It’s not as if fake news in America came into existence alongside the tide known as the Trump presidency—the hucksters, foreign propagandists, conspiracy theorists, and fabricators have always been here—but if ever there was a year when purposefully misleading or false stories hit their stride, 2017 might have been it. We were told that an ISIS leader was captured at a US airport, and that Shariah law was instituted in Utah and other states. A study found that 25 million votes for Hillary Clinton were “completely fraudulent,” and the Las Vegas massacre was carried out by antifa, or ISIS, or the Illuminati, or somehow all three. The lies went on and on, picking up where 2016’s catalogue of nonsense left off. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s child sex trafficking ring run out of a pizzeria, or Sarah Palin banning Muslims from “entering” her daughter? How about Alec Baldwin dying, and Trump winning the electoral vote and the popular vote?)
But now we’re at the dawn of a fresh year, privy to the forces that seek to sow confusion and outrage. Can American society overcome the fake news phenomenon?
Well… “There’s probably a strong case to be made that we are chemically addicted to fake news,” says Amy Webb, an author and futurist who founded the Future Today Institute. “When you’re seeing your angers and fears and anxieties being validated externally, you get a shot of dopamine.” Thinking about the upcoming year and beyond, she says, we may have “a huge problem on our hands.” And though the propaganda is coming at us from all directions—from Kremlin-backed misinformation campaigns and Twitter troll armies to publicity hounds and political malcontents—falling for it, and spreading it, is to some degree our own fault.
In the spring of 2017, Webb wrote a piece for Mother Jones that detailed not only the manner of 21st-century fake news and the speed with which it travels, but also how we are all accomplices to its proliferation “as we click and repost without considering the story’s source and its agenda.” She noted that the democratization of the internet back in the 1990s meant that “everyone would get to participate regardless of their agendas.” Information became free and free-flowing. But, problematically, “we didn’t plan ahead as the internet matured,” when consumers of information were left to contend with not only “human arbiters of facts” but also code and algorithms that propel certain types of content to the fore, based on our own online behavior. Innocently sharing a cat video put out by Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed propaganda machine that elevates fringe “experts” and attempts to sow distrust, means you’ll see a lot more of their content in the future.
Complicating matters more is that in our politicized climate, the term fake news itself came to mean different things to different people. It had a literal meaning that, seemingly overnight, became a hashtag and an epithet to hurl at anything or anyone that one disagrees with. “If we can’t even come to some kind of convergence and talk about something as insidious and as threatening to our future as the spread of misinformation—otherwise known as fake news in the literal sense—then don’t we have sort of a catastrophically huge problem on our hands?” asks Webb.
If we want the information to be free, and we don’t want to restrict ourselves to just a handful of consolidated information gate keepers, then we need to be smarter consumers, she says. “We collectively haven’t held up our part of the bargain.” She suggests we think about it in terms of a mailbox: “If every day you were getting all kinds of crazy, salacious, nonsensical postcards from strangers, wouldn’t you go complain, or stop using your mailbox altogether, or maybe it would cause you to apply a more scrupulous eye toward the stuff you’re getting?”
As someone who studies current and past trends to try to anticipate what the future may hold, Webb likes to end these conversations with a reminder that, for however doomed things appear, “We are not living in the middle of Westworld—the future has not been preordained. There is something we can do in the year 2018 and beyond, and that is be smarter consumers of news.”