Fake News and the 2016 Election
I wrote this as a final paper for one of my media studies courses in December 2016, a time when the world was still reeling from the results of the election and speculating over what a Trump presidency would actually mean, a time when “fake news” wasn’t just a buzzword used by the president, but actually referred to news that was indeed false.
In the aftermath of any presidential election, popular discourse frequently centers upon the election and its results. In both scholarly and non-scholarly environments, people are eager to discuss their thoughts on the election’s outcomes, speculate about its implications, and consider what led up to it. This was no different for the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. And while many topics have been brought up in the weeks following the election, there was a single topic that has come to dominate discussion circles around the nation — the issue of “fake news.” Across the political spectrum, fake news is a hot issue that many people have opinions on, some even considering it chiefly responsible for Trump’s election. Given its close relation to not just politics, but to media in general as well, fake news is an issue that effects nearly everyone.
Within the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) at the University of Oregon, faculty members have been debating the issue of fake news, and desperately searching for some sort of a solution. Though there is much disagreement about how a professional school that prepares students for careers in media industries should respond to the development of fake news, one thing that nearly everyone in the school agrees on is that there is a close relation between the media industries and politics. (Brichacek, 2016; Steinkopf-Frank, 2016) The general consensus within the SOJC is that fake news is a problem that threatens the integrity of media, and by extension the American political system as well. One common solution that has been suggested within the SOJC is an increased focus on media literacy. According to some faculty members, if more Americans were simply “media literate,” then fake news would not have become a problem. However well-intentioned it may be, this suggestion overlooks the potential of the SOJC’s Media Studies program and instead leaves students unprepared to handle the issue of fake news. Though the field can be daunting due to its heavily reliance on critical theory, and its limited direct application to many professions, Media Studies is nonetheless an important field of study to support. Even for advertising, journalism, or public relations students, a basic understanding of Media Studies can still serve them well in the so-called “real world.” It provides the tools to work with and analyze media, and the recent development of the fake news issue underscores its importance and utility. Though “media literacy” is considered by many to be the logical response, it is limited in scope and flawed in its overall application. Media Studies is the real solution that they are looking for.
The first problem that arises when offering media literacy in response to fake news is that of definition. Though the term “media literacy” is thrown around freely, its actual definition is unclear. Generally speaking, the term is used in reference to critical thinking skills that allow someone to meaningfully understand and analyze media. (Center for Media Literacy, 2016; Media Literacy Project, 2016; MLN, 2016) The problem is not that this definition is inaccurate, but rather that the term itself is ill-fitting. In non-media specific contexts, “literacy” refers to a basic ability to read and write. A person can be determined to be literate or illiterate based upon benchmarks of reading and writing skill levels; the term “literacy” has no relation to critical thinking or analysis. However “media literacy” is used to refer to those things. Simply being able to comprehend and participate in media in its various forms is not enough to be considered media literate. When people advocate for increased media literacy, they are really promoting increased critical thinking, evaluation, and analysis of the media around us. The term “media literacy” itself is flawed, and what people actually want is what the media studies field can offer.
The critical theories and ideas that are addressed within the field of media studies are useful not just in terms of the fake news issue, but in many nearly all aspects of the media industry as well. Even though these critical theories may seem dense, unapproachable, and inapplicable to the “real world,” it is these same theories that can help media professionals understand and think critically about the industry that they work within. Even work that seems dated can still be useful. It is an unavoidable fact that the world we live in is heavily saturated by many different forms of media. In their essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write that the culture industry, or media industry, is inescapable. (1944) Being familiar with their theory is akin to having the tools necessary to work with the media industry, and study it not just as an industry of images and text, but of ideas as well. Media studies can provide this set of tools, and more, to allow people to work with and study the media that is seemingly ever present. For all media professionals, basic familiarity with media studies principles is a must. This recent development of the fake news issue provides a rich example of why media studies is necessary, and how it can provide tools and theories to analyze and study the things that are occurring not just in media, but in other areas, such as politics, as well.
