One of the most common phrases we heard throughout the 2016 presidential election was “fake news,” as the American public was inundated with stories from untrustworthy “media” outlets that ranged from exaggerations to flat-out lies. The confusion was aided not only by Donald Trump, a conspiracy theorist himself whose chief strategist (Breitbart’s Steve Bannon) is a fake news professional, but by the meddling of the Russian government, an entity exceptionally familiar with the concept. The dissemination of fake news (or as Trump associate Kellyanne Conway prefers to call it, “alternative facts”) had an immeasurable impact on the 2016 presidential election, and continues to play a frightening role in the fragmentation of our country – a role that those of us in higher ed. have an obligation to acknowledge, and work to diminish.
In some cases, this dissemination of fiction masquerading as fact has even resulted in violence and criminal activity: take the example of Edgar Maddison Welch, who in December entered Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. and opened fire with an assault rifle, provoked by a false conspiracy theory that Hilary Clinton campaign officials were abusing children on-site. The story that came to be called “pizzagate” was promoted on a number of far-right fake news sites, most notably the popular Infowars, run by infamous conspiracy-monger Alex Jones. Infowars has promoted a host of offensive lies over the past few years, including the theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax perpetrated by gun control advocates, rhetoric that has prompted some Jones fanatics to harass and threaten victims’ families.
…And the list goes on. The moral of the story? Fake news isn’t just politically problematic: it’s endangering people’s lives.