From the March/April 2017 issue of Discern Magazine

Fake News or Good News?

Recent “fake news” controversies have become a big news sensation. Will fake news affect how you watch for the good news of Christ’s return?

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The recent outcry against fake news has numerous media sites pointing fingers at countless others as purveyors of egregious falsehoods. The Oxford English Dictionary even selected post-truth as its 2016 “word of the year,” defining it as “relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Manipulated lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. Echoing the media landscape today, the “yellow journalism” of the late 19th century, according to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, was a race to the bottom that “featured fake news, false interviews, and an obsessive focus on crime.”

According to Jeffrey Herbst, all of this led to America’s entry into the Spanish-American War and was at least partially responsible for the assassination of President William McKinley (“How to Beat the Scourge of Fake News,” Dec. 12, 2016).

Where did fake news start?

The modern cottage industry of fake news began with nothing more sinister than satirical spoofs. Creators of fake news found that they could capture so much interest that they could make money through automated advertising that rewards high traffic to their Internet sites.

In response, so-called clickbait content mills began producing bizarre-sounding headlines and articles exploiting social media outlets for the profits generated by increased social shares and page views.

Fake news became bigger news toward the end of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when the mainstream media began blaming fake news and Russian propaganda for helping the campaign of Donald Trump.

This was preceded by the hyperpartisan and sometimes wildly distorted news fed to the British public during the Brexit campaign. Respected government sources and established media outlets were often at the center of the controversy, spinning false impartiality, politically charged fabrications and hit pieces.

With fake news swimming in the same electronic currents as everyday exaggerations, hard-charging opinion and political hyperbole, the term is now being used to describe virtually any inconvenient news, fact or opinion—legitimate or not—by those of other political camps or worldviews.

Social media changes everything

Although it has been around for years, the amplification of fake news through social media gives it a new dimension. Shortly after the November 2016 U.S. election, The New York Times reported that Google and Facebook faced “mounting criticism over how fake news on their sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome” by allowing the promotion of fake news websites and sites that deal in conspiracy theories rather than facts.

BuzzFeed—itself viewed by many as a fake news hub—claimed that fake news accounted for 10.6 million of the 21.5 million shares, reactions and comments about U.S. political stories on Facebook last year (Craig Silverman, “Here Are 50 of the Biggest Fake News Hits on Facebook From 2016,” BuzzFeed, Dec. 30, 2016).

Trust in traditional media plummets

The rise of the Internet, round-the-clock cable television, smartphones and social media have brought about a radical change in how news is both transmitted and received. The current angst over fake news is partly a fight over who should control the news and who determines what is fake or genuine.

“Public trust in traditional media,” according to research presented at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “has fallen to an all-time low as people increasingly favour their friends and contacts on the internet as sources of news and truth” because “people now view media as part of the elite” (Anna Nicolaou and Chris Giles, Financial Times, Jan. 15, 2017).

Less than a third of Americans in a September 2016 Gallup Poll said that they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in news media “to report news fully, accurately and fairly.” As a result, nearly two of every three Americans now get news from social media, and 44 percent get news specifically from Facebook, according to a survey by Pew Research last year.

The numbers are even more dramatic for millennials. According to a March 2015 study, 88 percent of the newest generation of adults, aged 18 to 34, get news from Facebook regularly.

With 1.8 billion people around the world using Facebook each month, the service dwarfs all other news media, but it has been reluctant to portray itself as a media company. Instead, it calls itself a neutral technology platform. But when Facebook began helping users make what it calls “smart choices” about the news they read, it was criticized for routinely suppressing news stories of interest to conservative readers and artificially injecting selected stories into the trending news module.

Fake news crackdown spreads around the world

Previous efforts to stop fake news and online rumors were widely regarded as a form of censorship. But now even groups and news outlets that formerly worried about censorship are calling for more regulation of online content. With mainstream news outlets losing their monopoly on the news, and European leaders struggling to absorb the impact of a wave of populist elections, calls for a solution have quickly spread.

Voters in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia all head to the polls in the coming 12 months. They will elect governments that will not only determine national leadership but also shape the future of the European Union.

