Beating the 'fake news' trap


Satire is a venerable literary device. From Horace to Jonathan Swift, Will Rogers to The Onion, satirists have left people both laughing and thinking. Tongue-in-cheek news reports – whether a TV station’s April Fools’ Day prank or the latest episode of “The Daily Show” – are a popular form of satire today.

But if satire doesn’t at some point give you a wink, it is just an old-fashioned lie.

Which is what fake news is. On sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, articles generated by propagandists, pressure groups, mischief-makers, and page-view gluttons routinely pop up. They can be intriguing. They are often liked and recirculated by people you know. Hundreds of fake news sites with names such as “NewsBuzzDaily” coexist with real news from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, yes, The Christian Science Monitor.

Fake news has been around since before the internet. More than a century ago, the founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, decried “those quill-drivers whose consciences are in their pockets” and went on to start this publication as, at least in part, an antidote. The fakery of yellow journalism survives at the supermarket checkout line, where tabloids screaming about celebrity scandals, political conspiracies, and space aliens are racked alongside Time and Newsweek. And because cable TV is free from the Federal Communication Commission regulations that govern over-the-airwaves TV, shows trafficking in fake news are just a channel choice away from real news shows.

As with everything it has done, the internet has supercharged fake news. More than 60 percent of adult Americans now get their news from social media, according to the Pew Research Center. The average visitor spends almost two hours a day on it. After catching up on mainstream news, it’s tempting to click a headline touting a hidden secret or allegedly suppressed news, especially if it confirms what you suspected or supports your political leanings.

Established, real news is crucial in a democracy. But real news is difficult to nail down, especially when fakery is running wild. Americans have just emerged from a political campaign in which old-school news seemed passé, fact-checking made little difference, and outrageous claims were made. Meanwhile, from Russia to Syria to the Philippines, strongmen have been asserting that facts are irrelevant. “Who are you going to believe,” they ask, after silencing opponents or denying involvement in atrocities, “me or your lying eyes?”

Can fake news be defeated? Google, Facebook, and Twitter have promised to filter fake news. But if you value truth-seeking, please support it. Subscribe to publications like ours that pursue it. Click on links from news sources you trust. Give a thumbs up to news, not “news.”

Real news takes work to gather and produce. Those who practice real news are willing to be corrected if wrong. Fake news looks real but is cheap, feckless, and produced by page-view drivers whose consciences are in their pockets. Don’t be fooled. Fake news doesn’t wink.

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