All "fake news" is not equal — but smart or dumb, it all grows from the same root

Satirical fake news used to save us from the stupidity of mainstream news. Now fake news isn’t funny; it’s scary

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published December 11, 2016 3:00PM (EST)

Jon Stewart; Alex Jones   (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Getty/Brad Barket/Photo montage by Salon)
Jon Stewart; Alex Jones (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Getty/Brad Barket/Photo montage by Salon)

Today’s fake news is not just a sign of a gullible electorate; it is a sign of how false information combined with a culture of angry fear has become increasingly toxic. Reasonable folks are frantically sweating the possibility that they, too, have been duped by one of these pernicious websites. How-tos on avoiding fake news abound. Fingers are being pointed at Facebook and Twitter. Fake news creators are being mocked and excoriated. And the poor dupes who buy into it are alternately considered victims and perpetrators.

But here’s the thing: There was once a time when we could prove that consumers of fake news were some of the smartest citizens in the country. How did fake news go from describing critically productive comedy to referring to mind-numbing, hysteria-provoking catastrophe?

#Pizzagate is just one in a recent flurry of stories that suggests that the core problem facing this nation is fake news and the power it has to sway public opinion, but it wasn’t long ago that fake news was lauded as a much-needed corrective to sensationalist news media. When Jon Stewart announced he would be stepping down as host of “The Daily Show” in February of 2015, a number of articles lamented the loss of the “fake news” man. For instance, Time ran a story with the headline: “Jon Stewart, the Fake Newsman Who Made a Real Difference.” At the time fake news was understood as a social positive. Stewart had been voted the most trusted journalist after Walter Cronkite’s death. And viewers of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” consistently scored higher than viewers of mainstream news outlets on knowledge of current issues.

I bring this up because in the era of constant historical amnesia most stories about the negative effects of “fake news” have completely forgotten the days when we used to love it. From The Onion to The Daily Currant to the always-refreshing dispatches from Andy Borowitz at the New Yorker, fake news was one of the most important ways to stay informed, laugh and hone our abilities at critical thinking.

In the years following 9/11 it was increasingly the satirical fake news that helped us all make sense of the world. The Onion halted its presses for one week after the attacks only to come back with one of the best issues ever. The cover read: “Holy Fucking Shit — Attack on America.” Its lead article was “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With.” Dubbing itself “America’s Finest News Source,” The Onion intensively lobbied to get a Pulitzer back in 2011.

All of this history has been overshadowed by the current crisis, which has brought us four types of fake news purveyors: those in it for the money, those in it to mock the alt-right, those in it to rile them up, and those in it to promote propaganda. It is important to note that all of these efforts may amount to the “bad” types of fake news, but they aren’t equivalent sorts of projects. The Macedonian teens who are raking in cash catering to the alt-right have almost nothing in common with Alex Jones. While it is a mistake to lump all of these types of fake news together, it is important to note that they are all currently understood as a threat to the health of our democracy. If you search for “fake news” today, you will get a range of articles on its dangers, but only five years ago a search for “fake news” gave you The Onion as the top hit.

The point is that we have a tale of two types of fake news: One has saved us from a declining news media and the other has threatened the very idea of news media. Both types depend on exaggeration. When the hyperbole is satirical and ironic, it is funny. When the hyperbole aims at rabble-rousing, it is frightening. One uses “fake news” to get people to think. The other uses “fake news” to cut off any thinking whatsoever.

One of the key critical distinctions between “good” fake news, like that of Borowitz, whose headlines sometimes seem plausible, and “bad” fake news, like that found on Infowars, is irony. While fake news stories can sometimes seem real,  satirical ones eventually draw on the reader’s ability to detect irony. Because irony requires the mind to read in a way that is complex and not literal, it actually encourages critical thinking and boosts intelligence. Meanwhile, fake news stories, like those found on Infowars or The National Enquirer, appeal to emotion and encourage stupidity. Ironic fake news teaches us to question the status quo; unironic fake news teaches us to freak out about everything.

It would be super convenient if we could easily divide the bad fake news from the good. Mostly we can, but it isn’t always straightforward since at times satirical fake news comes dangerously close to hoax news.

This was the case with the fake news site run by Paul Horner, who now thinks he may have had a role in helping elect Trump. Horner seemed to both want to publish satirical fake news and dupe Trump supporters into sharing fake stories. His site is clearly satire, but most folks who share his pieces aren’t even reading past the headlines.

