Fake News and the Sociological Imagination

by Matthew Chase

In the wake of the highly charged 2016 presidential elections, the U.S. public discourse has become increasingly fixated on the issues of misinformation in the mass media and particularly news media. “Fake news” has been the keyword of  2017 as we come to grapple with the election results and understand how we ended up to this point as a nation. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, over 60% of the U.S. public across demographics believe that these fake news stories are resulting in a “great deal of confusion,” with them citing politicians and social media as primary causes. Many people have come to blame the news media for circulating provocative, unsubstantiated stories during the political elections, believing it in part led to the presidential victory of Donald Trump, a public figure well known for making his own uninformed, emotionally inciting claims of truth.

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Comet Ping Pong at center of Pizzagate

Public attention to this issue reached an especially heightened state with the Pizzagate incident back in December 2016. The incident involved a man entering a pizzeria with a rifle to investigate an online conspiracy theory claiming that the restaurant was a front for an international Satanic child abuse cabal led by Democrat Party leaders such as Hilary Clinton. While certainly extreme, the man’s actions were not isolated as the pizzeria had received hundreds of death threats as the story circulated throughout the fringes of the Internet. It ultimately raises questions about the prevalence of fake stories and their overall impact on public perceptions of social issues.

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1888 Puck cartoon

As much as the discourse perceives this issue as something that has recently emerged with the rise of social media and contemporary politics, we have to realize that fake stories are an old practice. The problem has deep historical roots in the evolution of news media, spanning over a century. We can readily see these ties within the widespread adoption of yellow journalism during the 1890s and the tabloid journalism starting in the 1920s. This was a significant turning point for the industry as the stories being reported substituted facts with speculation and sensationalism. Such stories derived from using public emotions to increase reader engagement.

Although we cannot discount the influence of partisan associations, we also cannot oversimplify the situation as one of conservative versus liberal media. This reasoning is quite popular, arguing back and forth as to the political loyalties of the mass media. Yet all too often we forget that the media is an industry motivated by a common underlying goal: profit. The news is an institution built on the foundation of making money. Conservatism and liberalism, depending on the current political climate, both serve to advance the overarching system of capitalism embedded in our society. It is not to suggest that all news media is ethically absent or intentionally abusive against the facts. Rather, this kind of news reporting is a rational response to the need for profit. While many news giants like the New York Times can afford to keep to the principles of ethical journalism, the introduction of the Internet has expanded opportunities for many to enter the news economy, increasing the competition among smaller news entities. Fake stories have effectively become a brand product of their own design.

Social media platforms in the vein of blogs, Twitter, and YouTube have broken new ground for people and organizations who would not have otherwise had access to the industry. It is not unlike what happened with the advent of television and radio. Click-bait titles, unsubstantiated speculation, and sensationalism have become effective marketing strategies. They seek to activate their consumers’ emotional reflexes, particularly in the realms of anger and fear. In an age where we are being exposed to not only overwhelming amounts of information every day, but overwhelmingly unreliable information, a culture of public anxiety is cultivated. It is no surprise then why stories about creepy clowns captured the American heart with moral panic over several months, even though most of them proved to be fictitious in the end. Through anger and fear, the information being disseminated through the news (online and traditional) is able to bypass our critical thinking and rationality. It is an instinctive, passive sort of consumption as we share the information with family and friends, quickly reinforcing falsehoods as a living part of our everyday realities.

Despite what we might think, these fake stories are not necessarily changing minds, at least to the grand extent being argued as with the presidential election outcome. While such stories misinform the public, their ability to change someone’s beliefs regarding an issue is questionable at this point. Rather, it is more likely that a consumer might believe in a fake news story because it reflects their own preexisting set of beliefs and values. One piece of new research supports this conclusion. The authors showed that although some might believe a fake story that was published, others sometimes falsely recalled reading (and believing) a false news story if it corresponded with their personal beliefs.

There is no clear-set direction in the relationship between consumer and the media. Does the media influence the consumer, or does the consumer influence the media? This chicken-and-the-egg question is flawed because it doesn’t consider that both can happen simultaneously, even harmoniously. Getting back to the element of profit, it is very reasonable that the media will seek to exploit the emotions and beliefs of its audience, crafting stories designed to engage them, while consumers will seek out information that fits into their worldview. There is even a name for the latter: confirmation bias. People will often cherry pick the information they are exposed to, adapting what resonates with them into their existing view of the world and reinforcing their decisions based on that resonance. It is a vicious cycle as consumer and media feed each other with (mis)information and profit respectively.

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It is not to suggest that fake stories don’t have a significant impact on how we perceive the world. The cycle above demonstrates quite the opposite in fact. In the case of the recent election, while these fake stories may not have changed a person’s vote per se, they undoubtedly reaffirmed who voters were already leaning to put into office. White resentment, misogynistic ideologies, anti-immigration sentiments all played a part in the outcome. They are products and tools of a lucratively profitable culture of fear in this society. The fake news media sought to legitimate those feelings and beliefs, either as threatened to their supporters or repulsive to their opponents. Their voices were provided a stage and megaphone, erupting in competing beliefs about justice and arresting our sociological imagination. Overwhelmed with so much information and not afforded the literacy skills to navigate it, we have been unable to decipher our own positions in the greater context of things like exploitative capitalism and mass misinformation.

We remain isolated to our own islands and worldviews, unable to connect meaningfully and civilly. Against the divides, tensions, and anxieties, it should not have been a surprise to find ourselves with a President Trump. Despite his misinformed and exploitative rhetorics, he nonetheless crafted a grand narrative of justice that clearly resonated with the majority of U.S. public. It is up to us then to craft our own narratives, to reawaken the sociological imagination so that we might feed it to the mass media. It will not solve all of our issues, for the mass media is only a facet of the broader society, but it can help change our future to a more hopeful one.

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