Out of the Blue: Click-bait, and the fake news of the day (opinion)
Out of the Blue
I read the news today, oh boy, and it was fake. The bullet-point headline was there, and there were quotation marks inserted into the text convincingly, but many stories ping-ponged around social media are likely to be cooked pieces of propaganda hiding in plain sight as journalism.
This epidemic is frustrating, of course, but what smarts most is that in this post-truth frontier, the fact that heavily-shared stories are unsubstantiated doesn’t matter much.
Let’s consider the singular genius and disturbing danger that an entity like Facebook provides. Decades ago, if you felt like staying informed on news of the day, you subscribed to “the paper” and watched “the news.”
I grew up down the hill in Placerville, where two publications could be delivered to our house: The Mountain Democrat (the local Pville press) and The Sacramento Bee. And while the advent of the 1990s brought us a wide selection of cable programming, for most of us, the evening news was a big-network daily event. Sure, you had a choice as far as which anchor you preferred, but options were minimal.
The natural progression of this, with the influx of the internet, should have brought the world to our fingertips. Should you want to read about what’s happening in Glasgow, go ahead and access that. If you want to shun NBC or CBS, the opportunity to watch whatever else you want is just a remote-control click away. Harmless, right?
Yet, Facebook and other social media tools recognize an opportunity in this new syntax that is darkly perilous to basic journalistic integrity.
Facebook gives its users the opportunity to concoct whatever interactive template they might want. Think about it — sometimes news is sad, unfortunate, jarring. So what if, instead of depressing yourself by scanning the front page of The Sacramento Bee, you saw stories about what your grandkids wanted for Christmas, about your friends from high school taking around-the-world vacations?
And if all the reporters for your local paper bug you except for that one you like, you can tune in to just her articles. Liberal folks living in conservative areas can eschew any and all Republican-leaning local reporting they want, opting to have Berkeley-left voices in their Facebook feeds.
The other side of this coin is where Fox News has made a firebrand for itself: If you exclusively want content that stays vigorously in line with what airs on that channel, you can do that.
There is no need for vetting in news any longer. Donald Trump hired a guy to run his campaign who managed a website where articles had titles like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage” without offering legitimate sources or thoroughly investigated facts.
This click-bait media isn’t at all interested in representing cross-referenced truths — all that matters is that the headline is enough to get you to investigate certain websites.
So some Democrats are convinced that their phones have already been hacked, that personal data on their devices have already been spied on by Big Brother.
And look at how many Republicans view Hillary Clinton, as a murderer of Americans in foreign countries. Or maybe it’s true that she’s an Illuminati, and that her campaign was run by an underground cult that worships Godzilla.
Again, if it’s not incumbent on you to suss out your sources and check your facts, why bother? It used to be that if you said something unfounded, a quick journalistic check would provide an opportunity to call you out, to make you a liar. This appears to not matter any more.
Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Barack Obama founded ISIS. The system is rigged.
These are just a quick handful of quotes from our latest president-elect, all of which simply don’t hold water in any capacity. They are lies. Members of Trump’s campaign urge us to not always take the guy literally, but sentiments like these aren’t gentle smears of otherwise checked-out factoids: they’re constructs. But they go into “news” stories anyway.
Trump is not alone in fueling fake news, but he’s seen a big popularity boost because of it. And there’s no escaping it — click-bait reporting is here to stay. We need to be extra-vigilant about checking sources ourselves, about not just having knee-jerk responses to forwarded stories that strike a nerve.
Or, as is the case with many of us for the time being, it might be good to just stick to cat videos and photo feeds of dogs dressed as humans.
Mike Restaino is a writer and filmmaker based out of Incline Village. He is also a Vice Chair of the North Tahoe Democrats. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.