A recent news story about the first comments made by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has taken parts of the Internet by storm, with his ringing denunciation of Islamic extremism and pledges to forbid American schools from doing anything other than teaching children how to stop “radical Islam.” The problem, of course, is that this “news” is completely false. But it, like other stories of a similar ilk, is far from harmless fun. In fact, they have created real harm, stirring up ethnic and religious conflicts and conjuring up the specter of enraged mobs seeking “justice” for events that have not in fact occurred.
While some examples of “fake news,” such as those promoted by the well-known satirical Onion website, are obviously false and intended only to amuse, other types of fake news are anything but amusing. In many cases, these “news” stories are made to look legitimate, at least on the surface, while they are nothing less than complete fabrications. For example, the abovementioned story appeared on a website with a disclaimer, but it was placed in such a way that readers could easily miss the hint that the story is false.
In other nations, fake news stories have drastically increased tensions between ethnic groups. False stories claiming that China has utilized biological warfare against Indonesia’s crops have further impaired the already tense relationship between Indonesia’s Chinese minority and Muslim majority.
Of course, fake news stories are not unique to our era. In fact, one of the most famous examples of fake news helped lead America into the Spanish-American War, as the press of the time blamed Spain for the sinking of the USS Maine, despite the lack of proof of any hostile action on Spain’s part. Indeed, the term “Yellow Press” has long been associated with the often baseless and exaggerated stories that were so popular with the press of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But today, fake news stories are far more difficult to combat. For all the benefits it has brought to the world, the Internet has become the ideal platform for fake news, whether the creators of the stories are seeking ad revenue by attracting viewers or actively trying to whip up religious and ethnic strife. With relatively little effort and cost, anyone can make a webpage look like a serious news site, using it to promote whatever false information they desire. Social networks are often utilized for spreading lies and rumors, to the point that a fake news story can quickly take on a life of its own, turning into more than gossip and hearsay. Finally, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter focus on short messages, with little analysis or in-depth commentary, making them the best channels to spread fake news stories.
In addition, the swift rise of the number of people with Internet access has created an environment where many users are putting too much faith in news stories that look official, especially if they already agree with the claims made in the articles. Someone who distrusts Muslims or foreigners is already prepared to accept a fake news story, simply because it agrees with their preconceptions.
Given the real threat these fake news stories pose, what is the solution? One possibility is to hold Internet providers responsible for allowing access to sites known for promoting fake news stories, especially if they have the potential to promote violence. However, many nations have legal barriers against such laws, and the international nature of the Internet means that it is entirely possible that the creator of a fake news story will be out of reach of any legal retribution.
The better long-term solution would be to engage in an education campaign, helping to train the world’s people to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the numerous news stories that appear on their social network feeds. Since most false news stories are relatively easy to debunk, an educated and skeptical readership would find themselves well-equipped to separate truth from fiction. For those individuals who seek to make money from false and harmful news stories, a campaign against their advertisers could help eliminate the ad revenue that supports their detrimental activities.
Fake news stories are no longer amusing; they pose a clear risk to societies across the globe. Only by curbing this rising trend can the Internet continue to fulfill its role as a source of information, rather than disinformation.
[The author is a freelance writer based in Corona, California. [email protected]]