Public Editor

When fake news flourishes, a free and open society loses


We’ve been having a vitally serious public discussion about “fake news” over the past several months. It’s important to distinguish it from partisan news. The difference is literally life and death for our society.

Facebook and Google have been getting much-deserved public scorn for how their algorithms have enabled the spread of objectively false “news” through the presidential election cycle. The democratization of publishing on the Internet has been a great thing for freedom and openness. But some very naive bad actors — and some much more nefarious ones — have successfully gamed the system for personal financial gain.

We’ve all seen our inboxes besieged with hoax emails ever since our Uncle Phil got a Hotmail account. And while a lot of people fall for that nonsense, it used to remain largely confined to the fever swamp.

I know this audience well. My master’s thesis involved the UFO subculture, and I spent untold hours going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory and intrigue.

Believe me: I understand how seductive that world is. The idea that you are on to the big secret right under everyone’s noses is exhilarating, and gives you a sense of prescience, of power.

But once you step back from it, you begin to see that the figures don’t add up. That huge networks of interconnected conspirators can’t stay silent for decades. Think about the last large group project you tackled at work. Do you think all of you could stay in lockstep for years? You probably had a hard time deciding whether you wanted burritos or Chinese for lunch.

Today, a few publishers, some of whom have no journalism experience, have found it surprisingly easy to make big ad dollars online with completely invented content.

Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post interviewed one very successful fake news creator. Paul Horner said he invented his crazy election content as satire, hoping it would make those who took it at face value look foolish when they shared it.

Unfortunately, lots of people don’t see through the outrageously false claims. “There’s nothing you can’t write about now that people won’t believe,” he said, telling her he’s making $10,000 a month from Google AdSense ads alone. (Avid Donald Trump supporters won’t enjoy reading the rest of the interview.)

I almost never hear from readers asking me why The Kansas City Star isn’t covering some of these insane stories. That’s because if you get your news from multiple mainstream sources, you aren’t going to believe the nonsense. Newspaper readers are inherently informed and rational.

Here’s the danger: These fake sites are taking ideas from partisan news outlets and running them out to the nth degree. The line is blurring in too many people’s minds.

Partisan news sources are literally as old as the U.S. itself. Newspapers used to be highly opinionated, and many cities had more than one fighting for readers’ eyes.

As the industry modernized in the 20th century, most metros became single-paper towns, and those papers developed a professional code to try to be as objective as possible.

But facts remain facts, and I have strong faith that conservative readers who understandably feel their points of view are too harshly disrespected in the popular culture count themselves among those who believe there’s such a thing as truth.

Further, I don’t believe that the vast majority of Trump voters buy these phony stories.

That’s why I know the percentage of the populace that falls wholeheartedly for fake information will remain as it’s always been: loud, belligerent and utterly immune to reason — but also tiny, and prone to wearing itself out, like a toddler melting down over a dropped rattle.

“I believe it is imperative we not lose our nearly sacred journalistic traditions,” reader Linda Muller recently wrote.

“It is possible that the freedom of the press will come under attack as a President Trump may try to turn the public against those institutions. I urge you to try to remain a strong, professional and trusted source of information.”