‘Fake News’ Is Far More Pervasive Than We Realize

By Michael Brown Published on December 9, 2016

Speaking on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Hillary Clinton warned of “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.” Coming from a very different perspective, Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke claimed on Fox News that “fake news” was created by the liberal media, beginning with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” propaganda in the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Clarke pointed directly to the New York Times and the Washington Post in allegedly spreading this “fake news.”

In reality, I believe that “fake news” is far more pervasive than we realize, for the following reasons.

1. Headlines are often fake.

I used to assume (wrongly so) that a headline was simply a short (even if sensational) summary of an important news item, but in many cases today, headlines now put a slant (often a misleading slant) on the news being reported.

To cite a recent (and highly relevant) example, on Thursday, the Drudge Report featured as its main story, “BITTER HILLARY BLAMES ‘FAKE NEWS’,” suggesting that Hillary directly blamed her defeat on “fake news.”

The Drudge headline was linked to an article on The Hill titled “Clinton blasts ‘epidemic’ of fake news,” yet nowhere did that article state that a “bitter Hillary” directly blamed fake news for her defeat. Instead, the article quoted her as saying that “it’s now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” also stating, “This isn’t about politics or partisanship … Lives are at risk — lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”

She was apparently referring to an incident this week in which“a gunman entered a pizzeria in Washington that was at the center of a false viral conspiracy theory that alleged it was home to a pedophilia ring operated by Clinton and her inner circle.”

The Hill article did note that “some Democrats have argued the spread of anti-Clinton fake news online contributed to her electoral loss to Donald Trump,” but nowhere did it state that a bitter Hillary blamed this for her defeat, which was clearly implied by Drudge. Yet how many millions of Drudge readers even bothered to read the article carefully, let alone listen to the whole speech?

2. News articles often put their own slant on speeches and events.

During the Republican primaries, Jeb Bush was giving a talk to a small group of supporters, and after making a point he thought was important, he then suggested with a smile that it would be a good moment for applause. I watched the video and thought it was a cute moment — I looked at it through the perspective of a public speaker myself — and I asked my wife Nancy to watch it as well. She too thought it was cute rather than embarrassing.

In this era of sound bites and memes, we need to learn to think again, rather than merely repeating what our favorite website or commentator or reporter has to say.

But quite a few media outlets reported on poor Jeb’s embarrassing moment, supplying their interpretation of the facts rather than simply reporting the news — really, there was nothing to report — meaning that readers who did not watch the video would likely draw a very different conclusion from those who viewed the video for themselves. This too is “fake news.”

3. We are so used to getting our news through biased media outlets and opinion commentaries that we fail to use a good filter.

A few years ago, my radio producer handed me an article during my live, daily talk show, documenting how Ann Coulter had made a comment on a major news network that would be considered extreme even for her. It so caught my attention that I talked about it during my next segment, only to find out that my producer had been duped by a false website (something he is always on the lookout for) and that I had not spotted the deception either.

It’s one thing, though, to be duped by intentionally fake, satirical news sites, like The Onion, which proudly (and facetiously) calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” or the Christian site The Babylon Bee, which bills itself as “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire,” perhaps to help its all-too-gullible Christian readers.

It’s another thing not to realize that the news as reported by Breitbart is often quite different than the news as reported by the Huffington Post (the two websites sometimes appear to be operating in alternative universes) or to fail to remember that many articles on these news sites are often opinion pieces which, by design, offer the commentator’s particular bias.

What this means is that we need a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (to use the phrase of a biblical scholar, meaning, that we ought to read some things with a level of suspicion), doing our best to get our facts in order before repeating them or forming opinions based on them. It also means that we should recognize which websites and news sources tend to be most reliable, giving more weight to what they have to say.

Most of all, it means that in this era of sound bites and memes, we need to learn to think again — that’s right, we need to learn how to engage our brains in focused thinking and reasoning — rather than merely repeating what our favorite website or commentator or reporter has to say.

I can assure you that it’s well worth the effort.

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  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Wait ..? You mean consumers of specious news reporting are required to think as well as walk & chew gum at the same time .?! Sure, objectivity in journalism has proven to be as popular as wearing a Trump hat during an Amy Schumer standup routine. Well maybe not that unpopular. As Mr.Brown points out, even the right(ous) purveyors of news of note often times use attention grabbing headlines w/a sometimes misleading perspective. I suppose apart from scripture most everything we read or hear from both sides of the media spectrum are somewhat less than the last word on the subject. The question to be asked perhaps is how much less ..?

  • Craig Roberts

    “Use your brain.” Got it. Wait-a-sec…my brain is telling me that that should be obvious. My brain says, “That’s an inane banality masquerading as profundity. Of course people should use their brains. What’s the alternative?”

    • AndRebecca

      Why the problem with “use your brain?” And, why don’t you know the alternative?

