Through the rise of social media and the internet, “fake news” has become an increasing problem within the U.S, despite this, misinformation has haunted America for hundreds of years. Misinformation has been rooted in human culture since the beginning of our existence, spreading through word of mouth, writing, or “news sources”. America has never been a strong opponent to this problem, with the first instances of widespread misinformation dating back to the founding of our nation, coming from some of our very founding fathers (Soll). Throughout the history of the U.S, misinformation has remained a constant factor of public attention, shifting its focus based on the issues of the time and the concerns of the American people. Despite being a constant factor of our history, misinformation has become an increasingly larger threat over the past 150 years, spawning a plethora of problems for the U.S at the national, local, and individual levels.
This topic has become more and more of interest to me over the course of Trump’s presidency and recent events such as the capital riots. If anyone had told me about the events that would take place during Trump’s presidency and the conspiracy theories or fake news that many would latch onto during our time, I would not have believed them. Even today, I am surprised by much of the fake news that I hear, and even more surprised by the amount of people that buy into it. At first I was annoyed by the current state of news in America and the people who follow fake stories, but due to constant exposure to the topic throughout recent years, I have come to wonder how the situation has come to be and how the culture behind it has manifested.
Photo taken during the capitol riot on January 6th
What you need to know:
Through the rise of the printing press during the 1800s and early 1900s “fake news” began to garner its first large audiences. Following the negative racial sentiments of the 1800s, some of the earliest instances of “fake news” were false stories of crimes committed by African Americans or slave uprisings, prompting violence throughout the country (Soll). These sorts of extreme stories showed up throughout much of the 1800s with other remarkable instances such as the expansion of race based fake stories to new immigrant populations, such as the irish, or outlandish stories of alien civilizations on the moon (“A Brief History of Fake News”). While these sensationalist stories may not have been the most believable to all readers, they helped gather attention and boost sales for the newspapers. This sensationalism helped certain newspapers to the ranks of financial superpowers, and gave way to a new era of journalism plagued with gossipy or exaggerated stories known as “yellow journalism” (Faue). This period took place over the early 1900s and was led by economic titans such as William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer who owned two of the largest newspapers in the country. Hearst, Pulitzer, and other large newspaper owners had more of a focus on selling newspapers than delivering the news. This can be illustrated through some of their quotes such as, “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it” (Hearst) or “Publicity, publicity, publicity is the greatest moral factor and force in public life” (Pulitzer). By exaggerating or “making mistakes” in their stories Hearst and Pulitzer were able to gain publicity which then brought them sales. The incentive for sales drove them to continue this trend which polluted parts of the journalism world for decades.
While misinformation or “yellow journalism” was at its peak in American history, it did not go unnoticed. Many readers became frustrated with the state of journalism and tried to do something about it. One reader wrote responding to an exaggerated interview with an American political figure, “He did not take into account the common sense of the American people and the sound basis of Admiral Dewey’s reputation for discretion” (Campbell). Many Americans were able to see straight through the sensationalist nature of many stories making many newspapers seem incredible. The consequences of yellow journalism also became noticed by most Americans especially with the start of the Spanish-American war which was partly prompted by false stories causing it to be coined the “media war” (Soll). Due to these factors yellow journalism began to fall out of power and was replaced with new credible sources such as the New York Times.
A political cartoon by Leon Barritt critizing William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer
America’s period of widespread trust in the news was short lived as new outlets for people to get information from entered the picture, one outlet being the internet. Since the internet’s inception in the 1980s, fake news has always existed within its different applications or websites. While for a long time many of these websites were satirical, early stages of very problematic misinformation could be seen through websites such as Martinlutherking.org, a website run by white supremacist aimed at discrediting Martin Luther King Jr’s work (Burkhardt). Due to the fact everyone is given a voice on the internet, this sort of problematic reporting only grew through “alternative” news sources and the eventual emergence of social media. Alternative news sources and people on social media often have a greater bias than that of the mainstream media, leading to much more opinionated and sometimes fake stories. A lack of substantial regulations added onto these factors caused the internet to exist as a wild west of news reporting.
While the internet is no longer the wild frontier it once was, there is still a lack of needed regulation on “news” sources. Emerging from the Trump administration while in the midst of a global pandemic and an incredibly divided time within our nation, America has fallen victim to fake news more than ever. According to a study from MIT from 2018, fake news travels across twitter 6 times faster than true stories and is 70% more likely to be retweeted (Dizikes). While the fact that fake news travels faster on social media might not be very surprising, the magnitude of the difference is alarming. Many Americans rely heavily on social media today for lots if not most of their news, as it is faster than news networks and more convenient. Due to this most of these people are exposed to fake news often, and as illustrated by the conclusions of the study, are decently likely to fall victim to these stories. Once one has fallen for one of these stories they are often led down a “rabbit hole” controlled by the social media’s algorithm, leading them to radical communities such as QAnon. It is not only the algorithm that leads them this way though, “many supporters of QAnon are very good at using social media in ways the average user doesn’t, so many supporters engage in what I would probably describe as coordinated inauthentic campaigns to get their message across on twitter, on facebook, and on other social media platforms”(“Reverb | The QAnon Effect”). This “rabbit hole” can lead a person to political extremes on both the right and the left and are often being influenced by these extremes.
The radical “rabbit holes” of the internet are one example of how social media could be amended or regulated. While it may be extremely hard for tech companies to control the flow of fake news, changes to their algorithms might have a huge impact on how fake news is able to travel. The less the algorithm leads people down the pipeline, the less incentive there will be for people to write fake news stories, as there will be less money made off of them. Stronger government assistance in promoting the news organizations and dealing with or pointing out fake stories might also be extremely impactful as the government is a source of news that everyone pays attention to no matter what community or political party they belong to. These changes most likely will not just appear in congress as a point of debate, so in order to see them come into the picture we must push for them in our different communities.
While these interventions from social media companies or the government might help, the responsibility to deal with fake news ultimately falls into our hands as the consumers of the news. Apart from many different organizations or non-profits fighting fake news which I have linked at the bottom, the fight against fake news must mostly take place at an individual level. In order to better avoid falling for fake stories we must be vigilant of everything we read from social media or the internet, fact check whenever something seems off, and not let our own emotions cause us to turn a blind eye. We must also look outside our “community” in order to find opposing opinions that we can learn from and realize our own biases.
It is impossible to ever completely solve the problem of misinformation, but through positive efforts we can return our society to a more honest and trustful one similar to the period America exhibited after yellow journalism. Hopefully through returning to this mindset as a nation we can once again become more unified.
Historical problem essay:
Current problems and Solutions essay:
Work cited and Consulted:
Organizations working to fight misinformation:
After reading through my paper has your perspective of news on the internet changed at all? How has misinformation affected your life?