Writers at the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-based troll factory, crank out propaganda for fake news blogs.¹ An automated Twitter account or "bot" spreads the word.2 Alex Jones jumps on the story for InfoWars.com.3 A cable news network chimes in. Facebook users share and share.
Some of the propaganda contains verifiable facts mixed with fabrication. The best lies are like that. Much of it caters to extremists. Perhaps the goal is to make us think that the victims of a mass shooting were paid actors in a leftist propaganda campaign or that California really should exit the United States.4
More likely, the propaganda's goal is to confuse us, exhaust us with conflicting reports and create an attitude of "informational nihilism." That's the term used by international security analyst Ben Nimmo, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian propaganda, in an interview with U.S. News & World Report.5
"If you blip out enough false stories, then people just switch off ultimately," Nimmo said. "They end up not knowing what's true, and they end up not believing anything."
On behalf of credibility, I've added to this essay a tagline bio and footnotes with links to further reading. You can see where my information comes from. You can do more digging. I might be biased or lying to you or both. You should find out.
Fake news isn't new. Make-stuff-up journalism has an intriguing track record. When newspapers were trying to gain traction with a barely literate populace in the first part of the 1800s, kooky stories were invented for gullible readers to increase circulation. In 1835, the New York Sun ran stories describing an astronomer's discovery of life on Earth's moon.6 Readers enjoyed tales of unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids cavorting about smoking legal weed between massive gem-stone-lined craters.
I'm lying about the legal weed part. That wasn't in the New York Sun's 1935 story series. But see how easy it was for me to slip that in?
In a freshman-level Introduction to Mass Communication class, I offer Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman's Propaganda Model, circa 1988, as a way to think about news. In Manufacturing Consent, the authors propose that what gets to be "news" is filtered by corporate ownership of media, by advertisers and audience ideology.7
All still true. A handful of media corporations control a giant swath of media. One result is that "news" often doubles as cross-promotion for a company's other products. ABC's Good Morning America invariably plugs Disney programming like Dancing With The Stars or The Bachelor, and shows clips from upcoming movies produced by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures/Marvel Entertainment/Pixar.8
A savvy news consumer looks for independent news sources. In Humboldt, the North Coast Journal and Lost Coast Communications are both locally owned companies. The Eureka Times-Standard is one of 97 newspapers owned by DigitalFirst Media, based in Denver.9 (See my colleague Marcy Burstiner's column for discussion of Sinclair, the mothership of Eureka TV news.)
Advertising also figures in to what passes for news. Many media still depend on advertising to pay the bills. That plays out in publications censoring themselves, not running stories that might irritate a major advertiser and risk its juicy ad spending.
Another complication: human psychology. We like "news" that agrees with our version of reality. The term "confirmation bias" refers to the bit of human psychology that involves looking for, listening to and remembering the things with which we agree. A couple years ago, friends sent me that story about a glass of red wine being as healthful as an hour at the gym.10 I wanted to believe it even though: "There's still no clear evidence that red wine is better than other forms of alcohol when it comes to possible heart-healthy benefits." No thank you for your facts, Mayo Clinic.11
In 2011, the Soros Foundation hired me to write a media literacy guide for teenagers. I was a tenure-track journalism assistant professor at the University of Hawaii. In between snorkeling and working on an activist website, I wrote a book advising a search for honesty, independence and productivity (HIP) in all media messages.12 The bottom line:
Honesty. Honest journalists get out from behind their desks, attempt to shed their built-in biases and do some careful observation of the subject at hand. They ask questions, good ones, questions that come from experience and institutional knowledge. They work to communicate this information well across media platforms.
Independent. Simply put, independent news is free of the entanglements that come from corporate ownership, advertising pressure, political correctness.
Productivity. Medical researcher Jonas Salk once said: "Our greatest goal is to be better ancestors."13 I believe well-reported, honest and independent information moves us toward that goal. It's worth diving into the chaos, sifting useful information from crappy propaganda so that you know what the heck is going on.
Deidre Pike is an Arcata-based, left-leaning associate professor of journalism at Humboldt State University.