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Fake News: The Media Corrupted

Fake News: The Media Corrupted
The front page of a newspaper with the headline "Fake News" which illustrates the current phenomena. Front section of newspaper is on top of loosely stacked remainder of newspaper. All visible text is authored by the photographer. Photographed in a studio setting on a white background with a slight wide angle lens.

Among the ether of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube that exist as our sources for day to day news, media outlets channel information to those broader platforms in order to reach a massive audience. This is the role of the press in modern times, a role protected by the Constitution of the United States of America under the 1st Amendment. As advancements in technology and how people obtain information continues to develop, the public begins to rely more heavily on the media for day to day information.

However, this audience that is subscribed to these media presences for the sole purpose of receiving reliable and credible news, is instead consistently lied to and enlisted to spread the false news stories depending on who or what they are subscribed.

At the beginning of the most recent election of our 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, the already biased media networks began to amplify their assault. Their perversion of facts and information, presented to the public as credible publications, beguiles and defrauds the consumers of mass media, creating a general distrust in the press and a misled media consumer base. Targeting social media and news publications, much of mainstream media hopes to distort the truth in order to propagate a political agenda, resulting in a despotic grip on society.

In an attempt to smear the name of the newly elected President, many news sources have all pushed the same message: WE HATE TRUMP. Rather than give the President a chance to act and then tear him down on policy and actions that matter, the press crucifies Trump and his administration for literally everything. They attack insignificant things like his messy desk and his 2005 tax returns, which show that he paid $38 million in taxes at a 24% tax rate in 2005.

What the press should do (and what I wish they would do) is vilify Trump on all of his actual presidential mistakes and shortcomings. This way, the press would effectively hold Trump’s feet to the fire on his mistakes and ensure he is accountable for his actions. But making a messy desk an existential crisis hurts the credibility of all the media, resulting in a high-stakes version of “When the Media Cries Wolf.” Except the media won’t be eaten by the wolf, it will be the American people.

Starting from the beginning (or the middle, or the first half, no one knows exactly when or how this all began to intensify), CNN titled an article, “No, the Presidential Election Can’t Be Hacked,” in response to Trump’s allegations of possible hacking in Hillary’s favor in the upcoming election. The article displays how hacking in the election is prevented by paper trails and numerous safeguards, ensuring a fair election process. The article also specifically explains how hacking wouldn’t really matter based off of how the election process is set up. However, in a post-Trump victory 4 days after the election, CNN published an article that “details” how Russia hacked the election in an article titled: “Russian Hacking in the 2016 Election: What You Need to Know.” You’re probably asking the same question the article itself later asks: “so what changed?” This dubious strawman argument of significant Russian hacking and influence in Trump’s favor is echoed frequently by the media, even though there is zero evidence to back up the claim. Other credible publications echoed the fact there is no evidence here, here (biased source but relevant), here, and by Breitbart here and here.

The conspiracy of hacking doesn’t stop there. Fourteen days after the election, November 22, 2016, NY Magazine perpetuated the conspiracy of hacking in Trump’s favor by posting an article that ambiguously explains a possibility of tampering in three swing states based off of a statistical relationship between the number of votes Clinton received and the way the vote was cast (electronic v. paper had a 7% difference for her). The article repeats the fact that they have no actual evidence of tampering and have not contacted the “experts” that supposedly found the “relationship.” However, this article took off with 145,000 shares on Facebook alone. Politico’s Eric Geller shared the story on Twitter as well. His tweet (below) was retweeted just under 8,000 times. Dustin Volz from Reuters shared the link and he was retweeted nearly 2,000 times.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid shared the story and was retweeted more than 4,000 times. If so many big name sources and publications are sharing this finding then it must be true, right? No, this conspiracy was quickly debunked by, who explained that demographics, not hacking, explains the relationship. However, the damage had already been done. Sherman, along with other outlets, had done a great deal to delegitimize the election results. Silver’s proof went unheard, as his post was shared a mere 380 times (.0025% of Sherman’s shares) on Facebook. This is how fake news works: the fake story always goes viral, while nobody reads or even hears about the correction.

For the sake of the brevity of this article, as the point is clear, I will only name and put into context some more recent examples.

At the Inaugural Ball, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump danced to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” CNN soon after published an article that illustrated an offended Nancy Sinatra (oldest daughter of Frank Sinatra) who didn’t appreciate the song choice. Almost immediately, CNN suffered a lot of backlash for the article from Nancy Sinatra herself. Nancy slammed CNN for the false claim and CNN later updated the article and removed the claim.

