Fake news and other fallacies

by Mellissa Martinez


In the early 90s while visiting a remote island in Greece, I was approached by an elderly Greek woman clutching a copy of the National Enquirer. The cover featured a picture of an outstretched hand holding a fully formed dog the size of a pinky finger. The woman jabbed at the image in awe showing it to me. She wondered if we actually had pinky-sized dogs in America. Politely, I responded to her slowly and clearly, “No ma’am, it’s not real. It’s fake news.”

I had no idea that many years later the expression “fake news” would become such a controversial component of our national discourse. In fact, six months ago the term was almost nonexistent. Perhaps it was occasionally used in reference to satirical sites, such as “The Onion.” A headline like Mother Still Searching for Preschool that Focuses Exclusively on her Son is clearly not real, but does hint at elements of reality. Every once in a while, a duped reader protests with a Facebook rant, “those helicopter parents are so entitled!” Like my younger self in Greece, the poster’s friends must tactfully point out that it’s not real. It’s fake news. 

In recent months, however, “fake news” has become a widely lobbed insult aimed even at traditionally respected media outlets. This has left me wondering, what does it really mean anymore?

According to one article in Slate, the expression comes largely from the recent presidential campaign, when “online entrepreneurs and pranksters found that they could reach huge audiences via social media by fabricating sensational stories that played to readers’ partisan biases.” Shockingly, it has been discovered that a large number of these stories were invented by Macedonian teens who found that they could make money by pilfering incredibly real-looking but entirely fabricated (politically biased) stories on Google and Facebook.

One might assume that these stories would be easy to spot. I, for one, saw Facebook links to seemingly legitimate articles stating that Hillary Clinton was involved in sex scandals or that Donald Trump had been endorsed by the Pope. When these stories appeared on my feed, my brain immediately went to the pinky-sized dog scenario—not real—but apparently, this was not the case with everyone.

A recent study out of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education shows that college students were “duped again and again” by fake news stories. Although Stanford students should be savvy enough to spot a fake, the study shows overwhelmingly that they are not. It asserts that if they can be bamboozled, it is plausible that older, less computer-proficient adults may also believe false news stories.

I am never one to lament a new addition into our lexicon, but the problem with “fake news” is that it no longer describes National Enquirer-like publications, satirical sites and purposeful pranks. It has quickly become overused and corrupted.

In just a few short months, I have seen Facebook friends smack the “fake news” stamp on old stories, and on stories they disagree with or simply don’t understand. When Trump called CNN “fake news,” he took all power away from the words. They became the equivalent of sticking fingers in one’s ears and saying “I am not listening to you.”

As for Trump’s very own tall tales, his writers are already coming up with a variety of expressions to defend them. In fact, his top advisor unveiled the first coinage this week—“alternative facts”—which was eagerly embraced by his supporters. I suppose there will be more where that came from.

The American public will have to endure “substitute actualities,” “back-up bottom-lines” and “replacement certainties” as there is really no telling what he might say (or do).


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