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They’re not all fake, and they’re not all news. But these are the categories that the various stories derided as fake tend to fall in.
It’s hard to think of a term that has had a more destructive run over the last few months than “fake news.”
What is it?
In partnership with the Scripps Ranch Library, we decided to have a discussion about it.
To open the panel, I offered a taxonomy of terms.
It seems like it was received well, so I wrote them down. Here are the seven categories of inaccurate stories we should understand as we grapple with the end of reality.
This only applies to stories that are pure fiction – fabricated either to make money or to sow confusion and resentment.
Buzzfeed produced a list of the most-shared of these types. The top one, “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide,” generated more than 2 million reactions and shares on Facebook for ABCNews.com.co (note the “.co” at the end. It was not ABC News).
There were other, non-political varieties, of this phenomenon. “Florida man dies in meth-lab explosion after lighting farts on fire” was a headline from a website called the Valley Report. It got 669,000 shares and other engagements on Facebook.
It didn’t happen.
One unfortunate problem with journalism is that reporters sometimes get things wrong. An egregious example recently was when Zeke Miller, a reporter for Time, walked into the Oval Office right after President Trump moved in.
Miller could not see the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. He concluded Trump’s team had removed it. Since he was the pool reporter that day – the reporter who transmits the president’s movements and news about him to the wider White House press pool – his update spread to thousands of news sources and went viral on social media.
Turns out, he was wrong. He apologized. It didn’t matter to Trump. The president scorched Miller in a widely distributed speech to the CIA. The umbrage-peddling continued for several days.
This is not fake news!
Journalists will always make mistakes and get things wrong. We would never publish anything if editors had no risk tolerance for this at all.
Yet, we’ve now entered a world where inaccurate reporting is being derided as fake news. The New York Times did itself a disservice the other day when it referred to what happened at the Academy Awards ceremony – where the wrong winner for Best Picture was announced because of a mistake – as “fake news.”
It was not fake news. It was a mistake. The writer was just having fun, I guess, but it is not in the New York Times’ best interests to endorse the framing that mistakes in reporting are fake news.
If an outlet makes a mistake and has a process in place to correct it and does correct it, it’s journalism.
This is my own word, and there might be a better one for what I’m describing. Basically, a flier is a true story – a story that could pass a fact check – but that goes viral without the context it deserves. In the process, it becomes misleading.
The news media has examples of this all the time. A recent one was this Washington Post opinion piece about mass resignations at the State Department. In the flurry of action after the Trump transition, this was shared thousands of times. Turns out it was quite misleading.
A conspiracy theory generally takes a bit of news or an established fact and attaches an enormous amount of significance to it. For instance, yes, airplanes leave a trail of condensation behind their warm engines in cool air at high altitude. That’s true.
Some people add many more theories about those streaks of condensation and what may be in them – and scientists find themselves obligated to debunk them.
A flier is true but misleading. The writer might have played it up, for example, out of misplaced alarmism.
Propaganda, on the other hand, is true and intentionally misleading – taking an element of fact and sensationalizing it for a specific political purpose often as part of a larger strategy.
A good example of propaganda might be the NFL commissioner’s claim when the Chargers left San Diego.
“The Chargers worked tirelessly this past year with local officials and community leaders on a ballot initiative that fell short on election day. That work — and the years of effort that preceded it — reflects our strongly held belief we always should do everything we can to keep a franchise in its community,” he wrote in a statement.
There’s an element of truth is behind this. The Chargers did put up a ballot measure. It did fall short.
But they unilaterally put together the plan, literally not working with anyone until it was finalized. And neither the NFL nor the Chargers can claim to have done everything they could to keep the team here. It’s absurd.
I’m not saying a flier and propaganda are easy to distinguish. But if you had a perfect radar for this stuff, that would be how you’d divide them. Some are just hot takes based on fact and others are deliberately misleading as part of a larger strategy.
This is putting out a fabricated story about real people and places as a way to tell a larger truth. The best satire really does mislead you – it makes you think it’s real so you can live in that world for just a moment until you realize how strange, funny and maybe awful that would be.
This is my favorite category, maybe because it’s the most terrifying. It comes from the title of the play, and later movie, “Gas Light,” in which a husband tries to make his wife go crazy by manipulating her environment and denying the truth.
It’s about power. Gaslighting is insisting something is true when it is obvious it is not and when you know it is not. It’s insisting that it did not rain, when it did, or that you had the largest crowd at your party, when you didn’t. It would be like taking someone into custody and insisting to his family that you did not take him into custody.
As one Padres fan joked, it would be like this.
It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare.
But I’m sure we won’t see any of that.