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What makes fake news

December 22, 2016

The large role fake news has come to play in politics has caused a pushback, mostly to point out there always have been newsstories that got things wrong. As common example, Dan Rather’s story about George Bush’s service in the Air National Guard.

In my view, that misses what makes fake news. It is not simply someone getting a story wrong. It isn’t even when an individual like Stephen Glass is exposed as a fraud.

Fake news is something darker. Let’s contrast the two examples above with another. In 2010, Andrew Breitbart released a fraudulently edited video of Shirley Sherrod to make it appear she had said something in a speech opposite of what she in fact said. It was picked up by Fox News. Sherrod was fired as a result.

But what a difference from the previous cases! When CBS discovered that Rather’s story had used doctored documents, they fired three producers, Rather apologized on air, and it ended his career with a large black eye. When New Republic discovered that Stephen Glass had been fabricating material, it immediately fired him, it apologized to its readers, it worked on exposing Glass’s fraud, knowing that highlighting that was the only route back for its reputation.

And Breitbart? Well… Breitbart reveled in his fraud, and his reputation with his audience grew because of it. Fake news isn’t just about bad stories or individual bad actors. Those always will be with us. What makes fake news is that both its purveyors and their audience have stopped caring about the facts, in favor of the stories they want. Reading the interaction in comments and forums around a fake news story, it can be hard to draw a line between supporters who know the story is fake, and are supporting it anyway, those who don’t know it is fake and don’t care to look too closely, and those who actually believe.

Fake news is Alex Jones merrily running the Pizzagate story, until one of his deranged readers goes to investigate with a rifle.

Fake news is the Daily Mail repeatedly running bogus stories trying to wave away global warming. Far from being fired for his dishonesty, David Rose is kept on to write just such stories.

Dan Rather made a mistake. New Republic was fooled by a fraud. Breitbart, Alex Jones, and Daily Mail are not making mistakes or getting fooled. What they are doing is intentional, and their audiences want it. That is the difference between bad news and fake news.

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