Each week the Associated Press publishes “Not Real News: A Look at What Didn’t Happen Last Week.” It is a collection of fake news, most of which has been shared online. The stories usually include quotes taken out of context, photoshopped images, and doctored audio.
These are the stories that appear on your news feed courtesy of friends and relatives who believe journalists are “enemies of the people.” It gives them a chance to share outlandish misinformation that reflects their extreme views.
Recent fakes include this one: President Biden wants to “swoop down with Special Forces” and “gather up every gun in America,” and then “give out guns to people who get vaccinated for COVID-19.”
Here’s another internet lie: “Airlines are banning vaccinated passengers.”
There was also video of Pope Francis speaking in Italian, with fake English subtitles making it appear he said, “I have a secret agenda to deceive people and unite them under one world religion in order to control them better.”
And, a 1987 New York Post front page was doctored to show Dr. Anthony Fauci under the headline, “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS.” (The actual story was about a different person and did not mention Fauci, nor did it include his photo.)
Quite candidly, the most shocking part is that many people believe this stuff.
These fake stories were shared hundreds of thousands of times. The number of people who saw the fakes is likely far greater than those who read the AP’s weekly attempt to set the record straight.
Although propaganda is nothing new, the internet has propelled fake news to a new level. These people are experts at distorting images and video so that you will believe that red is blue.
Once the fake toothpaste is out of the tube, there’s no putting it back. Many people, out of willful ignorance, will happily spread this garbage. They make no effort to check the facts. They are rightfully worried that a few seconds of research might reveal the truth. When they are confronted by anyone who corrects them, they feign innocence. “Oh, I didn’t know. I saw it on Facebook, and assumed it was accurate.” Right.
I first realized how dangerous these manipulators are while speaking to a college freshman journalism class in 2016. A student asked why my channel wasn’t reporting a sensational claim about a presidential candidate that he had seen on ABC News. I asked him to show me on his computer. It was a bizarre story that obviously had no basis in fact. But the website featuring an ABC logo looked almost like the real thing. Upon closer inspection however, it was not the American Broadcasting Company. It was the “Associated Broadcast Cooperative” or some such nonsense. How is an 18-year-old to know the difference?
Imagine if such deception was widespread during World War II. What if propagandists had such dangerous tools during the Cold War? Our nation was divided enough during the 1960s, with assassinations, protests, and riots. It’s frightening to think what America’s enemies could have done with the ability to convince half the nation to turn against our government.
I recently argued with folks on Facebook who are convinced reporters are destroying our nation by covering both sides of today’s political arguments. “(The other side)” is obviously lying,” they said. “Why don’t reporters just call them out, or ban them on the spot?”
As tempting as that might be for some, I don’t think that’s the cure for a fractured nation. Both sides must be heard.
By continuing to flood us with a fire hose of misinformation, the fake news factories are creating damage that will take a long time to repair. We have gone from “I cannot tell a lie” to “alternative facts” and “what you’re seeing is not happening.”
The truth is out there, and it is presented daily by the vast majority of journalists. If a segment of the public chooses not to believe it, no one can force them to do so.
I can only hope that my children and grandchildren can someday enjoy the America I once did. That’s when certified election results were treated as such. It’s when we knew the words that came out of our leaders’ mouths were indeed their own. We knew that the news we saw in print, or that we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears, was unbiased and genuine.
I would suggest that high schools add a new class to their list of required subjects. In addition to reading, writing, science, and math, we need a course on “Media Literacy: Separating Fact from Fiction.” It’s apparently too late for some adults, but maybe we can educate the kids before they fall victim to the fake news epidemic.