On January 20, 2017, The New York Times published an article about a “purge” of the official White House website “with Trump in charge,” specifically pointing out that the information on “climate change and a page devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues” were removed. However, the Times failed to point out that a digital turnover of the White House website is standard and customary for any incoming President and that all information previously on the website is archived as per procedure.

Guardian writer and editor-at-large of Out, Zach Stafford tweeted a rumor of a spike in the suicide rate of transgendered teens in the wake of President Trump’s election. His rumor was retweeted more than 13,000 times before he deleted it. He later posted a tweet explaining why he deleted his original viral tweet and his explanatory tweet was shared a total of seven times. Pink news’ article on the matter fanned the fire with 12,000 Facebook shares along with Mic’s response to the allegations which was shared 55,000 times on Facebook. Overall, the rumor received more than 100,000 shares on Facebook alone. The rumor was looked into and garnered no results (or attention) of its actual existence, only claims made by 3 parents.

On January 20, 2017, Time posted an article, that claimed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. However, after correcting the reporter, it is later explained at the end of the article that they were mistaken about the removal of the MLK bust in the oval office. The reason behind the spurious allegation was the reporter “hadn’t seen it” and it “must have been obscured by an agent or door.”

The Washington Post published a false story that exploded on social media claiming that “the State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned.” According to Rogin, this resignation was “part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers” who “don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” He explained how these resignations happened “suddenly” and “unexpectedly.” Rogin styled the transition as a shocking shake-up of administrative protocol in the State Department and a protest of the Trump administration, rather than a customary transition period. It was shared nearly 60,000 times on Facebook alone. Rogin’s tweet of the lie reached nearly 11,000 retweets. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum had it retweeted nearly 2,000 times. Also, journalists, writers, and editors from Wired, The Guardian, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, ABC, Foreign Policy, and other publications tweeted the lie.

However, Vox pointed out how misleading the title was, explaining how the choice of words like “senior administration” and “mass exodus” are highly misleading. In reality, six people left a few links down (picture below marked in red) in the Secretary of State administrative food chain (not to say they weren’t important, but certainly not a “mass exodus of senior administrators”). “Rotations and retirements are facts of life in the Foreign Service,” the article concluded. In a press release, Mark Toner (the acting spokesman for the State Department), explained that “as is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation.” Even CNN admitted that the officials were actually asked to leave by the Trump administration rather than stay on for the customary transitional few months.

In January, Betsy DeVos made a seemingly uncontroversial statement that was blown out of proportion. The topic being on how government should regulate school possession of guns, she explained how a one size fits all solution on guns shouldn’t be the solution, and that a state-specific solution would better solve the issue.  She cited one example of how one school needed to defend itself from bears and that other schools might have reasons to have guns, therefore a blanket regulation wouldn’t work. However, DeVos’ statement received immense backlash (Slate, The Daily Beast, CNN, ThinkProgress, Vox, The Week, Buzzfeed) that blew her stance out of proportion. The intellectual dishonesty here cannot be overstated. DeVos never said that every school in America will need to shoot grizzly bears and that is a justification for guns in schools. DeVos merely used one school as an example of the necessity of state-level control of the education system and how a blanket legislative action won’t solve the problem. Rather than report accurately on her stance, these media outlets created a massive fake news event to smear the Secretary of Education’s reasonable opinion.

So why do these media outlets seemingly continue to hang themselves with the noose of fake news and propagated publications at the risk of jeopardizing their reputation and credibility? Haven’t studies and polls (source Pew Research) shown that there is a rise in general distrust in the media? Because all the media has to do is make a convincing headline. That’s it. They don’t even need sources or evidence.

A study published by Columbia University shows that 59% of Facebook and Twitter links to news articles go unclicked by the viewer before they share it with their feed. In other words, Facebook and Twitter users only read the headline and then share it to their feed where other people share it on their feed without reading the headline, and so on. This rapid transmission of fake news on social media displays the power of exponential crowdsourcing which partisan groups can effectively control (eerily similar to the despotic regime of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984).

While the fake story goes viral, the correction with actual proof goes unheard. Unfortunately, this blind peer-to-peer sharing only keeps users of social media who don’t fact-check things in a state of perpetual political ignorance.