Fake News Ensnares American Public, Poses a Threat to General Good


Steve Bannon, former chair of Breitbart News and current Chief Strategist for the President Elect, during an inerview. Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Rachel Vigil, Editor-in-Chief

By Rachel Vigil

In the wake of the United States’ most recent elections, focus has been placed on fake news sites, which some people credit with helping to boost Donald Trump among voters.

So, I decided to take a dive into two of the most famous “news” sites, Breitbart and Infowars to find out what these sites contained and why people seemed to believe them.

Both Breitbart and Infowars are far-right news sites that often run stories intended to rail against both liberals and establishment conservatives. Infowars, founded by conservative radio host Alex Jones, has been labelled as a fake news site by U.S. News & World Report. While Breitbart is not classified as fake news, it has been called xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic according to an Aug. 26 article in the New York Times.

My initial dives into these websites resulted in what I found to be very entertaining reads. I’m not saying that the articles I found were compelling or accurate, they were just comical. Many of the headlines I found such as “Report: Drunk Hillary Demanding Recount to ‘Lift her Spirits’” are reminiscent of articles from satirical news sites, such as The Onion. The claims made by them were often so ludicrous that I found myself laughing as I read. One prime example of this was the multitude of articles on Infowars about “pizzagate,” a recent allegation by many fake news sites and Reddit users that a pizzeria where Hillary Clinton has held some events is the center of a huge pedophilia government conspiracy. While this has been widely derided by both The Washington Post and Snopes.com, Infowars is pedaling it as a huge and completely true scandal.

As I read more and more articles, I began to notice some trends. Most articles were criticizing either “lefties” or the “mainstream media.” Most purported news stories only provided a single perspective on issues, instead of presenting both sides of the issue. Most stories were short, but filled with an anger that seemed to jump off the page.

Breitbart’s stories felt different. Their writing style was more subdued, and the articles were consistently longer. Some of the articles provided more varied perspectives. However, they were in principle both the same type of site. Their coverage made ridiculous claims with little or no evidence to back it up. After reading the umpteenth article about the so-called “gay agenda” or how the mainstream media was never going to defeat Trump, I stopped laughing about these articles and began to get worried.

Despite most of the information on these websites being false or highly biased, people believe them. This election has called particular attention to Breitbart as they had 18 million views on their site in July of this year, according to The New York Times. Likes on their Facebook page have jumped from less than a million a year ago to more than 2.3 million currently. Despite criticism against it, fake news is growing quickly, especially through current social media.

As a reporter, albeit not a professional one, the rise of fake news is disheartening. News is meant to inform the public of what is going on in the world in the most unbiased way as possible by using facts and perspectives from either side of the issue. There’s a reason that the Bill of Rights begins with the freedom of speech, religion, and the press. The media is most importantly in place to check the power of government by reporting any and all abuses of power and misconduct. Fake news provides none of these services. Instead, both liberal and conservative fake news sites fabricate stories with almost no evidence that far too many people gobble up.

In fact, many people are unable to distinguish fake news from real news on platforms such as Facebook. A recent Stanford study showed that the majority of middle school, high school, and college students are unable to distinguish a fake news article from a real one.

From this, it can be concluded that these sites threaten the general knowledge of the public, leading to an uninformed voter base. Those who make decisions based on fake or biased sources will not be able to vote for the best interest of the country. We often forget the power that false journalism can have. It helped push the U.S. to war with Spain in 1898. It helped spread falsehoods and propaganda about Jews and other groups in Nazi Germany. It led to a gunman entering Comet Pizzeria on Dec. 6 because of the #pizzagate “story” on these sites. News has the power to spread knowledge, but it is also deadly in the wrong hands.