The phrase "fake news" has attracted a lot of attention and inspired a lot of anxiety recently. Untrue rumors resonate with public opinion because they are (1) shocking, (2) seem to have some kernel of believability and (3) represent what people would like to believe. So ironically, the attention-grabbing discovery of fake news in recent months is itself a fake discovery because misperception, misdirection and misunderstanding in public opinion were not exactly invented in 2016.
The sudden interest in fake news after the election served a purpose for many — it helped explain a result that was for them otherwise inexplicable. Hillary Clinton herself spoke out on the issue in Washington late last year. Among other things, she said: "Fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn't about politics or partisanship. Lives are at stake." But Clinton is wrong when she says it isn't about politics or partisanship. It's all about politics and partisanship. Deranged individuals will do deranged things with or without fake news. Fake news isn't new. Stories about Elvis and UFOs, fake moon landings and 9/11 being secretly planned by the CIA and Mossad have been around for years.
What is new is a culture of political polarization that energizes and glorifies the rumor mills. Public Policy Polling reports:
• 40 percent of Trump voters insist that he won the national popular vote to only 49 percent who grant that Clinton won it and 11 percent who aren't sure.
• 73 percent of Trump voters think that George Soros is paying protesters against Trump, with only 6 percent who think that's not true and 21 percent who aren't sure one way or the other.
• 67 percent of Trump voters say that unemployment increased during the Obama administration, to only 20 percent who say it decreased.
• Only 41 percent of Trump voters say that the stock market went up during the Obama administration; 39 percent say it went down and another 19 percent say they're not sure.
The implication of Clinton's speech about fake news is that something needs to be done. "It's imperative," she said, "that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives." What does she have in mind? A Federal Truthiness Commission?
Weird rumors don't cause political polarization. It's the other way around. There is a reason so many people are open to alternative news sources. They don't trust establishment news. They feel that the biggest fake news story of all is the much-touted economic recovery that somehow hasn't yet reached the doorstep of their trailer or their rental walk-up.
Katherine Cramer's The Politics of Resentment, based on interviews with rural Wisconsinites, reveals that the those citizens feel they are ignored and "just hung out to dry" by the city folk who have all the power and derive all the benefits from government largess. A content analysis of the local rural newspapers revealed that news coverage there reflected the same journalistic norms as the bigger city papers. The resentment wasn't being fanned by the local media. It didn't need to be. A fancy panel of government or journalistic experts officially condemning fake news stories would only give them more credence.
There is pressure on Mark Zuckerberg to use his Silicon Valley smarts to magically eliminate fake news from the Facebook news feed. He's skeptical. His concerns are worth noting.
Identifying the "truth" is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.
Forget the suits and pantsuits. Mark, the guy in the gray T-shirt, has it right.
W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at New York University and author of "The Digital Difference" (Harvard University Press, 2016). Neuman, who will speak at the fifth annual St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs today through Friday, wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. Find more details at stpetersburgintheworld.com. (And a final note: Facebook has recently partnered with fact-checkers who are part of the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network — including the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact — to flag bogus content.)