Fake news points to hunger for greater Truth

"Fake news" is part of the social and political backlash from those tired of what they see as an unfair and rigged status quo, Steven Zhou writes.

Part of backlash from those tired of what they see as an unfair and rigged status quo, Steven Zhou writes

Fake news is often created in service of what its authors believe is a greater Truth, Steven Zhou argues. (Frederick Burr Opper/The Public Domain Review)

The appearance and proliferation of "fake news," much like the sudden electoral success of Donald Trump, is popularly portrayed as a freak aberration that has minimal connection with the social and political environment around it.

Numerous universities and libraries have now come up with their own "guides" to help readers spot fake content, much like biologists are trained to spot an invasive species. But such an approach to journalistic "fakeness" ignores context.

Far from an alien invasion out of nowhere, "fake news" is part of the social and political backlash from those tired of what they perceive as an unfair and rigged status quo.

The term "fake news," which refers to the deliberate spreading of false news information with the aim to mislead and to profit through clickbait, received wider cultural use during the last U.S. presidential campaign, when then Republican candidate Donald Trump kept applying the term to mainstream news sources that he didn't like. The president has become notorious for whining about news coverage that doesn't show him in a favourable light, and he retaliates with the "fake news" insult. 

This habit or tactic has struck a chord with a large segment of the population that sees Trump's use of the term less as a childish insult and more as a "tell it like it is" assertion. They perceive the "MSM" as an important aspect of a status quo culture that has long been dishonest with the masses.

Larger Truth

With the advent of social media and other online platforms, some have taken the news-making process into their own hands to produce what they see as news in service of a larger Truth.

At times, this "real news" (in service of a larger Truth) plays fast and loose with facts.

At the core of this process is the widespread perception that, despite how fair, neutral or balanced corporate/mainstream new outlets purport to be, the product being churned out and presented to the public always seems to be in service of a particular elitist angle. Whether or not pure neutrality is achievable or even desirable in reporting is still a debate that's being had in journalism schools and professional seminars, but it's clear that a big chunk of viewers don't agree with the major news outlets that market themselves as neutral sources of information.

This perception of a devious press aligns with the broader hatred for a "liberal elite" that's in charge of a rigged status quo designed to keep the common man down. And since the elite media's neutrality is a lie to begin with, it seems much more plausible that all representations of reality through media involve the suffusion of some form of opinion. After all, every producer of content interprets a situation through a particular human angle. The angle one takes depends primarily on which Truth one is serving. Facts become secondary.

If it takes fake information to serve this larger Truth, then so be it.

The traditional view of news being a cool appraisal of a situation that functions by standing apart from reality has lost much credibility. The producers of fake news, particularly those whose larger Truth is represented and articulated by Trump, derive their purpose from supplanting what they see as the rotten structure of corporate news production. Their right-wing political background explains this rotten industry as an elitist institution that scoffs at the hardworking man or woman who, unlike the immigrant or the poor, wants no handouts.

Fake for a reason

Far from being a phenomenon that bears no relation to the social and political processes of our time, "fake news" should be perceived as a function of the same kind of backlash culture that has fuelled political demagoguery throughout the West. Social media is the primary facilitating catalyst of this phenomenon, not its origins, because "fake news" is rooted in politics. It is fake for a reason.

The physical, online structure of news articles is so easy to replicate, it makes the proliferation of fake news widespread.

Yet anyone who actually cares about information and quality will take some time to check whether a news source has a history of blatant dishonesty. It's not rocket science. 

The overall battle against "fake news" won't be won simply by coming up with newer and more effective guides.

Rather, the media should sacrifice the outward appearance of "neutrality" for a more assertive stance that draws conclusions in a forthright way.

News sources shouldn't be afraid to point out the "bad guys" in a certain situation, regardless of whom they offend. There shouldn't be a fear of using terms like "racists" in place of less edgy words like "provocateurs."

This may not stem the fake news tide, but it'll be a counter-assertion of reality and truth against the climate of politicized lies that has proliferated throughout much of the culture.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Steven Zhou

Steven Zhou is a Toronto journalist and commentator who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.