Imagine surfing your cable or satellite remote and landing on some channel displaying the opening segment of just another news channel coded ‘RMNO.’
“Welcome to the Russian Misinformation News Organization where we bring you the best of American news and cultural truth to every US citizen. Our objective journalists who, like you, seek only the truth; we enlighten our American friends with the news that you truly need to make unbiased decisions about the future of your country – the news that is otherwise ignored by traditional American media.”
What is fake news? How can we identify it, and how should we proactively react to it are some questions I ask but cannot answer. It is, however, a discourse we need to have.
Traditionally fake meant illegitimate; a painting copied in the exact style of an artist to implicitly deceive, or that fake Ming dynasty marked as original at some local museum. Most countries dedicate their law enforcement agencies to battle these and other implicitly deceptive fakes. Our own Secret Service fights counterfeiting. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing constantly creates more elaborate anti-counterfeiting devices within our Federal Reserve notes to deter criminals and protect the integrity of our currency. But what about fake information?
Today, the epistemology of the word fake has changed. When fake news entered our popular lexicon during the 2016 presidential election cycle, it tried to identify those online news outlets whose sole purpose was to distort and twist facts into a synthesized reality without the soul of truth and integrity. They called to us using clever names that stoked our own biases. Much research from the ongoing Russian investigation to Facebook’s own internal evaluations have identified many of these sites as having foreign originations.
Now however, fake news has become nothing but a pejorative; a slight to toss at one’s enemies to discredit them. We hear our President cry “Fake, Fake!” when a credible source prints or says something detrimental to him. The problem of our President’s attempt to delegitimize legitimate media is certainly a problem we need to address, but until then, we have mere weeks until the 2018 mid-term election consumes our lives.
We hold dear our right of free speech. The cornerstone of our democracy stands upon it. Brandenburg v. Ohio came at the end of several Supreme Court cases strengthening our right of free speech to include right of political belief, association, and even the advocation of violence. The incorporation doctrine via the 14th Amendment nationalized that right of free speech to the state level, and it is something we all greatly enjoy. Our discourse thrives because of it; free speech buttresses our classrooms.
But should we extend that right to belong to foreign misinformation and subversion efforts? These “fake news” sites use the internet to cloak themselves as legitimate agencies, but are they legitimate? Do they deserve legitimacy and agency? How can and should we protect ourselves against them? These are questions I cannot answer. These are questions our President shouldn’t answer. Yet unless we do something, the purveyors who legitimize themselves within our cherished freedoms will answer those questions for us.