author: nick giokas | contributor
“False reporting happens all the time; it’s the unfortunate side effect to a condition called “being human.””
Recently, something that’s been in the news a lot has been dubbed “fake news,” both due to its role in the most recent US election, but also due to President Donald Trump labelling news organizations that disagree with him as such, most notably CNN. What ought to be covered first, however, is what fake news is and, more importantly, what it does.
While fake news seems to be a straightforward concept, it’s important to be clear as to the original usage of the term. Fake news isn’t just false news stories, it’s part of a disinformation campaign in which the party spreading fake news has a clear objective. False reporting happens all the time; it’s the unfortunate side effect to a condition called “being human.” So, when Trump, or others, call CNN “fake news,” they’re not only misusing the term, but also obfuscating its original meaning.
See, fake news is a massive part of what many call “information warfare.” The point of fake news is to have a no-lose scenario in the information game, by not only directly targeting the cognitive dissonance of certain groups, but to also indirectly affect those who aren’t prone to that cognitive dissonance. What fake news does is present falsehood that would be readily believed by those of a certain political persuasion, and then exploit the innate falsehood to create discord and conflict. Sociologically speaking, the easiest way to get someone to become entrenched in their beliefs is to either: (a) insult them or (b) give them the impression that you are blowing things out of proportion/making attacks that are out of the scope of the debate. Fake news exploits both those factors. In doing so, the consumer of said fake news, in response to those holding opposing beliefs to them saying they’re taking fake news as fact, will inevitably become entrenched and hostile, since they would be more concerned with the social faux pas than whether their facts are correct.
The fallout of this also indirectly affects the person not taken in by the fake news. Current information warfare doctrine places those unaffected into two camps: those who are prone to fake news themselves, and those who would fall victim to political nihilism. The most effective portion of the current fake news trend is that if the party engaging in information warfare doesn’t have a broad ideological cause (like the Soviets did with Marxism), they can play to both sides of the spectrum. People frustrated by engaging with opposing political views, who are subsequently consuming fake news, are more prone to consume fake news themselves. Righteous anger is the easiest way to become prone to cognitive dissonance. While some don’t go down that path, the hope of the party propagating fake news is that they become so discouraged by the state of political discourse that they simply give up.
The final desired result by those engaging in information warfare vis-a-vis fake news is that they create an almost weaponised form of political absurdism, paranoia, and nihilism. The goal is to create an environment where nothing is true, everything is chaotic and confusing, and everyone defaults to the extremes, since any middle ground is too difficult to parse out, thereby leading to wide-scale dissent and conflict destroying the underpinnings of the politics in the affected nation-state. This may sound like some strange conspiracy theory, but the practices and results of Russian fake news campaigns have been rigorously studied since they began during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. The conclusion reached by most think tanks and intelligence services is that it is the easiest and most cost-effective way to erode the strategic position of an opposing nation-state without devolving into kinetic action.
This is why the distinction between fake news and the ideological biases of CNN or FOX News needs to be made abundantly clear. While either party may attempt to entrench the positions of their consumers, their desired end result is to strengthen their own positions, rather than sow conflict and dissent in groups that have opposing views to them. News organizations, therefore, ought to stray further from opinion and rhetoric and stick harder to facts and analysis. News organizations have stuck to “I think” statements for far too long, and have a moral imperative to begin asking the “whys” behind stories. This is not only because deeper analysis makes dismissal of fact more difficult, but also because it makes productive discourse far easier. Therefore, when it comes to journalistic integrity in the age of President Trump we ought to encourage less breaking news and more long-form analysis.