Who’s Responsible for Policing Fake News?

Jackson Walker
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Jackson Walker

For many of us, gone are the days of reading the morning newspaper over a cup of coffee. Instead, the majority of U.S. adults now obtain their news via social media.[1] We’ve grown accustomed to having information at our fingertips, and when we come across an article or information that piques our interest, we can easily share it with just a few taps on our smartphone’s screen. But before we hit “share,” how often do we stop and think about whether the “news” we are about to disseminate may be completely fake?

For instance, many people read about the Pope’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President, about how the FBI Agent suspected in the Hillary Clinton email leaks was found dead, and about the bussing of anti-Trump protesters into Austin. Now what many people are reading about, however, is the fact that each of those stories was completely fake. Prior to the election, these and a number of other illegitimate news stories popped up online, often created solely for turning a profit and often directing readers to websites with domain names meant to sound like legitimate news outlets. Catchy titles took hold, and the stories blazed across the internet like wildfire, often spurred by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This onslaught of “fake news” has continued since the election, but has it been of any consequence? All signs seem to point to “yes.”

In the most recent example, a gunman entered Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, and opened fire with a military-style assault rifle. Fortunately no one was injured, but questions arose regarding what served as the impetus for such a senseless act. The answer: a flurry of online “news” stories reporting that the pizzeria was the center of a child kidnapping and sex trafficking operation led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta. Though all of these stories were fake, they successfully incited the shooter to act.

This is but one example. Even before the Comet Ping Pong shooting, President Obama recognized the potential harm this type of “news” may create and publicly condemned the spread of fake news, stating, “if we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” Facebook and Google are also onboard to stop the propagation of fake news in its tracks. Facebook initiated several test updates to curb the fake news permeating the site, including partnering with third-party fact checking organizations and making it easier for users to report news stories that appear illegitimate.[2] Google implemented a policy prohibiting ads from being placed on websites that publish fake news.[3]

But, in a nation where the First Amendment is a cornerstone of our society, the freedom of the press must continue to thrive, and the distribution of legitimate news should be promoted and encouraged. Some may wonder, though, who – or what – should be responsible for policing the spread of misinformation. And, how “fake” does news need to be for it to be considered not news at all? Though The Onion’s online masthead deems it “America’s Finest News Source,” what differentiates its satirical contents from the “fake” news many now seek to eradicate from the internet? Perhaps one could distinguish the two by arguing that The Onion does not try to convince readers that it is “real” news; perhaps its articles and photoshopped images, which often take on a tone of irony mixed with sarcasm, are understood to be in jest. But distinctions may not always be so clear.

Ultimately, shouldn’t we, as the consumers of the news, be responsible for finding ways to distinguish between what is “real” and what is “fake”? As Justice Douglas noted in his concurring opinion in United States v. Rumley,[4] certain publishers “bid for the minds of men in the market place of ideas,” and “in a community where men’s minds are free, there must be room for the unorthodox, as well as the orthodox, views.” While it is true that the First Amendment makes room for all viewpoints, we must ensure that blatant misinformation does not snuff out the space needed for the truth to thrive. Therefore, even though Facebook may be able to delegate the task of sorting the real from the fake to third-party fact checking sites, we must tackle this challenge ourselves. So, perhaps the way to the truth is for us, as readers, to look beyond the story, to evaluate the legitimacy of the source and engage in some independent fact checking on our own. And, in an age where we can access a portal to seemingly infinite information right from the palm of our hand, why shouldn’t we? Especially when taking those extra steps toward the truth can be accomplished with just a few more taps on the screen.

[1] http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/

[2] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2016/12/news-feed-fyi-addressing-hoaxes-and-fake-news/

[3] http://www.wsj.com/articles/google-pulled-into-debate-over-fake-news-on-the-web-1479159867

[4] 345 U.S. 41. (1953).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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