Jayne: Fake news is new snake oil for today’s gullible public

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

C’mon, people. It’s really not that hard.

When a “news” article suggests that Hillary Clinton had an FBI whistleblower killed, or when another suggests that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, or when another claims that Kanye is a cyborg from the planet Galtron, you probably should check the source. Although that last one might be true; I’m just saying.

Anyway, the specter of fake news has become an issue. A big issue. The kind of issue that diminishes our democracy and insults our intelligence. We aren’t talking about news where you might disagree with the interpretation or the presentation; we’re talking about “news” that is not news because it is wholly fabricated for the purpose of driving a political agenda.

While you might not like, say, Fox News or MSNBC or The Columbian and the emphasis they place upon certain stories, at least those outlets are attempting to be honest and demonstrate some journalistic ethics; if somebody from a legitimate news source reports a story they know to be false, they get fired.

That is more than can be said about the Denver Guardian, which sounds like a newspaper but apparently is just some guy in his parents’ basement. As the Denver Post (an actual newspaper) reported earlier this month, the DenverGuardian.com web domain was registered in July, and the address listed for the “paper” is “a tree in a parking lot next to a vacant bank building.”

But that didn’t stop DenverGuardian.com from posting a story under the headline “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide,” and that didn’t stop people (you know who you are) from sharing it more than a half-million times on Facebook. That’s not views; that’s shares. And it speaks poorly of our society’s ability to employ some basic common sense.

Lies move faster than truth

C’mon people. It’s really not that hard, even if Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” At least we think he said it; the quote might be fake.

All of this brings to mind a couple well-worn theories about information and the media.

One is the notion of the “marketplace of ideas,” which is based upon the thoughts of 17th century writer John Milton and says that truth will emerge — and eventually triumph — in a society that encourages the open exchange of ideas. The other is the thought that “the medium is the message,” in which 20th century philosopher Marshall McLuhan (before his hilarious cameo in “Annie Hall”) postulated that the form of a media embeds itself in the message.

Neither Milton nor McLuhan could have imagined the internet during their time, but we will be presumptuous and take a guess as to what they would have said about people sharing phony news stories: “You people are chowderheads.”

Well, they probably would have been more eloquent and cerebral, but the sentiment is applicable to those who are duped by fake news sites and fake news stories while demonstrating no ability to distinguish between what might be true and what they wish to be true.

That delineation is more difficult than ever in the digital age, but a couple simple questions typically reveal any accompanying red flags. You know, questions such as “Is anybody else reporting this story?” Or, “Have snopes.com or politifact.com vetted this story?” Or, “Why doesn’t HillaryIsBeelzebub.com sound like an unbiased news source?”

All of this plays into a changing media landscape in which traditional outlets have been demonized by those eager to find a bogeyman in any dissenting opinion. By those more interested in propaganda than facts. By those who recognize that click-bait stories are the modern-day snake oil for a gullible public.

The extent of that gullibility is disturbing, and it was in abundant evidence throughout the election — on both sides of the divide. Because getting at the truth really isn’t that hard.