I’ve been trying to get my head around fake news. I’m not digging into specific pieces of news or outlets; rather, I’m trying to get a clearer sense of this whole thing that’s been all over headlines and memes for the past couple of years — and it’s only been a couple of years.
From the dim and distant beginnings of Google Trends in 2004 up to October 2016, fake news barely registered as a search term. Then, in late 2016 it became ubiquitous: Searches spiked, the term soared in popularity and it was deemed worthy of a dictionary entry.
Trying to understand what fake news really means is like falling down a rabbit hole that will ultimately lead you to bizarro world. What’s fake news: Spin? A mix of myths and propaganda? Outright fabrications? Or elaborate, surgically manufactured disinformation?
Long before the term had this sinister sound, we used to have fun fake news. We’d laugh at the absurdity of “The Colbert Report” and the Onion in the U.S.; “The Day Today,” Private Eye and NewsThump in the U.K.; and Waterford Whispers News in Ireland.
But now we’ve realized there’s an audience that is taking wild claims and conspiracy theories very seriously. And what to most of us is a satirical joke is truth to an increasingly large number of people. To them, the concept of Earth being flat makes perfect sense, and it isn’t some simple internet viral trend.
While hard-working journalists at real news organizations were busy trying to fact-check and double-source the holes created by a hyperreal version of the world, fake news hijacked the mainstream media to spread “alternative facts.”
Don’t get me wrong, though–fake news is not a new thing. We’ve been toying with it since the dawn of civilization, and the friction between propaganda and observable truth has been the fuel for humanity’s greatest leaps. Look at the “Great Moon Hoax” in 1835 — it positioned The New York Sun as a major media player of its time and — quite possibly — sparked the ambition that eventually led to our actual moon landing more than a century later.
But now this catchy rebranding of something we have always had to deal with has planetary reach and data science smarts. And that’s worrying.