‘Fake news’ is more than just a nuisance. It’s a destructive lie. But as figures like Donald Trump show, people will believe anything if told enough times. What’s worse is that Trump is now trying a move from Hitler’s playbook. And it was the mainstream media that gifted him with the opportunity.
It’s now the job of all citizens to fight back.
The roots of ‘fake news’
‘Fake news’ became a media controversy years ago. ‘Bad science’ has been used to fuel healthcare scams. Misleading or false advertising has been met with legal challenge. Early opposition has been largely ignored, making room for political figures to join the party. And with the Facebook boom, the spread of ‘fake news’ grew exponentially.
In short, Trump didn’t create the term ‘fake news’. But he has jumped on the bandwagon. And he’s turned it around on critical media outlets that, while rallying against falsehoods, have occasionally helped unverified reports to go viral online.
A move from Hitler’s playbook
Throughout history, careful manipulation of the media has facilitated population control. The use of hyperbolic terms, discrediting rivals on shaky allegations, and inspiring emotional responses is almost a science. And often, he who shouts loudest is heard (and, more worryingly, believed) the most.
One notable example of this is Adolf Hitler, who used the phrase ‘lügenpresse‘ (lying press) to attack all media outlets that questioned the Nazi party. And Nazi atrocities were allowed to happen in part because of an effective brainwashing of the German population; a key part of which was the discrediting of opposition media outlets.
Today, some Trump supporters have happily adopted the word lügenpresse. And Trump himself has gone with a slight variant – ‘fake news’. But the method is the same: to strengthen the trust of supporters and sow a seed of doubt in the minds of opponents, accuse your critics of lying.
History shows us how well this tactic can work.
How method transcends politics
Fake news from Team Trump like the ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ and the Swedish ‘incident‘ are political moves that each have a role. Create an enemy. Confuse the people. And if we recognise this technique, we can understand its power.
Trump has the richest cabinet in US history. He’s launched a crackdown on immigrants. And he has an obsession with TV ratings. By publicly accusing journalists of ‘fake news’, he can get away with regularly courting controversy, while strengthening his own profile and disguising his xenophobia as patriotism.
Create fear and anger. Silence opposition. The Orwellian trope is tiring.
Fighting back – Spotting fake news
The solution to such propaganda is resistance. Using terms like ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’ simply distracts us from the reality that anything but truth is a lie. It’s deceit – whether conscious or not.
So we need to resist. To appraise all news sources. And where we find problems, flag them. We mustn’t remain silent. We must call the powerful out on their lies.
Some simple steps to spot fake or misleading news are:
- Before all else, is the article clearly labelled as satire? Remember that not everything published online is actual news.
- Consider the source of the report. If you double check it, does the story stand up? Does the source actually say what the article claims?
- Look at the author. Check for other work they’ve written. See how well they link back to original sources.
- Only share a story once you’ve actually read it and you trust the fact-checking within.
- If at all unsure, ask the experts. Send a message to the author or their source.
Truth can win…
Truth needs little to conquer lies. Just recognition and communication. As NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said recently:
The answer to bad speech is not censorship. The answer to bad speech is more speech… We have to exercise and spread the idea that critical thinking matters.
And the struggle is twofold. We need to expose inaccurate or false speech. But we also need to challenge people like Donald Trump whenever they use the term ‘fake news’ in an attempt to shut down and discredit their critics.
It’s everyone’s job to fight back.
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