Fake News and the Media Industry

The election of Donald Trump spurred conversation about a concept deep rooted in history but still shocking. Fake news. According to Jeffery Berry of the Oxford University Press’s Blog, the tactic of using fake news to influence and change public opinion in drastic ways has been used since the time of Benjamin Franklin. However, the rise of such news in modern times and its perpetuation by a presidential candidate, and now, president, has been, to put it lightly, unprecedented.

Berry differentiates the fake news of today from the time of Franklin with one distinct point. Today, fake news can be distributed cheaply and quickly. There is no need for printers and there are no distribution costs. And as a result, fake news has become all the more an effective tool to change public opinion in radical ways. Berry explains that the Internet is the “ultimate equalizer,” stating that “Anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection can be in the news business.” Then what does this hold for the future of journalism? If fake news can permeate an election and change the course of history with short, snappy, sensational stories with no factual basis, then how will the news industry respond? How will it save its credibility?

A study conducted by Team LEWIS, titled “The Role of Fake News on Media and Brand Consumption” analyzed how adult Americans responded to the flow of fake news and how they currently view media and news outlets after exposure to so much fake news. According to the study, 78% of people surveyed agreed that “fake news has damaged the credibility of the media industry.”

The origins of fake news and its mass marketability stems from its source. According to Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzow of Stanford University, “62 percent of US adults get news on social media…the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories…many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them.” And alongside these trends, the trust in mainstream media has been declining rapidly overall, in among Republicans and Democrats alike. Gentzow and Allcott conclude with a note of positivity, referencing social media platforms and their attempts to clean fake news out and to “flag” incorrect reporting. However, Gentzow and Allcott end by stating, “In our theoretical framework, these actions may increase social welfare, but identifying fake news sites and articles also raises important questions about who becomes the arbiter of truth.”

The declining credibility in the media industry rests on this concept of the “arbiter of truth.” When traditional news sources are left behind in favor for shorter and more “sensational” news found on Facebook or Twitter, the perception of “truth” shifts. And the exponentially growing and essentially partisan nature of news sources does nothing to mend the gap between what Republicans and Democrats consider “truthful.”

But the problem is not as inflated as it seems. Gentzow, in an interview with NPR, states that the “in order for fake news stories to have changed the outcome of the election, seeing one fake news story would need to be as persuasive, have as large a chance of changing people's votes, as seeing 36 TV commercials.” The study found that only 14-15% of people recalled specific fake news stories when tested, a far cry from the way fake news has been portrayed in general. But the impacts of false news have been great, even if it didn’t change the course of the election by such a vast amount. The impact it has had lies in how Americans view media and how polarization has affected the media industry as a whole. The “arbiter of truth,” to quote Gentzow and Allcott, is now different for everyone, creating a dangerous environment where everything considered truthful can be also considered false.