Brett Barnett

United States Constitution (Amendment I): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

President Donald Trump has been on a crusade against the “fake news” media seemingly since he was a presidential candidate. At the very least, he’s been using the term “fake news” and “enemy of the people” since February 17, 2017, with this tweet, which says: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Strong words.

Over the last four years, Trump has been gradually taking a turn into authoritarian adjacent territory. It’s not so much that he’s against that type of presidency, it’s just that the country’s system of checks and balances has, under great strain and weight, prevented the president from taking the plunge into that dark and murky pool.

Far be it from me to claim that many of those outlets are unbiased, facts-first news publications. Many recognize that most outlets have some sort of political leaning in a day and age where people and companies alike are forced to pick sides: Republican or Democrat; right-wing or left-wing. Many publications proclaim that the moderate centrist is dead – or, if they aren’t, they’ve been rendered obsolete and constitute an increasingly small portion of society.

A preferred site of mine, FiveThirtyEight, alleges “the moderate middle is a myth” – and they attempt to use data to do it. Essentially, they determine that those who consider themselves moderates have a wide-ranging set of beliefs, and many moderates don’t overlap. The article even goes so far as to use a derogatory voice, saying, “To better understand the unbearable incoherence of moderates, independents and undecideds, let’s start by visualizing them.” But does that matter? All it really means to be moderate is that you don’t necessarily support many of the ideas of either party – not even the one you lean closer to.

It’s becoming harder for the non-savvy news consumer to find reliable sources. Perhaps the most frightening issue at hand is that many don’t realize they’re being duped. While much has been made about Fox News by Democrats and CNN by Republicans, it’s networks like One America News Network (OAN) that have proliferated recently which should be cause for concern.

It’s programming like that which can be found on OAN that threatens truth in the television news realm. If you go to the network’s website, you’ll see plenty of articles talking glowingly of Trump and disparagingly about his opponents. Plastered on different tabs and graphics are words like “…watch credible news 24/7 anywhere” and “the cost of illegal immigration,” which houses graphics claiming the high cost of immigrants illegally entering and residing in the United States.

This website, Media Bias/Fact Check, which does what its title suggests, has ratings for a litany of news outlets. For example, MSNBC is rated as “left” with mixed factual reporting; Fox News mirrors that, with a “right” rating and mixed factual reporting. Meanwhile, OAN’s rating verges on “extreme right” and the website goes so far as to slap them with a “questionable source” title. (For reference, the Associated Press is listed as “least biased-left” with a factual reporting score of “very high.”)

Even though these types of networks aren’t receiving widespread attention yet, it’s important to keep an eye on them. If a network like OAN can create and sustain its own television channel, then it may be a matter of time before more start springing up. If that’s the case, where does it stop? Eventually, those types of news sources may begin to appear on local news channels and radio stations.

Many astute observers recognize that there are biases in cable news, which may make them an unreliable source for information, especially since many of the evening shows on the aforementioned sites are opinion shows, although they aren’t explicitly labeled as such; that lack of labeling may lead viewers to regard the opinions as objective truth, which is a dangerous precedent.

According to The New York Times, between January 20, 2017, and October 15, 2019, Trump had tweeted that the media is the enemy of the people 36 times. That, of course, doesn’t include all of Trump’s references to the media as the enemy in pressers and behind closed doors. It should be alluded to that the Soviet Union made strong use of the phrase “enemy of the people.” “The Black Book of Communism,” housed in the Harvard University Press library, claims that Vladimir Lenin used the term to describe the Constitutional Democratic Party.

Additionally, a New York Times piece that references the work of William Taubman, an Amherst College political science professor who wrote a biography on Nikita Khrushchev, says, “Stalin originated the concept ‘enemy of the people.’ This term automatically made it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven. It made possible the use of the cruelest repression, violating all norms of … legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations.”

When this kind of phrasing is used by the president, it turns many away from reliable news sourcing, perhaps going so far as to run into the arms of a network like OAN, one of Trump’s favorites. Once, when an OAN reporter was about to ask him a question, Trump said, “OAN, very good… Thank you very much. They treat me very nicely. Go ahead.” The Atlantic called the network “post-parody.” This is a network, mind you, that posted unfavorable polling numbers for the president, then quickly removed the graphic, as well as touted the president’s claim that the U.S. is “in a good place” amid a pandemic and continued social unrest, while hardly elaborating on the circumstances.

