What initially jumps to mind when you first hear the words ‘Donald Trump’ muttered? For the majority it is probably finger pointing, narcissism, lip puckering and long-winded tweets, having us wishfully thinking Twitter might shorten the word count. However, it could be suggested that it will not be long before that same, well educated, majority see ‘Trump’ and ‘Fake news’ as cosy words of association.

In saying all this, when it comes to ‘Fake News’ there is a much bigger picture, one that branches beyond Donald Trump’s hands – a much more pressing discussion to be had.

Placed amongst very real adversities such as nuclear missile testing, new diseases, climate change and the onset of global terrorism, fake news does not quite measure up in terms of fear factor.

Not all threats have equally identifiable consequences. It is about to be brought to your attention that the deliberate use of constructed news stories to manipulate opinions, accompanied by the impressive speed of modern media, can have a graver impact on us then we could ever reconcile.

It is first vital to define the threat.  has already (…all be it subconsciously) entered through our front doors, has been carried in our pockets, and as the morning Internet scroll becomes somewhat routine in the digital era, has even shared the bed with us.

Fake news headlines are very often emotionally charged and rattle us at first glance, achieving their objective: terrorist attacks in Europe, sexual abuse allegations in Hollywood, environmental scandals – these headlines can guarantee click bait … hook, line and sinker.

This epidemic of misinformation spreads quicker than a winter cold. Rather, as you may already be aware, this is where social media, *cough cough * Facebook, Twitter and Reddit and their associates, have had their curtain call. Social media sites are literal feeding grounds for ‘breaking news’ with smoke screen headlines.

Just last year the Pew Research centre for journalism and media located in Washington reported that from a group of 4,600 U.S. adults, 62 percent were obtaining some form of news from social media sites with two-thirds primarily using Facebook. These statistics are pretty noteworthy in demonstrating the scale at which digital media can boost the ability of fake news to real in more casualties.

Yes, media sites are invaluable in many ways … but when it comes to being a dependable source for accurate news, social media should be no one’s star pupil.

The ‘Fake’

Not all fake news is the same.  Rather, within this brewing eco-system of misinformation there are two classes i) the ultimately fabricated and the ii) overkill of reality by mainstream networks through sensationalism.

Let’s first examine the fabricated. CNBC formulated a list of the biggest fake news stories that circulated on a global scale through the media in 2016.

Among those listed was an article published just before U.S. presidential election, headlined “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS … then drops another bombshell”. Data collected by BuzzFeed News, revealed the article had collected an impressive 789,000 ‘clicks’ (the population of Stockholm). The Political Insider, a site notorious for unreliable news claims and wild rumors had run it.

The article was far from factual yet if one did not know otherwise, it may have seemed credible. The site quickly ran with the headline before The New York Times had the chance to document the true events. Under the state administration led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton artillery sent to Libya in 2011 had been seized by jihadists. Depending upon which of the two articles readers had stumbled across, opinions of Hilary Clinton and even the Obama administration would have been poles apart.

Large-scale ‘fake news’ can begin with anyone. Take the father of two from North Carolina whose claim that Hillary Clinton was sexually abusing children in the basement of a pizza restaurant in D.C. that became the Pizzagate Scandal. In two days #pizzagate was retweeted 145,000 times.

The ‘Overkill’

Now allow me to switch the spotlight to the engineering of real time news by national and mainstream networks, which appear to have had a major change in agenda. This type of fake news could perhaps be the darker horse.

Traditional journalism has been drifting closer and closer towards adopting a more tabloid exterior. As their ability to rely on older forms of advertising revenue declines, owners of networks have become increasingly desperate in their efforts to deter attention from the alternatives (the ‘fake stuff’) that dominates the internet. Alongside these pressures from declining revenue sources, the internet’s ability to transfer images from all over the world at the speed of light and at a low sticker price means that fake news stories can be drafted and published onto the internet in minutes, two steps ahead of the journalist down at the national network.

While still engaged in serious journalism, reporting on serious world affairs there have been alternations in presentation through exaggeration, misconstrued photos and some sporting of yellow journalistic style headlines. Politicians have become the sitting duck for this newly sensationalized mainstream reporting. Taking one example when earlier this year Donald Trump .

These ‘tactics’ (mainly in response to a depletion in traditional revenue) of sensationalizing thin story lies, dismisses the journalist’s social responsibility and ethical obligation to act as society’s watchdog.

Frank L. Baum’s Proposition

In an effort to illustrate the consequences that inhabiting an eco-system of fake presents, one can turn to the children’s classic, The Wizard of Oz; particularly the characters of the lion, tinman and scarecrow.

First we imagine the tinman, who is without a heart. If ‘fake news’, the fabricated or sensationalized, becomes the benchmark for reading about world events, then perhaps it will leave our emotions fully exposed to be moulded by flashy headlines and misinterpreted facts – leaving us tied to the apron strings of a click bait agenda.

Next we take the lion, who is without courage. Assuming that the digital era is here to stay, with the rapid pace at which so many sources of news appear on our screens, we may become inattentive, never calling authenticity into question.

Ultimately we now turn to the brainless scarecrow. Fake news can be exploitive when we least expect it. Unknowingly we become the unpaid interns of news networks and fake sites through our endless sharing, tagging and retweeting. When passing on ‘breaking news’ in this way, we do not see ourselves as reporters and so we easily forget that no one will question our journalistic abilities.

When it comes ‘fake news’ and the outbreak of misinformation, the writing on the wall is much less clear compared to the physical calamities of nuclear missile testing and global warming.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal at stake.

Caoimhe Kirwan

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