With fake news swimming in the same electronic currents as everyday exaggerations, hard-charging opinion and political hyperbole, the term is now being used to describe virtually any inconvenient news, fact or opinion—legitimate or not—by those of other political camps or worldviews.The German political mainstream is getting increasingly nervous about the effect fake news might have on federal elections this autumn. Amid fears that Russia might try to influence voters in her country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has personally warned that fake news could “threaten the elections” (Florian Lang, “The Fake Hype on Fake News in Germany,” EU Observer, Jan. 9, 2017).

A new ministry of truth

Germany has even proposed a law that would allow it to fine Facebook up to 500,000 euros (roughly $530,000) for each day it leaves a story online that has been labeled as fake news. It is also pushing—with support from the majority of Germans—to have a German fact-checking nonprofit organization called Correctiv determine what articles should be allowable for posting on Facebook.

In an even more Orwellian moment, the German Interior Ministry recently suggested setting up a Center of Defense Against Misinformation (Abwehrzentrum gegen Desinformation) in the fight against online fake news (“Germany Targets Russian Meddling,” The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 23, 2017).

Chancellor Merkel defended the programs, saying, according to International Business Times, “Debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago. Today, we have fake sites, bots, trolls—things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with algorithms, and we have to learn to deal with them.”

A “post-truth” news media

Mrs. Merkel is not alone in pointing out the game-changing disruption that fake news will continue to have in swaying public opinion. In a Financial Times interview, Italy’s antitrust chief, Giovanni Pitruzzella, proposed an institutional framework, centrally coordinated out of European Union headquarters, to identify and pull fake news items offline, fining their creators (“Italy Antitrust Chief Urges EU to Help Beat Fake News,” Dec. 29, 2016).

“Post-truth in politics is one of the drivers of populism,” stated Pitruzzella, “and it is one of the threats to our democracies. We have reached a fork in the road: we have to choose whether to leave the internet like it is, the wild west, or whether it needs rules that appreciate the way communication has changed. I think we need to set those rules and this is the role of the public sector.”

Amid the growing calls to suppress fake news in European capitals and the U.S. Congress, former President Barack Obama signed into law a defense appropriation bill that included provisions for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. This will allow the government to develop and disseminate fact-based narratives to counter and crack down on any foreign media outlet the U.S. government deems to be propaganda-driven.

Watch—despite the fake news

As we approach the end of this age, we have a direct mandate to watch world news (Luke 21:36) and discern the signs of Jesus Christ’s second coming. Christ was, in essence, a newscaster, proclaiming events, conditions and even attitudes millennia in advance.

While many today trust their friends on social media for news, the Bible is the only inspired and infallible source of news—news predicted 2,000 years ago with ultimate credibility and authority. To learn more about what this news source says about the future of mankind, download our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm from the Life, Hope & Truth Learning Center.

The deluge of news sources and fake news will make reading the “signs of the times” and of Christ’s coming (Matthew 16:3; 24:3) increasingly difficult. But consider the following keys to watching world events more effectively.

Some basics on how to discern fake news

  • Carefully evaluate news from social media. Facebook can be useful for many things, but it should not be our primary news source. The goal of many sites is to keep you “clicking,” and Facebook tweaks your newsfeed so that you get fed shareable, short-form pieces of news that you like, creating an “echo chamber” that offers limited perspectives.
  • Is it news, opinion or propaganda? Small or great, nearly every news organization has a particular slant, bias or philosophy. Some are far more obvious than others. Diversify your news consumption by seeking out multiple reputable news sources and reading a variety of perspectives on issues. It’s vital to differentiate which sources provide quality news and editorial opinions, as opposed to propaganda, conspiracy theories or satire.
  • Consider the source. Few countries enjoy a free press, and many governments—Russia and China to name two—monopolize news through direct media ownership or severe restrictions. Be wary of blogs or articles without author attribution, odd or “almost right” domain names—like the “.co” domains that are designed to be nearly identical to accurate and reputable sources that end in “.com.”
  • Go beyond the headline. Eye-catching headlines often don’t tell the whole story. The voracious quest for web traffic means that sensational exaggerations, salacious scandal-mongering and highly charged political diatribes often crowd out well-researched and carefully written, legitimate news pieces.
  • Get the big picture. Take note of bigger world events and news trends, and focus less on the latest blurbs, quotes or issues of the moment. Invest the time to read longer, historical background pieces to understand “the why” behind major issues.

Learn more about how to fulfill Jesus’ command to watch in our article “Five Prophetic Trends to Watch.” And be sure to sign up for our News & Prophecy Insights blog.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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