Even before a North Carolina man fired an assault rifle inside a Washington D.C. restaurant (B”H, injuring no one), under the belief that it was being used by Hillary Clinton as a hub for human trafficking, the concept of “fake news” had become the center of much attention.
Edgar Welch, who drove 350 miles from his home to investigate the allegations, later admitted, in what might be the understatement of the year, that “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
It takes some intelligence of the mundane, not investigatory, sense, to separate fact from fiction these days, especially for those who, like Mr. Welch, listen to radio programs or frequent online sites that peddle conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately, there is money to be made by purveying fabricated “facts.” A teenager in Macedonia illustrated that (actual) truth by recounting how he earned more than $60,000 (in a town where the average income is $4,800 per year) in six months from advertisements accompanying his posting of made-up stories. Fake news is also profitably produced in Russia and Romania, as well as here in the U.S.
The most popular stories, the Macedonian young man said, were negative ones about then-presidential candidate Ms. Clinton.
But, while the bulk of fake news appealed to those negatively disposed toward the Democrats, some anti-Republican untruths have also been spread, like post-election stories about potentially pivotal voting irregularities that never were.
The recent presidential campaign proved particularly nourishing fodder for some people seeking to make an unethical living. But there is little reason to believe that fake news, as long as advertisers see it as a means of placing their products before gullible people with disposable income, will disappear.
Part of what fuels the broad acceptance of bogus “news” as accurate is what social scientists call “confirmation bias,” the idea that people selectively seek out information that confirms their pre-existent beliefs, no matter how suspect the source might be. That was likely a major factor in the recent past’s politics-related fake news.
But there is also the simple fact that many people just don’t discriminate among media. If something appears publicly, in an electronic or print form, there is an automatic and broad assumption that it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t true.
An assumption, of course, that itself isn’t true.
Traditional media pundits and reporters have taken the lead in decrying the proliferation of fake news.
But there is irony in that, since much of the “non-fake news” that those respected media report is tainted itself. In more subtle ways, to be sure, than what is produced by people like the Macedonian teen. But subtle errors or biases in major media reportage, precisely because of the respectability of their venue, can be even more irresponsible than clearly outrageous claims.
Few news media enjoy more stellar reputations than The New York Times. That newspaper, not long ago, implied that providing separate hours for men and women at public swimming pools that service traditional communities violates the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law, when it, in fact, violates neither. Not to mention that the very same paper, months earlier, carried a clearly positive story about separate swimming hours for Muslim men and women in a Toronto housing project.
More troubling still was that paper’s assertion on more than one occasion that the Har HaBayis is a place that “Jews widely believe was the site of the Temples.” At one point, the paper even characterized the question of “whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples…” as having “never [been] definitively answered.”
Thankfully, that article was quickly amended to say that what was never definitively answered is only where precisely on the Har HaBayis the Batei Mikdash stood, “not whether the temples had ever existed there.”
But that correction came only after the paper subtly bolstered for years the widespread Arab delusion that the focal point of Jewish tefillos for millennia has no demonstrable connection to Jews — a notion that fuels other popular Arab delusions, like the belief that Israel is digging beneath the mosques on the site to destroy them.
And mainstream secular Jewish publications have regularly promoted unholy agendas in the guise of news for many years.
The war against fake news is a righteous one. There is no lack in our world of either greed or gullibility, the fuel and fodder for that problem. But fighting outright fakery shouldn’t blind more established “mainstream” media from looking inward, as well, realizing that half-truths are no less pernicious than outright fabrications.