Drawing the Line Between Fake News and Opinion

Did you know that the concept of “fake news” has been around for hundreds of years? All the way back to the 16th and 17th centuries, to the earliest days of publishing, people would print up pamphlets or notebooks with all sorts of fantastical stories. Why? For the same reason the “problem” has resurfaced in the Internet ear—it sells!

The subject of fake news has been studied and commented upon ad nauseam by academia for years. They even have come up with several different categories—as described in published in the journal Digital Journalism. But over the last couple of years, a new “definition” has emerged and ostensibly made popular by then candidate and now President Donald Trump. It, of course, has since been hijacked and repurposed by other politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. It is basically involves calling out news stories, even those reported in good-faith, as “fake” if you disagree with the article or it puts you in a negative light.

It’s hard to argue that such charges from both sides on many, many occasions have been disingenuous—a means of simply attacking the news media. The problem is that recently the news media’s good-faith reporting has been littered by outright partisan falsehoods, proven such after publication. It’s happened so many times that the concept of fake news can’t simply be written off as an unsubstantiated rallying cry. In short, Walter Cronkite should be spinning in his grave.

Publishers today are still forced to define fake news for themselves. One person’s “sensationalist” editorial is another person’s “opinionated, ideologically driven” editorial and both can be derided as being fake if the reader doesn’t like or agree with the contents. Opinion, of course, by definition can’t be right or wrong. It’s just opinion. But if it gets published and shared to the wrong people, the nuance of opinion is lost entirely and, taken to the Nth degree, becomes speech that should be ‘banned,” despite the Founders of the United States constitutionally deciding that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”

Because some bad actors spread misinformation via the Facebooks and Googles of the world, allegedly in order to influence the 2016 election, the hue and cry to do something about it is being heard loudly in Silicon Valley. The tech giants of social media are facing a lot of pressure to police fake news. The technology exists to detect and filter fake news and the commitment to use it by some tech giants is strong. But this idea puts the tech giants into the role of “deciding” by their algorithms what is fake and what isn’t. And the tech giants have their own biases and world views (some that have been well-documented) that could lead to what some regard as valid news or opinion being censored. And we come back to that First Amendment thing.

So the question remains. Should the tech giants have the responsibility to utilize technology in the detecting and filtering of fake news? Or should we trust the educational structure in a free society to teach its citizens and users of social media to think critically about all of the information available to them? Are we lazily using the concept of fake news to abdicate the responsibility of the individual? Should we just cede this unfathomable power and responsibility as gatekeepers of the information and content available to us to the Facebooks and Googles of the world? What could go wrong?

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