As thousands of Americans watched Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with a mixture of speechless fascination, approval, horror, and all range of emotions in between, the nation was introduced for the first time to the now infamous concept of “alternative facts” in late January 2017. While mainstream media today has become a whirlwind of “fake news,” finger pointing, and wildfire accusations, these phenomena are not new. The distinctive line between truth and “fake news,” a term encompassing falsehoods or oftentimes anything unflattering said by a political or personal enemy, is becoming blurrier. As Jonathan Switf said, “[a] lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” What makes this era of media so different, then?
Whether called gossip, innuendo, or propaganda, falsehoods by any name are a popular means of wielding power. Says veteran journalist Maggie Farley, “people have always been trying to manipulate information for their own ends.” Even in ancient times, Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar, spread information of questionable origins in order to secure a victory over Marc Antony in the Roman Republic. Therefore, in order to educate modern consumers about just how difficult it is to distinguish between factual and false news stories, Farley developed Factitious: an online game similar to Tinder in which one can swipe left or right depending on how true they think a story is. Bob Hone, a game designer that worked on the project, says “[w]e’re not going to solve the fact that there are two different realities being told right now […] But if there are people in the middle […] open to asking questions, I want to empower them.”
Simply the sheer amount of information available today is overwhelming to consumers. Even for a trained political analyst or journalist the tide of news media is difficult to sift through, but for the average citizen it can be nearly impossible to tell fact from fiction. Because of this incessant mental back-and-forth, suspicion of sources is high. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, a mere 40 percent of consumers polled said mainstream media “did a good job separating fact from fiction.” For social media, the results were even more bleak: only 24 percent. In a world in which voters and consumers are increasingly dependent upon social and news media sources as an informational filter, such a low rate of trust is alarming.
Regardless of trust level, the flood of fake news and factual news alike isn’t slowing. Says Dr. Kate Starbird of the University of Washington, “[t]he reality is there’s an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.” People, then, have begun to turn to mental shortcuts to weed through what seems indiscernible: in today’s digital age, who tagged you in that Facebook news article may be just as if not more important in determining your trust than the content of the source itself. According to research by the Media Insight Project, Americans’ trust in content on social media “is determined less by who creates the news than by who shares it.” With increasingly partisan social media footprints in which people become trapped in ‘bubbles’ of news they agree with, this becomes problematic quickly in terms of the spread of fake news. Information from an unknown and untrustworthy source suddenly appears more credible when shared by a seemingly trustworthy friend, relative, or colleague.
In the search for a more reliable filter for news media and information, the quest continues. What can consumers do? It all comes down to scrutiny. Verify your sources, limit the spread of misinformation, and look at everything with the skeptical eye best summed up in this popular aphorism among journalists: “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Though it may blur in today’s age, truth is truth and waits even under the most indistinguishable piles of alternative facts. After all, as any fan of No Country for Old Men can tell you, “[y]ou can’t corrupt [the truth] any more than you can salt salt.”