As Plainly False Stories Spread, Media Left To Knock Down Widely-Held Fictions

By Chris Adams

Remember “Pizzagate”?

That was the clearly fake story in 2016 that alleged presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supposedly orchestrated a child-abuse ring out of a pizza joint in Washington, D.C. A North Carolina man came to the capital – armed – to investigate the situation; he ended up firing a shot in the restaurant.

That episode brought “fake news” to the fore – and since then, the term has become a daily political rallying cry.

To decipher what it means – and what the media can do about it – three experts discussed the phenomenon in a National Press Foundation video.

Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post, talked about how the term has become so politicized it’s lost its meaning. “I don’t use the term ‘fake news’ anymore,” she said. Instead, call a lie a lie, and a hoax a hoax, she said. In a recent column, Sullivan said it’s time to give the term a rest.

Jesse Holcomb, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, led viewers through the research on fake news and how often the public buys it. In one Pew study, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults say completely made-up news has caused “a great deal of confusion” about the basic facts of current issues and events.

And many Americans are unsure whether they can accurately spot a fake story. Asked if they are able to “recognize made-up news,” 39 percent said they were very confident they could do so, 45 percent were somewhat confident, and 15 percent not at all confident.

Holcomb discussed another Pew study, which documented the digital evolution in Americans’ news habits. These days, Facebook is a major driver of news consumption – and so stories are passed around hundreds of thousands or millions of times without encountering the filter of a professional news editor.

That dynamic, according to Jon Greenberg of PolitiFact, led to the fact-check of a fake story. The story was about how a new law would label political protesters as terrorists; it turns out the so-called new law was one proposal from one lawmaker in one state – but it got morphed into a nationwide mandate. Facebook said the story had been shared 360,000 times, so PolitiFact decided to examine its validity.

Such fact-checks of obviously fake stories are one way the media can push back against stories before they take hold in the public consciousness, Greenberg said.

At the end of 2016, PolitiFact designated fake news as its “Lie of the Year,” given by the fact-checking organization to “take stock of a misrepresentation that arguably beats all others in its impact or ridiculousness.”

“Fake news” has yet to stop by the PolitiFact office to pick up its award, Greenberg joked.

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