Everywhere one goes on the Internet, one seems to be barraged with articles talking about “fake news.” Indeed, as Sapna Maheshwari of The New York Times has noted, fake news has “gone viral.” Since the campaign, and subsequent election, of Donald Trump, Google search results for “fake news” have spiked and everyday a new article is being written on how to spot “fake news” or how the Russians used “fake news” to influence the presidential election or how “fake news” is killing democracy. But I want to ask, what makes news real or “fake?”
Update 1/31/17: As the Google analytics map above is dynamic, it will eventually become out of date as this post becomes older and older.
This post will be slightly different than my usual posts insofar as I don’t have a clear cut answer for anything; rather I’m just going to share some thoughts I’m having and throw around some ideas. With that being said, let’s begin. On some level I do not see the difference between real and “fake” news. Allow me to clarify. Of course news can be “real” in the sense that it is accurately relaying information about the world we live in and things that happen therein (as there is an obvious transcendental nature to “facts”). While that is important, it is, on some level, not what I want to discuss. Rather, I want to discuss the perception that comes along with news. While a given story being reported upon may or may not have occurred (/pol/ trolling BuzzFeed, for example), that seems to be largely irrelevant when it comes to people’s perceptions of the world. In other words, the discourse we are fed shapes how we view the world. If you don’t believe me, listen to the coverage of the same news story on both Fox and CNN; the difference is stark and clear. What we are told, whether it is what actually happened or not, affects how we see the world and how we interact with others from then on out. In that sense, it seems to me that there can be no such thing as “fake” news as all news produces tangible outcomes. For example, if The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, The Wallstreet Journal, etc. all published articles tomorrow saying that Russia had invaded Poland and there was thus a media blackout in Poland (and there was no evidence for or against this claim), then public perception of Russia would drop and Article 5 of NATO’s constitution would likely be invoked leading us into a war with Russia. What is the pretense for this hypothetical war scenario? A “fake” news story that shaped the reality of those who read it. Does this sound implausible? Well a very similar thing occurred in 1964.
On August 2nd, 1964, the USS Maddox was engaged in (illegal) espionage activities in North Vietnamese waters. Allegedly, the Maddox encountered three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin and had a brief skirmish that left the Maddox untouched save for a single bullet lodged in its hull. On the 4th of August, the NSA claimed that a second incident had occurred where 22 torpedoes were fired at the Maddox and the ship sent to reinforce it, the USS Turner Joy. This “news” spread across the nation like wildfire; “commies attack U.S. boats!” The Gulf of Tonkin incidents (primarily the second) were labeled as an act of “open aggression the high seas against the United States of America” and in retaliation, president Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of Vietnamese bases and oil depots. On the 7th, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a resolution that massively increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was passed by Congress and the U.S. was at war. At least 58,000 United States troops were killed in the coming years.
There was just one small problem…the real news story that swept the nation about the U.S. being under attack not only concealed the true, illegal nature of the operation on the 2nd, but was gravely mistaken about the incident on the 4th. The news wasn’t just off, it was “fake.” The Second Gulf of Tonkin incident, the incident that led the U.S. into a war that killed over 58,000 troops, never happened. That’s right, the news story that was the pretext for the resolution that was voted for by all but two members of the senate was based on a lie. Indeed, as Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson of the U.S. Navy writes in the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine:
Historians have long suspected that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin never occurred and that the resolution was based on faulty evidence. But no declassified information had suggested that McNamara, Johnson, or anyone else in the decision-making process had intentionally misinterpreted the intelligence concerning the 4 August incident. More than 40 years after the events, that all changed with the release of the nearly 200 documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and transcripts from the Johnson Library.
These new documents and tapes reveal what historians could not prove: There was not a second attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in early August 1964. Furthermore, the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.
In other words, a “fake” news story was sold to the American people and government and was bought hook, line, and sinker and led to very real and very tragic deaths. My (semi-rhetorical) question at this point is thus: what does it mean that news is “fake” when it can not only inform and shape people’s perceptions of reality, but also, historically, lead to governmental resolutions that draw us into war? What is the difference between “fake” and “real” news at that point?
Ultimately, I want to leave you with the following questions to chew on: what do we mean when we say a news story is “fake?”; If people believe a “fake” news story, is there any difference between it and a “real” one?; And the kicker: how do you determine if a news story is “real” or “fake?”
In the coming months, I urge all of you to think about these questions and critically examine your answers to them. As for me, right now I view the news in the following light: all news stories are “fake”…some are just “faker” than others.1)Perhaps a Baudrillardian analysis is required.
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