I remember the first time I saw a fake news article shared on my Facebook feed. It was the fall of 2015. I had heard about the fake news issue, but had not yet seen it in my own Internet browsing and didn’t recognize it as a serious problem. People who believe fake news seemed like people who believe the world is flat. Kind of cute, a little frustrating, but mostly harmless. Who cares?
The first fake news article I ever saw claimed that 10,000 Syrian refugees had all arrived in New Orleans on the same day. The woman who posted it implied that this was why she cherished her right to gun ownership–to protect herself from a massive influx in Syrian refugees.
I was upset by that post–firstly because I find it upsetting that this woman’s reaction to a refugee crisis was to protect her own right to weapons, and secondly because it was outrageous to me that people believed that 10,000 Syrians would arrive all at once, on the same day, in the same city. The plan proposed by President Obama at the time was to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees gradually throughout the following year, beginning in January of 2016. At the time that this fake news story was published in 2015, less than 2,000 Syrian refugees had been relocated to the United States since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, and they had been sent to over 200 cities across the United States. That’s fewer than 10 refugees to each city, total, for three years. But this woman was eyeing up her weapon stock, believing that an army of Syrian refugees might soon be at her rural Pennsylvanian doorstep. Here it was, on my own newsfeed, posted by someone I actually knew: fake news.
Since then, I have seen it again and again, from my own Facebook friends and from strangers elsewhere online. Some of these people believe that Pope Frances endorsed Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, and that Democrats want to remove the citizenship requirement for the presidency. It’s hard to find links to those original stories (the links are to articles debunking the fake stories), because fake news sites are often taken down as quickly and randomly as they pop up, but that doesn’t matter to the fake news audience. Once someone has read and believed a fake news article, they’re not going to go back later to see if it’s been removed.
But the most troubling instances of false information on the web are those that come from individuals who apparently no longer care about what the truth really is. I recently saw a Facebook post where the poster claimed that “1100 trucking companies went bankrupt every week” while Obama was president. 1100 lost companies per week, no matter what the industry, is insane. When I pressed this person to back up that statement, he couldn’t do it. He said that it had happened to his dad’s company. I said I was sorry about that, but his dad’s was only one company, not 1,100 per week, and asked him again where he’d found that crazy number. He became angry and told me to find it myself. So I searched, and found that the trucking industry was growing by a few thousand businesses per year during Obama’s final years in office. I showed him that, and he became angrier and eventually blocked me when I continued to ask him to prove what he’d said.
Maybe I was a little too mean or pushy about that post. (To be fair, his full comment was: “1100 trucking companies went bankrupt every week. Guess it’s easy to vote for a libtard, when you don’t suffer the consequences.” So I think I had a right to be at least as mean as he’d been.) But even if this had been a more polite exchange, I still would have been angry. I’m angry every time I see false information being spread.
I’m angry because fake news is changing the way we think about information. Fake news is undermining our value of and respect for accurate information. I’m angry because not only do people seem unaware when they share a piece of false information, but they also apparently don’t care once they find out it’s false. I’m angry because our president makes false statements himself, and then convinces people that the established media are the real fake news sources. I’m angry because apparently our respect and capacity for reasoning and logic-based debate has been lost.
And I’m especially angry because people are sharing false information, either oblivious to the truth or apathetic about it, and are using that false information to make voting decisions that affect everyone. When someone votes for the candidate he believes will address the “1100 trucking companies” that supposedly went bankrupt every week, I have a right to be angry about that, because my father works for Mack Trucks, and someone who has incorrect information about the trucking industry will probably not vote in the best interest of the trucking industry. When a voter chooses a candidate who will not let immigrants into the country because that candidate claimed that Mexicans are rapists (research shows that immigrants are rarely criminals, by the way), that vote will negatively affect the thousands of law-abiding immigrants in this country.
I’m angry because people are taking their ignorance to the polls and using it to elect world leaders.
I created this site to discuss matters of information. I care deeply about this topic, as an information professional (“librarian” for short) and as an American. We need to stop making up facts based on our opinions, and start making our opinions based on facts. Alex Jone’s InfoWars is a well-known fake news site. The only thing it get’s right is it’s motto “There’s a war on for your mind!”
That’s true. There is a war, metaphorically, for your mind. Russia is invested in it (more on that in a later post). So are American politicians. Don’t be a mindless, controllable pawn. Get informed! Help me fight this monster! Read about it! Follow this blog! Research before you post! And when you see fake news, call out the bullshit! If people are going to vote with incorrect information, we can’t let them do it unchallenged.