Whose ‘Fake News’?

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Stephen Baskerville Professor, Patrick Henry College
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The thought police have devised a new angle to regulate the Internet and tell us what we may read, write, and say.  A self-appointed “task force” of Facebook employees who apparently dislike the information people convey through the social media network has apparently taken upon itself to decide which news it approves and which news must be suppressed because they consider it “fake.”  The alleged danger of allowing such a free exchange of information and thought is proven conclusively by the fact that Donald Trump was elected president.

Apparently, “fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season,” said one Facebook employee.  Liberal media outlets like Buzzfeed adopt this new term without scrutiny, as if we all readily understand this terrible new reality and must unite to end this scourge, despite the fact that most of us had never heard about it a short while ago.  So what is “fake news”?

Fake news seems to be information or views that some Facebook employees and Buzzfeed journalists disagree with:  news that might “play to partisan biases using false or misleading information that simply tells people what they want to hear.”  Like the Internet generally, Facebook scandalously allows views to be aired even from the great unwashed, information that has not been vetted by Columbia University journalism graduates.  So Facebook is instructed to “clamp down” on this.  Given that all these fabricated opinions are also protected by the First Amendment, perhaps we should all clamp down on that too.

Who decides which news is “real” and which is “fake” (because it might “play to partisan biases”)?  Those who are immune from partisan biases but deplore its role “during the entire campaign season” (and the result).  Some news is said to be flagrantly or obviously fabricated, but no one can draw this line, and it is precisely at the blurred lines and the gray zones that opinion, bias, partisanship will inevitably enter any decision on what to censor.

For some perspective, we might recall how often The New York Times and The Washington Post publish concocted news.  One might argue that when the Post is caught out it is publicly censured.  But this is only when its fabrications are obvious; the corollary is that it escapes with many more fabrications that are more subtle.  We hear no calls to suppress “fake news” from highbrow liberal-left journals like The New Republic; only when it is spread by the unauthorized hoi polloi (the rest of us).

(And of course there would be nothing “fake” – contrived perhaps, staged even, but not fake – about Mrs Clinton’s nonchalant but widely publicized stroll in the woods the day after losing a presidential election.)

Flagrant fabrications by establishment journals are treated as exceptions, and the offending writer is invariably sacrificed as a scapegoat on the altar of liberalism.  But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.  By this I mean that there is never any investigation to determine what ideological fixations permitted the lie to appear and spread because it serves a larger untruth that the liberal elites are already predisposed to hear.

After a 2014 story in Rolling Stone on “a brutal gang rape” went viral, it was quickly exposed as a hoax.  Moreover, many reputable scholars showed that it was part of a pattern of journalistic hoaxes – all involving accusations of rape pushed by radical feminists to claim an “epidemic” of campus rape.  “There is no such epidemic,” writes Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute.  “There is simply no reason to concede any factual legitimacy to the rape hysterics.”  As Ann Coulter observes, “From the Duke lacrosse team, the Columbia mattress girl, and the University of Virginia, the left has not been able to produce one actual rape on a college campus.”  Yet the New York Times regularly reports such accusations as if they are proven convictions and publishes no retractions.  “When it comes to feminist fantasies,” Coulter writes, “no one can believe anything the newspaper of record says.”

As the case unraveled, Cathy Young collected a sampling of the weasel words from journalistic weasels arguing that truth and facts do not matter and that innocence is no excuse.  The “investigation” by the Columbia Journalism Review contained nothing about the impact on falsely accused men and gave no indication that this episode was part of a pattern in which journalists join government officials in accusing innocent citizens who have no platform to defend themselves.  To excuse the fraud, CJR cited other accusations, all of which turned out to be equally fake.  It also offered no indication that this occurred because Rolling Stone is an outspokenly left-wing newspaper that routinely uses journalism for ideological purposes.  Indeed, it is very clear that CJR shares that agenda.

And we heard no calls for any “clampdown” on this fake news.

Maybe the truly fake news is that we have suddenly discovered and reified something called “fake news” that exists only among supporters of Donald Trump.

Stephen Baskerville is Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College and author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family.  His book, The New Politics of Sex, will be published by Wipf & Stock.