Phony news swamps legitimate journalism

Hillary Clinton has a lesbian lover, Michelle Obama is a transvestite, Donald Trump claimed at an evangelical Christian rally that "I'm gonna save this nation like Jesus saved Christians. Except, I'll be able to save you without some silly cross." These are some of the patently false news postings making the rounds of the Internet and specifically Facebook this campaign season.

An alarming plague of false information masquerading as legitimate journalism has swept through Facebook and other Internet sources that a growing number of Americans rely on for their news. One example: A fake post, falsely attributed to Time Magazine, in which the author asserted that Barack Obama had attacked the U.S. Constitution and fulminated about "plutocratic thugs with one hand on the money and the other on the government" repressing the lower classes. This supposedly was taken from a thesis Obama wrote while attending Columbia University. This post was picked up by conservative media and given legitimacy in spite of the fact that it was first published as fictional satire.

Once published, such a piece is given eternal life. There is no literary way to drive a stake through the heart of these sorts of satirical postings on the Internet. Instead they reappear over an ever-widening field of readers as Facebook users read and then share the postings on their own timelines. Facebook users apparently seldom check the authenticity of such postings before sharing them.

The problem is that Facebook readers, for whom these false articles affirm their political paradigms, indiscriminately re-post or share these items, contributing to their apparent legitimacy and longevity. Although the original sources of these fictional "news" articles generally have disclaimers that disclose the posted work is fictional and satirical, those disclaimers do not accompany the articles that are quickly re-posted by gullible or malicious readers. Subsequent readers, finding that the bogus articles reinforce their political beliefs, give them an ever broader reach by reposting them to their Facebook friends. And as indicated above with the phony Obama thesis, the mainstream media can be just as gullible as the average Facebook reader, leading to national exposure of an originally satirical article and the subsequent damage to a national political figure.

A recent check via Wikipedia disclosed 37 of these satirical websites. Here are a few that pop up on Facebook frequently:

The Onion: America's Finest News Source

Borowitz Report: New Yorker column

Free Wood Post: News That's Almost Reliable

The National Report: America's #1 Independent News Source

The Daily WTF: Curious Perversions in Information

In fairness, these websites disclose that their content is fictional and satirical. It is intended, hopefully, as light entertainment.

However, once posted to Facebook, those disclaimers evaporate as the false information expands like a toxic gas cloud in the blogosphere. And the tag lines following the websites' titles generally imply that they are a source of "news" not entertainment.

For example, The Onion bills itself as America's finest News Source; Andy Borowitz's report appears in New Yorker Magazine; and The National Report claims to be "America's #1 Independent News Source. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that gullible Facebook readers accept the fictional postings of these organizations as factual and just as reliable as information presented on television and in print by mainstream media outlets.

What I find frightening is how pervasive and persuasive these originally fictional/satirical postings are.

Potential voters are making decisions about presidential candidate's character and suitability for elected office on the basis of what they read on Facebook and other Internet sites. When so much of that information is intentionally false and misleading it perverts the democratic process.

Some news analysts have pointed to an effective disinformation campaign that harmed Al Gore's reputation in his presidential bid against George W. Bush. Some voters apparently saw Bush as the more honest, more credible candidate as Gore was saddled with, among other things, the false allegation that he claimed to have invented the Internet. In this current presidential campaign, and in the pestilent climate fostered by malicious rumors over the last eight years, the false allegations against Al Gore seem almost trivial.

The Internet has brought us wonderful opportunities to access important knowledge instantaneously, but it also brings a personal responsibility to verify the information we access electronically. Perhaps it also demands that websites do a better job of separating fact from fiction, news from malicious rumor. I'm afraid that it is too late to undo the damage that has been wrought by the avid re-posting of erroneous and denigrating rumors about the candidates in the current presidential election. This most viciously partisan campaign has presented voters with two deeply flawed candidates, mostly flawed by malicious attacks, originating as stated "satirical" fiction masquerading as legitimate "news."

Unfortunately, voters are gullible and have not taken the time to examine what they read with sufficient skepticism to filter out the patently false allegations about the candidates.

Loker is a Williamsburg author and lecturer.

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