Why "Fake News" is Probably Here to Stay
By PRANAV RAVIKUMAR | March 19, 2018
Despite the president denouncing the media’s “fake news” since his arrival to the Oval Office, the concept is all too familiar to both American and world history. In the mid-1890s, yellow journalism ran rampant across the pages of the New York Journal and the New York World as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in an intense competition to control the media industry. This dissemination of misinformation became partially responsible for the outset of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Today, “fake news” remains as potent a weapon in its ability to produce greater social divisions and magnify polarization. Unfortunately, this weapon is now being utilized by Russia, and the United States has, for the most part, been inept in combating the subversive threat.
On February 16th, Special Counsel Robert Mueller produced a 37-page indictment detailing a large conspiracy by the Russian government to foment division within the United States through “information warfare against the United States of America”. The Internet Research Agency, run by Yevgeniy Prigozhin (an oligarch popularly known as “Putin’s chief”), set up false identities and a team of online “trolls” to reduce voter turnout among minorities and encourage third-party support, all in an attempt to aid the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns. By earning thousands of “likes” and “retweets” on fake social media profiles and bots, Russia managed to deepen the divide between Americans, influencing the 2016 election result. More than a year later, and Russian bots still work to meddle in American society. A BBC article published on February 20th describes how Russian-linked accounts began to flood the gun control debate in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Essentially, America has such strong divisions that leave it vulnerable to such subterfuge by large-scale populist movements. This is exactly why “fake news” is here for good.
The solution, which is definitely easier said than done, is to try to build trust between both the American people and the government as well as between each other. This first comes by social media giants such as Facebook accepting responsibility by effectively weeding out false personas and information while publicly identifying individuals who pay for ad space.
More importantly, our government needs to take firm action against Russia and the dissemination of “fake news”, just like other countries have done. Politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration have openly discussed the threat of Russian hackers in public forum prior to the German election. In contrast, President Trump has done little to denounce Putin and has only viewed the Russia issue as a personal attack against his legitimacy. Countries such as Sweden are rolling out national digital-literacy curriculums to improve students’ awareness of how disinformation works. The United States has still yet to offer any concrete actions to rectify the current situation.
Our politicians bear a large share of the blame for the division in American politics, simply refusing to address issues ranging from race relations to income inequality. While some division within a society is natural, it is the sheer amount of unresolved discord within the United States that leaves it the most susceptible to Russian influence. It is the public’s lack of faith in the government to solve these issues that causes it to be easily manipulated by “fake news.” Our government has been through multiple shutdowns in recent history and is in a state of consistent gridlock and perennial partisanship without consensus. All in all, it is the perfect environment in which to breed conflict.
If the current administration can begin to be transparent about election related intelligence and the country can resist division and begin to build consensus, then we can begin to combat Russia’s meddlesomeness. Until then, expect that “fake news” is here to stay.