Back when I was with the Union of Concerned Scientists, I ran a nice little feature called the Hybrid Timeline as part of our (Webby Award-winning — yep, still bragging a decade later) HybridCenter website. In an effort to combine both issue and consumer advocacy, we looked to give folks the most up-to-date information on how the hybrid car market developed, what was on the market currently, and what looked to be coming down the pike.
As we wrangled with EPA folks and Congress over the minutiae of weight-based fuel economy rules and whether pee-based technologies could be an effective particulate matter reduction technology for Diesel engines (I kid you not), it was actually quite nice to take a bit of a mental break and just surf the Web for news of a cool new car that might push the Prius off its perch atop the fuel-efficiency world.
At one point, I found a news story that sounded really exciting. Toyota had made a concept hybrid supercar and it looked sweet. Most concept cars never see the production line, as they are more intended to show what the technology could do, rather than be something that gets the full production treatment. But this one site had a story saying that Toyota decided to go ahead with the car, nicknaming it the “Priapus.” Now, this was before Tesla really even got off the ground, so the idea that a carmaker was going to go high-end with a hybrid was extremely exciting. So much so for me that I posted it on our website without giving it a second thought.
After a few months, one of our engineers was perusing the site and said, “Uh, Scotty, have you actually taken a look at the site for the “Priapus?” I think it’s actually something like The Onion. I went to the site, and sheepishly saw that it did say “satire” in the header. That said, I reread the article, and despite the fact that it was from a satire site, didn’t really find anything particularly funny about the article. Perhaps, I thought, the author mixed in satire and fact.
So I went to the author and asked whether, perhaps, this was true, and if so where he got the information. He responded quickly and succinctly, noting that anyone who might take the name “Priapus” seriously must be someone with, shall we say, special needs.
I think he was being satirical.
That was my first real experience with what we are now calling “Fake News.” What it showed me was how much I personally was willing to look past in order to reinforce my own hopes, and how easy it was now in the age of the internet to see anything on the screen as potentially legitimate.
My mistake was pretty innocuous, all things considered. I admitted my mistake and removed the Priapus from the timeline. Not even once did it cross my mind to arm myself, drive to Toyota’s headquarters, and self-investigate as to whether the Pripus was really heading to market.
But that’s where we have evolved. A few years back, we all got a giggle out of when the Chinese government would confuse an article from The Onion with actual fact. But now, what we are calling “Fake News” is a cottage industry, going beyond cherry-picking of facts and gross exaggerations to creating outright lies. And whether the end game is political or financial (from articles I’ve read, the latter seems more often the case), this phenomenon is now a common and disturbing part of our dialogue.
Now, there are far better places than this to get excellent information about the sources, motivations, and impacts of so-called “Fake News” than this blog. I bow to the expertise of excellent investigative journalists and technology experts who are covering this, some of whom I’ve linked to in this post. What I want to talk about is the fact that I think we are already losing the war of words with the term we have so far chosen.
To be blunt, “Fake News” just doesn’t cut it. It is overly simplistic, implying only that what you are reading is not true. Jon Stewart would often call his program “fake news.” As noted, satire sites have been doing this for years, occasionally tricking the random dictator or clean car advocate. Grouping in those who plant false and conspiratorial stories, sometimes even using false major network headers to hoodwink the public, have essentially been grouped into the same aggregate. That both confuses and lessens what has become a growing, serious threat to discourse in our society, particularly our kids.
Worse still, the term “Fake News” has already been corrupted. Donald Trump has cited major news sources being wrong about the election result as another example of Fake News. Of course, this is in no way the same thing, but it has allowed those that profit and are ideologically strengthened by the propagation of lies-as-news to not only co-opt the term, but help to further erode confidence in genuine investigative journalism by branding it with the same brush. And, sadly, the media itself has been complicit in reinforcing this muddled perception.
In the old days when print mattered, it was fairly easy to get a sense of what was real and what was fake. Print cost money, so the difference between, let’s say, a thoughtful-yet-conservative source like the National Review was easy to discern from the tinfoil hat crowd, who published amateurish pamphlets in far smaller numbers. But in the age of the Internet, it is now much harder for even a discerning reader to tell the difference. Frankly, most mainstream news sources these days just look like filler for the sea of click-bait ads that generate the revenue. This reinforces a false equivalence among sources of information.
And so with that, I would ask those concerned about this phenomenon to end the use of the term, “Fake News.” We need something that better, and I believe we already have a term in our online lexicon that covers it:
What we are seeing with these stories are nothing more than a new wrinkle on the Nigerian Prince just needing your bank account information to send you his riches, or that irresistible erectile dysfunction treatment just begging you to click through to virus-land. Whether it be clicks-for-profit or malicious political tampering, we’re just seeing folks looking to dump crap online for the purpose of their own gain. That is a big difference between a satire site, or ideologically-driven commentary that might cherry-pick facts to suit their world view. The latter IS an issue, and a significant one, but it is distinct in both its problems and its impact.
So call it SPAM News. Or Social SPAM. Or just plain SPAM. Or, hey, come up with a better term that encapsulates not only the outright falsehood, but the malicious nature of this phenomenon—I’m all ears. But I believe the longer we call it “Fake News” the more we turn a pressing problem into more white noise on the web. This is an issue that needs more than identification, it requires stigmatization.
And so I ask all you readers, posters, and writers out there to please help not just educate, but change how we converse about SPAM in the news. Because if we hope to have any chance to have a real dialogue about real issues, we cannot be entitled to our own facts.