But the truest “enemy of the people” may not be found on news broadcasting channels at all. As bad as the likes of OAN are, things become much more sinister on social media. If you Google search “disinformation” and “social media,” you’re met with all kinds of returns, most of them saying: “5 ways to spot disinformation,” courtesy of ABC News; “How to combat fake news and disinformation,” thanks to the Brookings Institute; and “Facebook, Twitter and the Digital Disinformation Mess,” thanks to The Washington Post. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

So, what is “disinformation?” Oxford Dictionary lists disinformation as the following: “(noun) False information which is intended to mislead…” That’s simple enough.

We’ve likely all seen at least one post on social media with questionable sourcing, if it has any sourcing at all. It’s usually in the form of a screenshot and is certainly in need of some fact checking. We’ve also all likely been duped by the spread of a lie. Moreover, I would suspect that we’re more likely to question a claim we disagree with, and more likely to support a claim we agree with.

According to a Washington Post article, the spread of disinformation can begin in a number of ways: “…reach a potentially huge audience – openly, anonymously or disguised as someone or something else, such as a genuine grassroots movement. In addition, armies of people, known as trolls, and so-called internet bots – software that performs automated tasks quickly – can be deployed to drive large-scale disinformation campaigns.”

That article goes on to elaborate on the issues that may arise under this malevolent system: “In what’s known as state-sponsored trolling, for instance, governments create digital hate mobs to smear critical activists or journalists, suppress dissent, undermine political opponents, spread lies and control public opinion.”

Finally, while much is made about Russia’s antics regarding this phenomenon – and for good reason – researchers at the University of Oxford have found other countries responsible for these types of acts, including China as a main player. “Along with those two countries [Russia and China], five others – India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – have used Facebook and Twitter to ‘influence global audiences,’” according to that same Washington Post article.

If you recall, Russia reached millions of American voters prior to the 2016 election with the use of “phony posts and ads that sought to exploit divisions on hot-button issues.” The Atlantic said, “Putin is well on his way to stealing another election,” while outlining some of the steps the U.S. is planning to take to thwart any malpractice on Russia’s part during the upcoming 2020 presidential election. An article from Rolling Stone portends that hackers are “coming for the 2020 election – and we’re not ready,” with that grim foreshadowing corroborated by Anthony Ferrante, a director of cybersecurity at the White House, among others.

In essence, what’s happening is that false information is being spread to unsuspecting Twitter-goers and Facebook users. Occasionally there’s a modicum of truth to the claim, which allows the whole claim to appear to be true. Inevitably, a person sees it, agrees with the message, then shares it to however many followers or friends they have. Eventually, the false narrative has taken on a life of its own, infecting many along the way until a reputable news source gets ahold of it and dispels it. Even then, perhaps millions had already seen it; besides, if the “fake news” media denounces it, to some that provides more validity. Detractors of “mainstream media” (i.e. proponents of ideologies that don’t hold up under scrutiny) will claim that the denunciation of an idea is further proof of its existence and that it’s all a part of the “deep state.”

With diligence, avoiding disinformation is simple. ABC News outlines five ways to avoid it yourself:

  1. Search online for the information or claim
  2. Look at who posted the content
  3. Check the profile picture of the account
  4. Search for other social media accounts for this person
  5. Inspect the content the account posted

The best solution is the first. Google check it yourself and see if there is a (good) source – Associated Press, NPR, Reuters – that has written about the claim. If it hasn’t been addressed at one of those places, then disregard the information. If they have addressed it, then the reader can begin to form their own opinions about it.

“Fake news,” as the president likes to say, is a real thing. It’s just not what he thinks it is. Avoiding fake news and disinformation is fairly easy with some diligence. It’s ensuring you only use reliable sourcing and avoid getting your information from memes and infographics on friends’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. Remember, our own biases will play a role in how we digest information in that setting. That’s why it’s important to ensure the use of reputable, largely unbiased sourcing.

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