Fake News Evolution: To What Extent Can Fake News Influence Americans?

On Dec. 20th, 2016, Forbes magazine published an online article stating that Americans could not detect fake news as well as they thought. As a matter of fact, 21st century news consumers are getting worse at detecting fake news to an extent that it brings about real consequences to real people.

To be considered as “news literate,” one should understand the genuine definition of fake news and ways to spot one. Generally, fake news articles consist entirely of intentionally fabricated stories that are misleading for readers. However, from a political viewpoint, fake news can sometimes be considered as news that does not mesh with one’s own political biases or leaning. Coincidently, the term “fake news” originated in 2014, when Craig Silverman, a BuzzFeed news media editor, was running a research project. He later popularized it by classifying a misleading news site a “fake news site”.

To me, fake news is just opinions. There can always be subjectivity and bias in legit news articles because they are all written by people,” said Melissa Martinez, a Research Associate in Institute of Health Research and Policy at UIC, “and people have different beliefs and opinions.”

The term fake news was invented by Craig Silverman in 2014 while carrying out a research project to verify rumors and unverified claims. The term was made popular in 2016 during the presidential election and has now become former president Trump’s favorite quote to use against the mainstream media or news articles that he doesn’t agree with.

A problem with fake news is that they can be created by numerous unverified sources and are legion via means of social media and unverified news sites. So much that it is impossible for moderators to catch up and verify its integrity on specific platforms. This means that it is up to news consumer to differentiate between informative and polarizing articles.

Fake news articles are undoubtedly influential, especially when it comes to political campaigns. One of the highlights of the year 2016 was the story of Edgar Welch, who believed that Hillary Clinton was running a satanic child sex-ring in a pizzeria’s basement. He came to the restaurant armed with guns and a view to rescue the children, only to realize the restaurant does not even have a basement. Several media outlets then quickly found out that the claim started at a Facebook post and went viral through Twitter. It took researchers of approximately 7 months to finalize that the identities behind this post were mostly associates of the Trump campaign. Welch failed to prove there was any captive child, but he did prove that fake news can have real consequences when it comes to blind news consumers.

One of the most dominant social media platforms that serve as an unofficial news source is Twitter. The perks of being able to receive convenient, fast, and instant news have gained Twitter a good standing in the competition against other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. However, a drawback of Twitter is that such instant news flashes can become outdated quickly as things might take an abrupt turn in a short amount of time. Live footage on Twitter is usually provided by citizens, who happen to witness the situation first-hand without knowing the context behind it. Thus, news on Twitter might be taken out of context and be misleading in some occasions.

For instance, on January 17th, 2019, there was an incident between a group of students from Covington Catholic high school and the Black Hebrew Israelite people. Being put in the spotlight was Nicholas Sandmann, who was believed to have been mocking a Native American activist — Nathan Phillips. The video of this encounter went viral at the moment it was uploaded on Twitter. The students were then accused of racism and hatred against the four Black Hebrew Israelites. After several hours, more detailed footage was released. In the video, the students were initially verbally harassed by the Black Hebrew Israelites religious organization. Phillips was the person to stand in-between the students and the Black Hebrew Israelites and sing the song of unity as he faced Sandmann. Although the incident was officially settled by the mainstream media, its consequences are still echoed and misused in political discourse.

This situation portrays the fact that there might be a bigger picture being missed behind a piece of video on Twitter that happens to go viral. In this case, specifically, Twitter users, news consumers, and even professional news reporters immediately jumped right to conclusion after seeing the first release of the video without doing fact check. With this type of reaction from social media users, fake news generators on social media can manipulate crowds and cause polarization to distract the public discourse with the same type of news.

“People have judged me based off one expression” — Sandmann told Savannah Guthrie, the NBC’s “Today” co-host, in an interview three days after the incident, “They’ve gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person, someone that’s disrespectful to adults — which, they’ve had to assume so many things to get there without consulting anyone that can give them the opposite story.”

Detecting fake news has never been an easy task, even to knowledgeable scholars. Try as they might, mainstream news producers and social platform moderators cannot fully stop the spread of fake news. Thus, it also heavily depends on news consumers to protect themselves from the consequences lurking behind fake news articles.

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