I cannot remember the last time a day went by where I didn’t hear the term “fake news.” The liberal left lambasts the right, Russia and conservative news outlets for spreading falsities. Meanwhile, the Trump administration declares nearly every negative story about them false. The truth is that fake news is not a partisan issue, both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of spreading falsehoods — even if they do so to different extents.
“Fake news” began as a term defining the fanatic and fantastical stories circling social media feeds during the 2016 presidential election, such as the infamous “Pizzagate” tale, in which Hillary Clinton was purportedly embroiled in a pedophile ring, using the word “pizza” in email exchanges with colleagues as code for talk about child trafficking. Here at Occidental, I regularly listen to students complaining about fake news in the form of Sean Spicer’s latest press briefing, or a particularly audacious Breitbart article. Both are undeniable examples of biased — if not entirely fake — news, which deserve to be scrutinized. All of these examples also fall on the right side of the political aisle.
The left can be just as dishonest. In the age of “slacktivism,” with the number of young people that use social media as their primary news platform skyrocketing, online alleged “news outlets” are springing up faster than Trump’s approval rating is dropping. Heated political debates between people identifying as “liberal” and “liberaler” are waged daily throughout my news feed, citing articles and videos from numerous online outlets, some of which (Alternative Media Syndicate, anyone?) sound more like underground EDM groups than credible information sources.
NowThis and Occupy Democrats have become hallmarks of these liberal-on-liberal debates, or the 1000-word “I read one Jezebel article and need you to know the 17 tragic ways that Republicans are redefining the ‘white’ in ‘White House’” type of Facebook posts shared by newly “woke” friends. But clicks and shares do not necessarily mean something is factual. NowThis inaccurately accused President Trump of lying about Bill Clinton enacting the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While spreading misinformation about trade policy is obviously not as dramatic or derailed as the idea of Clinton harboring child sex slaves, we cannot let the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories lower journalistic standards.
NowThis is an equal opportunity offender, incorrectly smearing the both the Democrats and the Republicans. After the first Democratic primary debate, it accused CNN of hiding a user poll that overwhelmingly showed that Bernie Sanders had beaten Hillary Clinton handily that night, even releasing a video suggesting that CNN had deleted the poll in order to swing favor away from Sanders and toward Clinton. Not only is the poll still available online, but CNN covered a different user poll with similar results on their nationally televised post-debate coverage. NowThis is not the only left-leaning distributor of inaccurate assertions. Occupy Democrats, for example, once shared a meme declaring that the parents of 2016 Republican presidential candidate and former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gained citizenship by using him as an “anchor baby.” This claim is ludicrous for a number of reasons, primarily because Jindal was too young when his parents immigrated to have had any effect on their immigration status.
And yes, Alternative Media Syndicate really is a thing. During the height of the Standing Rock resistance movement, they reported that protesters’ camps had been burned and their tipis destroyed after police officers and National Guard members had invaded the encampments. Though the photo of the burning tipis was taken from a fictional 2007 HBO film titled “Bury My Heart at a Wounded Knee,” the story was shared roughly 270,000 times on Facebook. The Information Age doesn’t just provide us with unlimited access to various sources of “knowledge” — it also spreads them in rapid-fire fashion, for better or for worse.
These examples may not be as egregiously asserted as a claim from the right that Democrats want to impose Sharia law in parts of the United States, or that Hillary Clinton gave birth to an alien, but NowThis’ and Occupy Democrats’ (among others) tendencies toward the extreme, the flamboyant and the ultimately untrue, corrode their reputations as purveyors of fact. Michelle Obama’s famous, “They go low, we go high,” mantra rings truer than ever in my mind. Just because Republicans want to play around in the post-truth era, doesn’t mean we all should.
Occidental students are more educated than the average American voter, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t seek quick, shallow validation of our ideas as well, and that leaves us just as vulnerable as any to the maladies of fake and biased news. It’s more critical now than ever to return to sources dedicated to objective, factual reporting, such as Politifact, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Roll Call and the Hill, and not to be lazy, but to be diligent, and make our opinions fit the facts — not the other way around.