I’ve been reading a book called Words On the Move. It’s about how the meaning of words change over time and how it’s really okay that the word literally has come to mean its exact opposite (figuratively). It’s really okay, John McWhorter says.
Watching words morph and switch places can be frustrating, but it’s a futile kind of frustration. McWhorter teaches us that it’s much more satisfying to choose curiosity over anger when studying change like this.
And he’s right—it does feel better. So I took this lesson and tried applying it elsewhere in my life, to choose curiosity over anger. Because yes—fake news, sensational journalism, and unethical marketing are incredibly angering. To the point where it’s almost too much to handle.
When you don’t even want to keep up with the news anymore because it makes you just too darn sad and don’t even know who you can trust, you know there’s a problem.
So I have a proposition: let’s get curious about it instead. Let’s talk it out. Instead of being angry about the recent surge in fake news, let’s ask why.
As far as coping and seeking change goes, it’s a good start.
What IS Fake News?
Just so we’re all on the same page. Even 60 Minutes producers had a hard time figuring this one out before they dove into their own piece on fake news. These guys did all the footwork, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. Producer Guy Campanile says fake news is:
“…stories that are fabricated out of thin air. By most measures, deliberately, and by any definition, that’s a lie.”
For some people, things aren’t so black and white. 60 Minutes interviewer Scott Pelley hit this wall with both Jestin Coler from fake news sites like National Report and Denver Guardian and Michael Cernovich, author behind website Danger & Play.
Coler claims what he’s doing is no more unethical than what fiction writers do: they write fiction. That is to say, he doesn’t think what he’s doing is unethical at all.
Cernovich, on the other hand, holds fast to his delusions that his stories about Hillary Clinton’s sex cult affiliation and her battle with Parkinson’s (neither of which, by the way, exist) are actually true.
He has no evidence, but insists they’re true, which is really quite incredible when you think about it. You’ve got to have an alarming amount of confidence (or…lack of awareness?) to be nice and comfy slandering another person based on nothing other than the secret fairytales your hard-hitting imaginary journalist friend is whispering in your ear.
So. Maybe we’re not all on the same page. I’m hoping at least you and I are, so let’s carry on.
The History of Fake News
Even I, a fresh young daisy still fairly new to this earth, am not naïve enough to think our recent stint in fake news is the first time we’ve tangoed with false and misleading reporting. Remember propaganda? Remember the Red Scare?
Even further back than that, Roman throne successor Octavian strategically used misinformation to secure his dictatorial position over Marc Antony in the final war of the Roman Republic. (Oh, and then he changed his name to Augustus and made sure all countenances of him used on coins and in paintings were based on what he looked like as a young man, which essentially is like the Roman Emperor using the same picture on Facebook for 40 years and insisting he hasn’t changed a bit. I see you, “Augustus.”)
But oh man, it’s everywhere. No doubt the origins of fake news go back waaay before Octavian’s political slandering of Marc Antony, and we can be sure that it’s been pretty much nonstop ever since.
Here’s a fun little snapshot of notoriously fake news since then:
- In the 18th century: even our man Ben Franklin was guilty of fabricating stories of Indian scalping to rally support for the American Revolution.
- In the 20th century: penny presses used propaganda to rally support for war, make outlandish claims against enemies, and spread paranoia about communism. (Germany had a….corpse factory? For harvesting fat from dead bodies? Sure they did.)
- In the 21st century: and now we’ve arrived in the age of the internet, click-baiting, and pay-per-click profits.
I’ll hypothesize that cycles of fake news resurgence correlate closely with big leaps in technological advancement, with every leap making it easier to get fake news in front of more eyes without suffering any greater penalty for it.
Basically, the barriers to entry on fake news just keep on getting lower and we might reasonably expect a big surge in fake news any time we’ve had a big jump on the technological front.
No doubt it started with word-of-mouth, with rumors. Then the printing press brought a whole new kind of severity to these rumors, because as a new, shiny, and official-looking thing, the printed word must have been taken as gospel, right?
