Liberal Column

The danger of fake news in the Donald Trump era

It was always going to come to this. The aftermath of the most polarizing political event in recent American history was always going to be volatile, regardless of the victor.

The 2016 United States presidential election was the first in the social media age to not feature an incumbent president. Social media has ushered in a new age of media consumption, which in turn has brought up a distinct set of challenges. One of these challenges is the way President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign and imminent presidency have altered the manner in which we are exposed to and process information.

Trump’s campaign and subsequent election have led to the emergence of fake news. False journalism is nothing new — it brought the United States into war with Spain in 1898 — but social media has given fake news a broader influence. When a fake article is presented in the same feed as real news, it gives the fake story the appearance of legitimacy. The falsehoods are designed to fit a specific narrative — one that supports and comforts the reader.

“Asking the right questions and attacking the candidate are two different things, but when a candidate is very popular, a big chunk of the viewers might think that the media network is just being biased,” said Margarita Estevez-Abe, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “How can the media maintain their critical ability without seeming biased? This is where facts matter, and if one party starts mobilizing its base with fake news, then it becomes impossible.”

Throughout the election, fake news actually outperformed real news in consumption. On social media, when something is broadcast loud enough, it no longer matters what is true and what it not; the only thing that matters is what is heard.

This is a dangerous enough concept when it exists among ordinary people. Factual validity and historical context are vital when discussing anything of substance — especially politics — and the problem becomes amplified when a prominent figure endorses the practice.

Trump’s speeches and Twitter are littered with instances of the president-elect sharing or contriving baseless statements and fake articles. He’s shared fake and uninformed stories about Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11, President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, the occurrence of nationwide voting machine errors on Election Day and widespread instances of voter fraud — the last of which didn’t even bother to cite anything or anyone.

The crux of this issue is that when an average person promotes fake news, it’s simply misinformation. When an elected official does so, its propaganda. Trump’s blatant falsehoods have validated a factual irresponsibility that yields extremely damaging effects.

Breitbart, the alt-right news website founded by Trump’s chief strategist and senior advisor Steve Bannon, has become incredibly adept at using the actions of a few people to vilify an entire group. The most common target of Breitbart’s sensationalism is Muslims. Breitbart’s website features outlandish headlines such as “Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation” and “DATA: Young Muslims in the West Are a Ticking Time Bomb, Increasingly Sympathising with Radicals, Terror,” with the latter egregiously misquoting its data.

Similarly, comparisons by pundits such as Sean Hannity and Tomi Lahren that liken Black Lives Matter to the KKK show a complete disregard for historical context and the concept of extremism. When a person who pledges their allegiance to a group commits an unpardonable act, it should not indict the entire group, nor should it dictate the perception of what that group stands for.

This is not a blanket statement that seeks to condemn every conservative or Trump supporter for spreading misinformation. But when you are given a platform to broadcast your views to millions of people, it is journalistically irresponsible to treat history and facts as subjective points. This occurrence is not limited to one side of the political spectrum; both parties are guilty of misrepresenting data.

Much of this phenomenon can be blamed on the presence of “echo chambers” created by social media sites like Facebook, which run on algorithms designed to suggest pages similar to the ones a user already subscribes to. Echo chambers make people feel safe and surrounded by millions of like-minded peers, but doesn’t stimulate any kind of authentically representative conversation. Even worse, it furthers the alienation between people of opposing beliefs.

“I think it’s because we have such a hyper-partisan country — at levels that nobody has really seen before — it’s really messed up, the whole idea of me and you having a conversation and disagreeing, it’s just a fight,” said Steve Davis, chair of the Newspaper and Online Journalism Department at SU. “And what do you look for when you’re having a fight? Ammo. So it’s fake news providing ammo.”

All of this has caused a severe rift between differing ideologies, a divide which will only become more damaging if not addressed. Luckily, the solution is simple: empathy.

Empathy is likely the only way that we can come together as a nation. It would require people on a broad scale to open themselves up to news stories and conversations from a wide range of political ideologies, and thus expose themselves to stories that might contradict personal beliefs.

To bring empathy into the equation would require people to step outside of their comfort zone, and logically work from a place of mutual understanding. You don’t have to agree with someone, you just have to try and see where they are coming from.

Ryan Dunn is a freshman history major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at rarozenb@syr.edu.

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