Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential election continues, much of the media’s focus has been not just on Russian hacking but also on “fake news” that the Russians propagated online. One of the Russians’ goals, of course, was to elect Donald Trump as president and now fuel his support. Just this week, NPR published an article on Russian “Twitter bots” that posed as Midwestern Republicans prior to the election and continue to do so to amplify patently false and conspiratorial tweets by the President. In response to criticism, social media platforms like Facebook are developing plans to fight “fake news” shared on its site.
But as the media decries Trump’s war on the truth, many have forgotten that the anti-Trump movement doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth and that Trump and Republicans don’t have a monopoly on “fake news”. While far-right stories like the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory or the Muslim church-burning mob in Germany grab headlines and are quickly debunked, the amount of misinformation and “fake news” on the left has started to swell under Trump as well. Whether or not these left-wing falsehoods are as dangerous as those on the right is not a question this article will attempt to answer; rather, the central question of this article is whether or not the left has its own sources of misinformation, and whether or not people on the left are better at spotting fake news than those on the right.
Much of the misinformation on the left, as with that on the right, comes from blogs. Back in February, the left-wing blog AlternativeMediaSyndicate.com published an article claiming that police officers had burned down the camps of activists at Standing Rock and destroyed their tipis. The story was almost too shocking to be true and offered up the clearest evidence of overreach by a supposed white supremacist police state.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), the article turned out to be fake. Not only was the news debunked by the left-leaning Snopes, but the article featured an image of burning tipis not from Standing Rock, but from a 2007 HBO film. That photo ended up being shared over 270,000 times on Facebook.
This is not to say that there weren’t instances of police brutality and excessive force used against Native American demonstrators. Last November, there were multiple reports that police used water cannons in below-freezing temperatures, and shot people in the head with non-lethal rounds. So naturally, when liberals saw the article published by AlternativeMediaSyndicate.com, their preconceived notions were confirmed. While these notions are based on real evidence and facts, it does not mean that every story about police brutality at Standing Rock is true.
More recently, on my own Twitter timeline, I saw that one of my friends retweeted an article from Out Magazine, a news outlet with over 192,000 followers on Twitter, that was titled, “BREAKING: Trump Administration Removes LGBTQ People from 2020 Census.” Naturally, I was shocked and felt fiery anger deep down. But rather than just read the headline, I clicked on the link and read the article.
The “real” news turned out to be nothing of the sort the headline implied. The Census Bureau, which has never included sexual orientation in its survey, chose to continue that policy for its 2020 survey, though many had hoped it would include something of the sort. Not only did this decision not come from the White House, but it did not “remove” LGBTQ people from the census.
Again, whether or not this decision is anti-LGBTQ is beside the point. The tweet ended up receiving over 9,000 retweets, and other tweets quoting it received over 17,000 retweets. Most of the people who see it will not bother to read the actual article, and will only see the headline. It’s irresponsible journalism at best, fake news at worst.
Yes, Trump has considered an executive order that would scrap workplace protections for LGBTQ people. And yes, he wants to increase the political power of churches. But again, that doesn’t mean every headline about Trump being anti-LGBTQ is true.
Often on platforms like Twitter, official-looking accounts putting out official-sounding news don’t even need to bother citing a source. Earlier this week, the Twitter account @AfricaFactsZone tweeted about a Zimbabwean journalist named Leonard Makombe. Supposedly, there were white tourists in Uganda who refused to share a pool with him. Again, another supposed incident of bigotry and hatred that made my blood boil.
But once again, I dug a little deeper. It turned out that this tweet was based on a tweet by Makombe himself, which he has since deleted. The only news outlet that reported on this story was Zimbabwe News Live, and their story’s only source is Makombe’s now-deleted tweet. But this didn’t stop the AfricaFactsZone tweet from getting nearly 5,000 retweets. What’s even more shocking is that a different tweet quoting the original has received over 130,000 retweets.
Of course, racist incidents aren’t infrequent at all. But again, that doesn’t justify spreading information about an incident of dubious veracity to hundreds of thousands of people.
When people are too willing to have their worldview confirmed, it leads to the acceptance of all stories they run across on the Internet that reinforce that worldview. It leads to an acceptance of stories like that of the Muslim college student in New York City who was supposedly attacked by Trump supporters on the subway, but fabricated the entire event.
It leads to viral photos like that of the small child who was supposedly handcuffed at Dulles Airport after Trump’s travel ban, but was actually just a photograph of a child with play handcuffs at school in 2015.
It leads to articles like the one about a Jewish family that was supposedly chased out of Lancaster County because families in the community believed they had caused the cancellation of an elementary school Christmas play, even though they had actually just gone on a previously-scheduled vacation.
We can’t allow this kind of misinformation to go unheeded and unchecked. Especially under the Trump administration, when facts are thrown to the wind, we cannot immediately jump on every unconfirmed or unverified news story just to reinforce a political point. More often than not, the story will turn out to be exaggerated or even completely made up. This doesn’t even address misleading articles and journalistic malpractice at generally reputable outlets.
As liberals become more anxious under the Trump administration, they are often more willing to believe any negative story about Trump. In fact, researchers at Stanford found that most Stanford students couldn’t even identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source. As Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor at Snopes put it,
“If [a story] arouses an emotional response in you—if you see the headline and go, I can’t believe this, I’m so angry—then it’s probably something you need to check against something else.”
Featured image courtesy of The New York Times.