Fake News: What is the Truth?

Published: December 12, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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We are standing on a precipice of an Alt-Reality where self-serving falsehoods are driving out truth and objectivity. Goodbye Walter Cronkite; hello Alt-Deceivers.


Fake news stories have quickly taken on a life of their own. Part of this is due to the hyperpartisanship of the recent election cycle. Another part is due to Donald Trump shamelessly pushing false information at rallies and in interviews.

Perhaps the most sensational, and ludicrous, was Trump’s support of a conspiracy theory in which Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, associated with Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the weeks leading up the president’s murder. The “proof,” Trump says, is in a photo that purports to show the elder Cruz standing next to Oswald working in the latter’s Far Play for Cuba Committee. The original story was reported in The National Enquirernot exactly a citadel of credible journalism.

Two months later, the day after the Republican convention where he is formally nominated as a presidential candidate, Trump, incredibly, revives the story.

The truth:

“Trump touted the national tabloid [The National Enquirer],” FactCheck.org writes (July 22),  “as a credible source worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, and said the newspaper would not have run the photo if it was ‘wrong.’ Moreover, Trump said, the Cruz camp ‘never denied’ that it was Rafael Cruz in the photo with the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

“That’s all nonsense,” FactCheck adds before taking us through a serious reality check.

“The larger problem, experts say, is less extreme but more insidious,” The New York Times writes (Dec. 6.). … ‘There are an alarming number of people who tend to be credulous and form beliefs based on the latest thing they’ve read, but that’s not the wider problem,’ said Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. ‘The wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things.’

“He described the thinking like this: ‘There’s no way for me to know what is objectively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own evidence. We’ll ignore the facts because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.’ ”

That’s not just sad, it’s dangerous for democracy as a whole. If people are unwilling to believe facts when presented by respected and reliable sources, how are they going to make informed decisions about their lives? If they believe that everything is open to interpretation how will those same citizens make responsible choices about the people and policies that affect us all?

Remember the scores of parents who falsely believed that the decades-old researched Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism in their children?

“Narrowly defined,” The Times continues, “ ‘fake news’ means a made-up story with an intention to deceive, often geared toward getting clicks. But the issue has become a political battering ram, with the left accusing the right of trafficking in disinformation, and the right accusing the left of tarring conservatives as a way to try to censor websites. In the process, the definition of fake news has blurred.”

The Times’ interviewed retired business owner Larry Laughlin who says that he enjoys conservative commentator and author Mark Dice.

“Mr. Dice,” The Times writes, “has promoted conspiracy theories that the Jade Helm military training exercise last year was preparation for martial law and that the Sept. 11 attacks were an ‘inside job.’ But Mr. Laughlin likes him for what he said was his humorous political commentary and his sarcastic man-on-the-street interviews.”

However, Laughlin has a more personal reason for accepting questionable news stories.

“ ‘Fake news is subjective,’ Mr. Laughlin said. ‘It depends on who’s defining it. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ ” …

“ ‘My struggles in life are just dismissed,’ he said, recalling being lectured by one of his children’s liberal friends at a party in his large home. ‘You have a nice house and got it made because you are a white guy.’ There are all of these preconceived notions that I’m a racist, idiot, a bigot, and oh, uneducated.’ ”

“He feels alienated from the conventional news media for some of the same reasons. ‘It’s like an inside joke for people on the left, and we are the butt of the joke,’ he said of one left-leaning website. ‘At some point, we stopped listening.’ ”

While I agree that both sides in this election cycle were guilty of being dismissive of the other, there is a steep downside to reacting to disrespectful behavior by ceding your thinking or belief system over to discredited conspiracy theories and fake news.

However, we who believe in honest research and valid facts should not have to handhold those who “feel” politically disenfranchised and feel driven to believe a social media posting or website with dubious information more than the truth.

From an ethical perspective, if you want to pick up a copy of The National Enquirer and enjoy reading about some silly theory that Lee Harvey Oswald and Rafael Cruz may have been in cahoots to murder Kennedy, more power to you. But if you rely on high-profile officials, commentators or social media sites with dubious information in which to make political and personal decisions, you are not doing your due diligence as a citizen. You are, in fact, degrading genuine knowledge.

“The truth is out there” as X-Files’ Mulder and Scully say. For most of us, however, it is not that difficult to sort the wheat from the considerable volume of chaff.

Up Next: How do you tell the fake from the credible news stories? (Hint: It’s a little common sense.)


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