The issue of fake news provides an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which the critical theories of media studies can, in fact, be applied to “real world” and “relevant” matters. It is important to note that on its own, media studies cannot determine whether fake news is a good or bad thing. Thus, any analysis of the issue must begin with only the assumption that fake news exists, but not about what influence it may have. From there, the tools offered by media studies can aid in studying fake news and determining how it works. Only after understanding what something is and how it operates is it possible to judge its influence, and whether it is positive or negative. Media studies can aid in the studying process, but not necessarily the judgement; that is left up to each individual to determine. Much discussion surrounding fake news has not operated under this assumption, and has relied heavily upon baseless speculation rather than real theories. Because the popular discourse about fake news has not used the critical theories of media studies, it has been limited in its effectiveness. Statements such as “fake news is bad,” and “we strive for objectivity,” are certainly related to fake news, and certainly take a stance on the issue, but ultimately are surface-level and fail to use dig deep into the specific details of fake news.
On November 20, 2016 the New York Times published an article online that traced the spread of a specific instance of fake news. (Maheshwari, 2016) The article claims to explain the fake news phenomenon and demonstrate how even false speculate can develop into a real political talking-point. In this case, the Times chose to follow rumors about political protestors that were actually just paid professional actors. According to this piece, the rumor began as a photo of charter buses in Austin, Texas that was posted to Twitter by Eric Tucker, a man with only 40 followers. The story then spread to other users, and other platforms as well, eventually to the point that it was referenced by President-Elect Donald Trump. However this Times article offers very little beyond a direct presentation of historical record; it simply states that this rumor happened, but does not get into the depth of the issue, such as why the message resonated with so many audiences, and why it was frequently shared. It also fails to bring into the conversation the multiple social media platforms that were utilized, and how the story spread between them. For an article that is presented as a “Case Study,” it seems to do very little actual studying. Much of the public discourse around fake news has been in a similar vein as this Times article. That is, people can easily identify and point out features of the fake news issue, but there is little discussion about how and why it is occurring. The field of media studies can offer the tools and critical theories that make this type of discussion possible.
The critical theories that are examined within the field of media studies are often several decades old, but still have relevance to events in the very recent past, or even ones that are still unfolding. Fake news can be better understood through the framework provided by media studies. Take, for instance, the New York Times case study of the photograph of buses that was interpreted as fake protesters. The spread of this rumor reflects the theories that Jean Baudrillard discusses in his essay “The Precession of Simulacra.” In this, Baudrillard addresses the nature of facts and reality and claims that those supposedly concrete ideas are not as concrete as they may seem. In an era where making copies is such a trivial process, the importance of the existence of an original version is diminished, and possibly no longer even necessary. (Baudrillard, 1994) The fake protestors rumor spread when individuals saw the photo and reposted a copy of it, sometimes adding their own thoughts and commentary on the matter. This spread went on as people continued making copies of copies of the original posted photo. By the time Trump referenced the rumor on Twitter, it had spread so far that Tucker’s original photo was difficult to identify as the original source. In fact, it is entirely possible that the original source no longer mattered, as the rumor had grown and spread enough that it was considered by many to be a real story. The facts and source were unimportant, just the interpretation thereof. Fake news in general, and the fake protestors rumor specifically, is an iteration of Baudrillard’s notion of a simulacrum, which can be thought of as a copy for which there is no original. By the time the fake protestors rumor had become a story, so many details had been added somewhere along the way, that it was only loosely connected to Tucker’s initial post; fake news may be somewhat grounded in truth, but eventually takes on a life of its own. Baudrillard’s work can also offer some potential implications of the proliferation of fake news. He writes that “[i]t is no longer a question of a false representation of reality but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.” (1994, p. 393) In other words, one possible outcome of fake news is that regardless of if something called “objective truth” is real, the fake news phenomenon makes it harder to determine what is or is not real because it conceals this truth. Fake news is not an isolated issue, but affects all of news reporting and media in general. Because fake news stories can look and feel like real news stories, the validity of all news is thrown into question. Baudrillard’s work can help to explain why fake news spreads and why it has become such a wide-reaching issue.
