Using “Fake News” As a Schoolyard Taunt

A fellow professor told me a disturbing story last week over lunch. A student wore an Obama Hope t-shirt to the campus café, where a Trump supporter marched up and poured his soda on her head and laughed. “Get used to it, honey. Trump’s president now. No more coddling you liberal fake news babies.”

You probably remember the other week when Donald Trump told a room full of reporters that CNN was fake news. All of a sudden, a term used to identity a phenomenon has become a schoolyard taunt by the alt-right. This era has been coming for a long time, though. Fake news has been around for decades, but it’s always lived on the edge of our attention. Now, prominent politicians on all sides are accusing each other of fabricating information. It’s an easy way out. When you shout “Fake News!” you’re excusing yourself from debate.

Sometimes, it feels like we live on the lips of Orwell’s nightmare. Treating someone with a basic level of respect means you’re coddling them. Exercising your right to free speech now means you’re whining and complaining. A handful of my students now ask questions like, “How could you not support Trump?” Their eyes glaze over when their peers try to explain.

One of my students recently wrote this in her paper: “We should use Bible verses to scare homosexuals into better behavior. Perhaps if they knew stoning was once the punishment for their crimes, they might change their ways.”

Another student argued against vaccines. When I emailed her a link to the CDC’s website, she dismissed the agency as part of a conspiracy.

We met to talk about her views. I asked, “A conspiracy to do what, exactly?”

She struggled a moment. “To trick us into vaccinating when it’s not necessary.”

“But why? What would the CDC have to gain from that?”

“You see, that’s part of it. They have all these secrets. We don’t even know why.” She offered a weak suggestion that greed could be the motivation.

“A conspiracy to do what, exactly?”

Make one more try, I thought. I pointed out that vaccines were relatively cheap. When my university lost my vaccination records, I had to get them all done over. The total cost didn’t amount to a hundred bucks. Guys pay that much for a handful of Viagra. And let’s not forget Mylan hiking the price of EpiPens from $100 to $600 last year. Now, that sounds like a conspiracy.

The comparably affordable price of vaccines to other drugs undermines the anti-vaxxer argument. Plausibility doesn’t friend well with conspiracy theories. Or so I thought. The student listened to me with wide eyes. She paused. For a moment, I thought I’d gotten through to her.

Instead, she gasped. “See? That’s proof. Look at how awful these drug companies are. No wonder they want to push vaccines down our throats, too.”

A new article by Joseph E. Uscinski in Reason connects the recent talk about fake news to conspiracy theory. People aren’t more likely to believe conspiracies than they were a few years ago, but they’ve always used some of the same mental strategies. They don’t simply dismiss information that contradicts their views, they actually go out of their way to incorporate it into their existing belief systems. Suddenly, my argument in favor of vaccines became the opposite. It helped reinforce the views my student already held.

fake news

Fibonacci Blue — Flickr

It’s maddening to watch. But that’s exactly what the alt-right have been doing. They’re pros at appropriation. It explains how Breitbart got wind of fake news, and all of a sudden started telling their readers to beware of it. Now, any time I send links to alt-right trolls on Twitter, they don’t even read before dismissing them as fake. Anything that comes from CNN, The New York Times, or NPR is fake news to them. Why? Because it disagrees with what they somehow already know.

One dude recently tried to convince me that Obama wasn’t an American citizen. Yes, people still believe that. I’d never spoken to one of these people before. I was fascinated, so I kept tweeting back to him. I sent him links to newspapers and websites that had debunked the birther argument. What did this guy do? He dismissed them all as fake or unreliable. “If you want the truth,” he told me. “You have to do your own digging.”

You might wonder what kind of truth hunting. I’ll tell you. Google. Yes, this guy had googled Obama’s college transcript. He’d found “the original” and concluded for himself that the transcript somehow disproved Obama’s official birth document. He ignored me when I pointed out that anyone could’ve made that “college transcript.” How did he know the transcript was real?

“You might wonder what kind of truth hunting. I’ll tell you. Google.”

The saddest thing here? It’s just like Uscinski says, information doesn’t really change people’s minds. It never had much effect to begin with. We’ve worried that we’re slipping into a post-fact society ever since Trump surfaced with his birther bullshit. In truth, we’ve slummed there for a long time. We’re just finally realizing it. Maybe that’s a good thing. People have always picked the bits of evidence that fit what they want to believe. If you already don’t like Obama, you’re more likely to accept he’s not a citizen.

If facts don’t matter, though, does anything? What your friends think, how you were raised, how often you go to church, whether you cry at the sight of injured kittens. Turns out, those deeper aspects of your identity shape the way you see everything. That’s why the G.O.P has recently become fond of the phrase “alternative facts.” Make no mistake, alternative facts go as far back as fake news. We just have a new word to describe their effects. Thanks, Kellyanne.

Uscinski’s framework is the only way to understand Trump. Think about his recent tweets about investigating voter fraud. Wasn’t he dismissing those claims a few weeks ago when they came from Jill Stein? Now that Clinton has won the popular vote, even without the massive recount that Stein wanted, Trump wants to know “the truth.” He only accepts the truth when it reinforces his ego.

Trump’s allies and supporters are happy to forget what he said last week. They don’t care if he backs out on his campaign promises, wastes their money on a useless wall, or never releases his taxes. They like Trump. He looks and talks like them. He’s rich, like they want to be. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Things like the birther argument don’t even matter. You can make up whatever crazy shit you want these days, on either side, and a majority of people will believe you if you already share the same values.

To some extent, we’ve always been able to make up lies about our opponents. Plant reasonable doubt. You don’t have to prove it, just raise suspicions. That’s what lawyers do.

Before fake news, we had chain emails. A few years ago, I remember having to dispel rumors about Obama being a Muslim, a terrorist, in league with Osama bin Laden. The student had printed the email out to show me. “See?” she said. “It’s real.”

“But there’s a problem,” I countered. “Bin Laden is already dead. In fact, Obama ordered the mission that assassinated him.”

The student looked down a moment, then rubbed her chin. “But what if that’s what the government wants us to think?” Just like my students now, my students then could reformulate anything to fit their preconceptions.

But what if that’s what the government wants us to think?”

I’m just as guilty. When I see a tweet saying Trump did or said something stupid, I sometimes retweet without thinking. Why? Because I already know Trump’s an idiot. I’m not really forwarding information. I’m reminding the world I don’t like him.

My boyfriend called me out on this behavior recently. I responded, “So what? I’m not surprised if Trump did that. He’s already done so many other terrible things I’ll look it up later.”

Then I caught myself and fact-checked. As it turned out, the information was true. But that’s not quite the point. The point is we’re all a little bit guilty of spreading fake news. Now that we’ve named it, maybe we’ll do a better job dealing with it. One thing is clear: we should use the term “fake news” responsibly, not as a childish insult to dismiss those we disagree with.


Featured image by Sean P. Anderson via Flickr.