  • faithntrust

    You are so right, Dr. Brown, even on “The Stream” I have encountered misleading headers – not often but it has happened. Remember the kids’ song of, ‘Be careful little eyes what see, be careful little ears what you hear, & be careful little feet where you go’? Adults should sing it to themselves from time to time.

  • SanchoPanza

    With the DOZENS of missleading headlines every morning on almost every MSM Article, your

    FIRST example is The Drudge Report??!?!?!?? listen Dr. Brown Your name should be Dr. Kettle. Too many of your reports/opinion Headlines are JUST AS MISSLEADING. you ARE part of the problem.

  • James Martin

    The left is just as guilty as the right in fake news. Citing your examples of mostly the right Remember the video that was the cause of the embassy attacks ? or the Weapons of Mass destruction ? How about every news stations on TV saying Hillary was far far ahead and would win ? The fake news is just another tool to try to silence the people.

    • Chip Crawford

      The left is far more guilty than the right.

    • Sonnys_Mom

      Except that wmd (poison gas) stockpiles, and of evidence of other types of mass weapons, were eventually discovered by US troops. How inconvenient.

      • James Martin

        You can always tell a democrat by the poison gas. Sarin was indeed “discovered” in iraq by the Bush administration Two people were treated for “minor exposure” after the sarin incident but no serious injuries were reported. Yes that was what they went looking for, Got it…. yep….

  • A big part of the problem is that people don’t recognize the difference between news sources that are trying to be unbiased and those that are clearly biased. Drudge Report, Think Progress, Fox News, Media Matters — these are very partisan sources that push their particular agenda. You might agree with that agenda and you might not, but it’s a dangerous thing when we only listen to partisan sources.

    I’m a liberal, but I have a mix of conservative and liberal news sources in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. If I see a lot of sources reporting on the same story, there’s a high likelihood that it’s true. If I see only one source reporting on the story, that’s a signal that a Google search is needed to verify (particularly if it’s more of a news commentary site than a news site.)

    And if the news source is from a site that I’ve never heard of, with some scoop that sounds too outrageous to be true (against a Democrat or a Republican, doesn’t matter), that always seems to end up false after a Google search.

    • Chip Crawford

      Your list of “clearly biased” are obviously views you don’t espouse. I disagree with your assessment – actually protest it. I know one or more of these to make ongoing efforts to offer both sides. Is it that these fair sources allow more of the opposed view from yours than what is glutted by the balance of the other media? You have omitted at least three “news” sources revealed in Wikileaks emails to have tendered actual debate questions to candidate Clinton, another to have asked the Clinton team’s approval on a news story before running it, another to okay handling of an interview or handling of news story with the Clinton team related to her opponent, Mr. Trump. How is it that you are not (a) aware of these egregious abuses and (b) if aware, pass them as acceptable? Is CNN’s omitting of words in several speeches to favor the Clinton clan passable to you since it is your side doing it? You may see only one source reporting on a story since there are precious few of contrary view to the mass of liberally biased and now compromised moving to corrupt media sources. Your “careful review” to maintain a pure flow of news information is amusing (most positive take).

    • Wayne Cook

      I find your list amusing after watching a journalist over the weekend who had resigned from CNN after they told her the Obama admin had paid them to create fake news and she was to toe the company line. But then, you admit you’re a liberal…

      • As a conservative, you must have really struggled with reading that! You clearly bailed out before the second and third paragraphs, where I mention reading from a variety of news sources for verification!

    • Sonnys_Mom

      Drudge isn’t a “news source”, it’s an aggregator– which actually posts links to leftist as well as conservatice coverage. But you’d have to actually take a look in order to figure that out.

      • I’ve followed Drudge for years, and I’ve watched Drudge, himself, be interviewed on a number of news outlets. He is unabashedly conservatives, and the links he posts (and especially his headlines) mostly favor his conservative viewpoint.

    • Hugo Chavez

      Funny how CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS failed to make your list.

  • Chip Crawford

    Clinton’s venturing out to offer more of the poisonous communication the woman cannot otherwise speak, this time on “fake news,” is of course another sick joke in a long string. Her counter video in Libya being the cause of so much trouble at the American mission was one of a long string of her fake news. The woman lies when she breathes. She has people warped and twisted with her to spin these things. I don’t believe anything from her, anything. I don’t believe she spontaneously ran into a friend in the woods and they found someone to conveniently snap a pic. I don’t believe her neighbors made a little chintzy looking “tribute” at the corner of her neighborhood at Thanksgiving on her behalf, as opposed to orchestrating these things herself. I don’t believe anything from her or about her from the usual sources. I cannot wait until the new administration is established in place, the FBI, Judicial Watch or Congress recommends to the new and legitimate Justice Department its case for a special prosecutor or their direct adjudication and they proceed to once and for all fry her hide and get her out of the public hair, along with all connected with the creature’s shoddy doings.

    • Hugo Chavez

      Tell us how you really feel, Chip! 😀

  • Sonnys_Mom

    Left-biased news is among the most effective tools in the Alinskyist “community organizing” arsenal.

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