the viewer will find within the body of the story. Many times, readers don’t dig in much beyond those stylistic features.

An article that is more clickbait than credible content uses CAPITAL LETTERS, exclamation points!!!, #%& other ancillary punctuation#%&, or phrases like “You’re not gonna believe this!” or “Wait ‘til you see what happened next…” in an attempt to prompt the viewer to continue reading or select an embedded link.

Often, the factual foundation of the article is less important than the number of page views, which can then be presented to potential advertisers. It’s about selling, stupid.

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith has stated that his site “doesn’t do clickbait.” It’s a claim that some people familiar with the site question. But Smith insists that his publication’s attention-grabbing headlines do lead to a story that is exactly what the headline promised, unlike fake news.

Fake news is all about deception. So, too, are campaigns of misinformation. Both serve to sway public opinion and benefit the most powerful members of society.

Top ten absurd headlines from the “news”

Here are some of the most egregious stories that were spread online and reposted through social media during our recent election season where fake news was dominant and traditional news source capitulated to the topics by repeating them.

“Twitter, Google, and Facebook are burying the FBI criminal investigation of Clinton.”

“Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.’”

“BREAKING: The first Florida exit poll numbers have been released.  Trump 55% Clinton 39% Johnson 6%— CNN (@CNN_PoIitics).” Nov. 8, 2016.

“FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”  The “Denver Guardian,” where it was posted, is also not real. The story is completely false, but it was shared on Facebook over half a million times.

“Remember the voting days: Republicans vote on Tuesday, 11/8 and Democrats vote on Wednesday, 11/9.”

Donald Trump tweeted: “Just out according to @CNN: “Utah officials report voting machine problems across entire country.”  CNN’s Jake Tapper quickly took to the air to correct Trump that the problem existed in one county, not country.

“Tens of thousands” of fraudulent ballots, apparently marked for Hillary Clinton, had been found in a warehouse in Ohio.

On the Christian Times website: “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton files for divorce in New York court.”

Democratic firebrand Elizabeth Warren was “endorsing Bernie Sanders for President.” Not true.

Why fake news is insidious to democracy

If we are to function as a healthy representative democracy, our country needs to be able to count on everyday citizens to form logical deductions about issues, political wrangling, and policy. This takes critical thinking, or the capacity to step back from our belief systems and ask questions about content, composer, and evidence.

And we also need to question ourselves more than ever, to ask about how and what we think, what strategies we use to make decisions, and what types of knowledge we value. Until we do so, fake news will continue to sink its insidious tendrils into all aspects of social life. We need to engage in what John Dewey in 1916 called “supplying the conditions which foster growth.”

Those conditions start with each of us and the way that we think about our own beliefs, rather than just observing what others say. This type of critical thinking opens up a whole new level of awareness, and we really need it as we embark on 2017.

Photo credit: Free Press Pics via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


About the Author

Carolyn writes from her home in RI, where she advocates with her lake association for chemical-free solutions to eradicate invasive species. She’s an organic gardener, nature lover, and vegetarian (no red meat since 1980) who draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+