Every so often, a word or a phrase insinuates itself into everyday speech. Like a parasite, it worms its way through our conversations, it hooks itself into our lexicon, camps out in our slang until it’s legitimate enough to find itself plonk in the middle of Merriam-Webster. Sometimes they’re words we’ve been using forever and it’s just the way we use it that changes.
Until recently a fake, was some one or thing which was or assumed to be demonstrably false. Nails, tans, breasts. The guy who gives you a business card pretending to be a modeling scout to get into your knickers. Handbags sold in Chinatown, silk flowers in your Nana’s bathroom, gold watches that tarnish in the rain. Suddenly fake appears to be a word we use whenever any one or thing doesn’t fit within the frame of our personal or communal narrative.
Like fake news.
Fake news–that is news that has no basis in reality, no provable facts, no corroborated sources, is damaging enough. Tandem it with a global word of mouth tool like the internet, and well, forget Bob being your Uncle, Trump’s your President. Real Fake News is an oxymoron waiting to happen. More damaging is the way the phrase is bandied without merit, and with complete disregard for the–to borrow one of 45’s greatest hits–carnage– it’s doing.
One of the things we possess as human beings, in addition to opposable thumbs, is the ability to reason. When every click means more advertising revenue, when every comment means a bump in the social media stakes, news sources want you to read their stories. This is nothing new. Think of the newsboys in those cute caps selling papers by the headline. What is new is that readers are neglecting to use what we hide under those cute caps. Our brains.
I got into a–let’s call it a debate–on FaceBook the other evening over whether or not an article was fake news. (This particular article was about a draft memo which toyed with the idea of using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants). The headline was sensationalized, all the better to get you to click on it, my dear. But the article, if you bothered to read it, made it abundantly clear that it was a draft memo which never crossed the president’s desk and was, according to the administration, never seriously considered. The article quoted sources, was written by a legitimate news source (i.e. not Brietbart or a Huffington Post ‘contributor’). It also made clear that reporters reached out for comments from the administration and the administration declined to do so. All of that information was within the body of the article.
But you had to actually read it. Which I did, but not before I had to get through the cries of fake news. In ALL CAPS.
Contrast this with another article which detailed the Obama’s plans to have tax payers foot the bill for their vacations in perpetuity while they are in Kenya awaiting re-entry into the US. No sources, no evidence, no verifiable documentation.
One is demonstrably false, no sources, easily disproven (hell, social media was fairly exploding with pictures of President Obama wind surfing in the Caribbean with Richard Branson). The other states the existence of a legitimate memo which exists (or did exist) as a verifiable document, makes clear it was a draft, and leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions.
Sensationalized? Absolutely. Fake? Nope.
The danger of course is that we will start overusing the phrase ‘fake news’ the way we overused the word bully, until it means less and less, until people start to ignore it or roll their eyes. The danger is that it lessens the damage real fake news brings in its wake, the same way we lessened the pain of those suffering from bullying behavior by insisting that every toddler in the sandbox was a ‘bully’. We become immune to it, we stop caring about it, it becomes meaningless because it means less.
For all the talk of personal accountability, there seems to be little accountability when it comes to reading, and critically assessing the news. As always, we’re quick to throw out the blame. The media for their sensationalized headlines. Social media for providing a vehicle. Teenagers in Macedonia churning out false articles. Perhaps the blame should rest squarely on the quality of education or the laziness of the person reading–or not reading–the article, or the inability to verify information.
There is too much at stake to simply base our opinions and facts on headlines or tweets or soundbites edited for impact. Right now we’re so ready to believe the worst of each other that of course it’s comforting to see a headline and think, “See!! I knew it!” and leave it at that. If it fits our world view, we’re happy to bathe in our partisan outrage with nothing more than a bold face headline to back us up.
And every time the headline goes against what we like, it becomes fake.
If this were the Star Wars universe Yoda would be imploring you. Judiciously you must read.Wisely and widely.
Be like Yoda. You have opposable thumbs. Use them to turn the pages of a newspaper. You have a brain. Use it to think. You have the ability to reason and discern. Don’t cry “Wolf!” so much that no one believes you when the wolf is actually staring down your door with gleaming teeth bared.
All the better to eat you with, my dear.