Part of what makes fake news spread so easily is that its very form contains very little substance, leaving the audience the opportunity to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. The theories of Walter Benjamin can explain why this occurs. His essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” addressed artwork specifically, but can just as easily be applied to journalism and other forms of media. His argument is that because technology had made replication so readily available, the value of art has been diminished. (Benjamin, 1936) The original version of something has an “aura” or mystical quality about it, but this is not present in any copies that are made. Copies of art do not have aura, and do not necessarily have the same meaning. This theory is applicable to the issue of fake news because of the Internet and social media, which have effectively made the technology of reproduction available to everyone. This has led to a proliferation of copies, and thus an overall loss of the original’s meaning. This leaves somewhat of an “empty shell” of a story that can then be filled with the audience’s own ideas. Because fake news stories are just copies of other copies, there is no original “aura” in the first place, leaving a completely empty shell for the audience to fill. And since this process is taking place within social media, after filling the fake news story with their own ideas and opinions, each individual audience member can repost the story and continue its spread. Fake news is like a rapidly mutating virus, spreading from one host to the next, infecting its ideas into the minds of the audience before becoming replicated and shared once more.
This spread of ideas is an important aspect of the fake news issue, because it is through ideas that the power of a ruling class is either maintained or overthrown. In his theories on cultural hegemony, Antonio Gramsci writes that a ruling group can easily maintain control by presenting its own ideas as the ideas of the general public. (Gramsci, 1971) Simply put, ideologies are the most effective way of maintaining power. And as Baudrillard and Benjamin’s theories suggest, fake news stories have no substance and perhaps instead are all ideas that are inserted by each audience member that consumes each story. This might by why there has been limited pushback, politically at least, against the issue of fake news. Many prominent members of the Republican Party have not spoken out or publically condemned many fake news stories, possibly because the ideologies contained within them actually support their party. (Bruni, 2016) Though it cannot provide specific answers, Gramsci’s theories can still provide an angle from which to being examining the complexity of the fake news issue. All of journalism and media has been made uncertain because of fake news, and there is much anxiety about what its future will be. It may have the answers, but the critical theories used within the field of media studies can provide scholars with the tools to study the media closely to determine the details of what is happening, and how best to respond.
Though much of my discussion has centered on scholarly applications of media studies theories, it is worth noting that familiarity with the field can still be useful for individuals in other academic areas, and outside of academia entirely. Because media is so present in modern life, many people are already at least somewhat familiar with the ideas and theories of media studies. With just a basic familiarity of its critical theories, people can have the academic tools necessary to better understand the world around them. This can occur within the popular press in order to spread at least a basic understanding of media studies to a large audience. For instance, scholars Jason Mittell and Chuck Tyron wrote an article published on vox.com for the general public. In it, they outline the history of the fake news phenomenon and speculate about its early origins in conservative talk radio. (Mittell & Tyron, 2016) The article is written in a non-scholarly and approachable manner, which means that it provides access to the media studies field to the general public. Media studies is good not just in a scholarly setting, but for everyone who consumes media as well.
The recent phenomenon of fake news has led to a proliferation of discourse about media, and how it should be handled in a society where media permeates seemingly everything. Media literacy is often offered as the answer to this perceived problem, but the very notion of media literacy is a flawed one. What people really mean, and what they actually ought to be advocating for is an increased awareness of the media studies field, and increased access to its theories. We live in a world that is dominated by media, and simply being able to consume it — media literacy — is no longer enough. What is actually needed is access to the tools and theories to think critically about it and analyze it — all of which is offered by media studies. Regardless of if you think that fake news is a problem to be solved, just being able to identify the issue is not enough. In order to begin changing it you need the skills and tools to understand how it works, all of which can be achieved through a strong media studies education.
Is this what it means for American to finally be great again?
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Maheshwari, S. (2016, November 20). How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html
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Mittell, J., & Tyron, C. (2016, November 21). America’s Fake News Problem Predates Facebook. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/culture/2016/11/21/13682574/fake-news-facebook-fox-news-conservative-radio
MLN. (2016). What is Media Literacy? Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://medialiteracynow.org/what-is-media-literacy/
Steinkopf-Frank, H. (2016, November 23). Electionland: How I Helped Investigate and Cover Voters’ Issues on Election Day. Retrieved from http://journalism.uoregon.edu/news/electionland-helped-investigate-cover-voters-issues-election-day/