“I love fake news.”
A lot of eyebrows were raised in the hall when I said this before a panel of journalists and concerned citizens of Muscatine, Iowa. A journalist saying he loves fake news is odd, isn’t it?
Looking back, I think could have rephrased my statement and probably used words like “fake news gets me excited,” because love is a strong word. Also, many in the industry do not prefer fake news over misinformation and disinformation as a term. But that’s what I said.
Bear with me and I’ll explain it.
Many journalists believe that fake news or misinformation or disinformation is the biggest challenge facing modern-day journalism. According to a 2021 survey by PEN America, “virtually all journalists surveyed think disinformation is a serious problem for journalism today: 81% say it’s a very serious problem, and 16% say somewhat serious.”
I don’t agree with 97% of my fellow American journalists. Disinformation is a problem, but a problem that has opened a host of opportunities for journalists. The following are my three reasons why fake news excites me:
- Fake News is not new:
Fake news, disinformation, myths, legends, and conspiracy theories have existed since time immemorial. But journalism over the years has survived as a profession. If it was such a threat to journalism then, it would have dented or even decimated it by now. It hasn’t.
If I can use a religious example to make my point: Adam was banished from the heavens, because of a piece of disinformation from Satan (for more on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_fruit). There were no traditional media back then. Or the conspiracy theories surrounding the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination. We did not have Twitter at the time to make the conspiracy theory go viral. So, it’s nothing new. Fake news is as old as human beings.
- It’s a societal problem:
Fake news is usually mentioned whenever crises in credibility and trust in journalism is mentioned, as the PEN America survey points out.
People don’t need social media or mainstream media for the spread. There’s word of mouth, too.
Joseph Uscinski is a professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories. One of his surveys revealed that the number of people who believed in the JFK assassination conspiracy theory (i.e., that it was not the work of an individual, but of a larger coordinated group) has decreased with the advent of the internet and social media. For reference, the survey also found the highest number of JFK conspiracy believers was in 1970.
This is evidence contrary to the perception that social media gives birth to fake news.
So fake news shouldn’t worry us as journalists. It’s an opportunity and a business model for us. How? Read point 3.
- The vacuum of authentic information:
Having fake news in the information sphere means there is a vacuum of authentic information. Who is going to fill this vacuum? Us – the journalists. Amidst all the unauthentic and unreliable information, people are going to come to us seeking the truth. There is a need in the market and it is up to us to fill that void.
We can already see fact-checking initiatives across the globe, with fact-checkers getting hired to debunk fake news. We are already cashing in on the opportunity. The challenge lies in how quickly are we to debunk false information. The more we do, the more the public will want us. And that’s why it excites me. The public will only want us if they are bombarded with unreliable information. People need us because there’s fake news.