Then the penny press made printing even more affordable. And now? Now we have the INTERNET. And so we find ourselves at the crest of the classic cycle of fake news that seems to love intertwining itself so deeply in our inclination towards technological progress.
We’re now able to share fake news more easily and cheaper than ever before.
The Current Surge In Fake News
If technological advance in the form of social media was the platform fake news needed to thrive at the turn of the century, the 2016 election was the stage, cameras, and microphone that planted the problem of false reporting so much so that we couldn’t ignore it.
PolitiFact’s wrote a wonderful study about the Sham of the Year that is the 2016 U.S. election, which includes research-based reporting on:
- The origins of claims that Hillary Clinton ran a sex trafficking ring out of a pizza shop (which sounds like the stuff of satire articles, but actual people actually believed this for a time)
- The origins of claims that Trump rally disruptors were paid to raise hell among Trump supporters, which Trump later parroted during a later rally (despite the claims being completely unfounded)
- A look at disparities between how Clinton claims her FBI interviews went how they actually went
- How Trump turned to everyone’s favorite reliable news source, The National Enquirer, to find out that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination (and if we’re going to believe this, we might as well make the logical jump that Cruz actually is the Zodiac Killer)
And that’s just a sampling. We don’t have enough time and web hosting space to list out alllllll the falsehoods of the 2016 election, and I’m getting kind of sad, so onward we go.
What’s the Point? And Why’s it Happening?
“It’s powerful, right? To create something out of whole cloth and have people believe that it’s true.”
60 Minutes producer Michael Radutzky hits the nail on the head. Later in his interview, when Radutzky tries to understand Jestin Coler’s craving for the fabricated, Coler explains that he gets a rush from watching the views pour in. That it’s almost like an addiction. (Well, it pretty much IS an addiction.)
Whether it’s about Trump, Clinton, or Brangelina, it all seems to come down to money and power. Page views. Attention. Pay-per-click profits. Being in the know, even if that “know” is entirely and shamelessly fabricated.
It’s a strange and an upsetting look into the dark side of the human psyche. Because you know what else can give you money? And attention and profits?
Running a successful business. Selling a product that’s actually useful. Writing a fiction book. (Which I guess is what Coler thinks he’s doing because no one taught him what the difference between a book and a newspaper is.)
You know what else gets you power? Being a good leader. Being charismatic. Stepping up to lead a cause you care about and not using misinformation to do it.
So why do some people choose the former route and some the latter? Personally, the only logical answer I can come up with is that, unfortunately, honesty is not always the quickest way to the top. Even if I—and I’d like to believe most of us—think it’s the best way.
Marketers Can Be Helpers
“You can only blame the internet to a point.”
That’s what PolitiFact says in the study referenced above, and you know what—they’re right.
We are the internet. We are technology. It’s us breathing life into fake news with extra gusto every couple of decades, not technology. Let’s not forget that the internet is simply a tool; there’s no such thing as a big “anonymous internet.” It’s just us.
And we should be worried about that. When the news becomes marketing—when the news is no longer the news or honest reporting or an impartial telescope through which you can check in on the rest of the world, but a tool for profits and control—it’s just not news anymore. It’s bad marketing.
Thankfully, in any bad situation, there’s always the helpers, and organizations like Anonymous and WikiLeaks are doing what they can to fight it. And on a smaller scale, I’m confident marketers can be helpers too.
Don’t let the news give marketing a bad name. Don’t encourage fake news by holding your own marketing strategy to loose standards. Now more than ever we need to stick to ethical marketing practices and stay transparent in our quest for profits and power.
Because there’s nothing inherently wrong with profits or power. And we can earn them both the right way through good marketing. We can sell with integrity.
Let’s lead by example. Let’s show the news how it’s done.
Author Bio: Maison Piedfort is a freelance writer in the nDash content community. Create a free account to hire her now.