The fact that his site looks like it is CNN or ABC or another recognized outlet helps the hoax factor. But it wasn’t always true that hoax sites were a big problem. Parody sites have long been a staple of satire. Remember, for example, the parody issue of the New York Times that the Yes Men and a team of writers produced back in November of 2008 only days after Barack Obama was elected president. That parody issue was welcomed as a satirical intervention meant to coax the real New York Times into doing better reporting.

As Will Oremus points out in a piece for Slate, today all news is being called fake. The overuse of the term has emptied the phrase of any meaning. The problem, though, is the fact that the only reason why we have seen such a rise in fake news — both comedic and catastrophic — is because the so-called “real” news sucks.

A post-election poll by the Pew Research Center shows that only 22 percent of U.S. citizens give the press an A or a B for their coverage, signaling the lowest public approval for the press ever. A new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed news coverage during the 2016 general election and found that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy. They also found that the media’s lust to cover anything and everything Trump did turned him into the first media-created candidate in history.

Today’s fake news consumers have a common enemy: the corporate, mainstream media. In fact, fake news satirist Lee Camp recently did an excellent bit on his show “Redacted Tonight” calling out the fact that the real fake news is CNN itself. Meanwhile right-wing Newsbusters found it hilariously ironic that Brian Williams could say “fake news played a role in this election and continues to find a wide audience." Williams, who has his own credibility issues, seemed entirely unaware of how hard it was to buy him as a voice of news integrity.

There is no doubt that the rise in fake news is directly linked to the lack of trust in the mainstream news. The key difference, though, is what the viewer thinks is the problem.

Those viewers who turn to satirical fake news like that of Camp or John Oliver or Samantha Bee do so because they feel that the mainstream news is too sensationalist, too corporate and too supportive of the status quo. They watch “fake news” because it gives them a better chance of getting at the truth.

Those viewers who swallow up the drivel offered by Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh do so because they have bought into the conspiracy theory that the news media is biased. They think that the mainstream news can’t be trusted and they think that their fake news outlets offer them the truth.

If you notice a pattern match, that is because there is one. Fake news consumers — whether seeking comedy or calamity —agree that the mainstream news media can’t be trusted.

And this election has proven them right. Aside from the way that the news media promoted Trump, the Podesta emails revealed a number of disturbing shady deals between the Clinton camp and a number of mainstream news outlets. The email that showed CNN contributor Donna Brazile leaked a town hall question ahead of time just furthered suspicion that the news media couldn’t be trusted.

But it gets worse. The news media wasn’t just falling down on the job; the politicians were actively supporting the fake news system and attempting to turn it to their advantage. Trump’s tweeting of falsehoods, his cyber bullying and his advancement of cronies who have created the alt-right fake newsiverse are a troubling sign of the post-truth era. And yet, while Trump threw hissy fits any time he came under scrutiny, the Clinton camp wasn’t much better. From the launching of the myth of the Bernie bro to the internet trolling of Clinton supporting “Correct the Record” we have ample evidence that the promotion of “fake news” wasn’t limited to only one party.

There’s more. Trump tapped into the long-standing right-wing practice of discrediting the news media as an agent of liberal elites. There’s noting new there; it’s the bread and butter of Fox News (despite its status as the mainstream news). But Clinton also waged a campaign to sow distrust of the news among her supporters. Channeling Cold War anxieties, critics of Clinton were characterized as Russian propagandists. While it may well be true that some of the critical news about Clinton was connected to Russia, a recent piece by The Intercept shows that basically anyone critical of Clinton was lumped together as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” They report that the list of so-called Russian disinformation outlets “includes WikiLeaks and the Drudge Report, as well as Clinton-critical left-wing websites such as Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, and Naked Capitalism, as well as libertarian venues such as and the Ron Paul Institute.”

The Democratic echo chamber casts all criticism as conspiracy, just as the Trump camp does. The Intercept explains that for a long time, liberals heralded themselves as part of the “reality-based community” and derided conservatives as faith-based victims of “epistemic closure.” But that distinction has become extremely blurred this election and it has all led to more fake news.

Trump’s allies hawk fake news masquerading as truth. Clinton supporters condemn all critical reporting as “fake.” And the news media itself continues to be dominated by a ratings-driven corporate mentality that privileges clicks over meaningful critique.

That brings me back to the “good” fake news — because alongside the watchdog reporting of sites like the Intercept it is only thanks to satire news, like that of Camp or Oliver, that we are getting any meaningful alternatives. Both Camp and Oliver deliver a satirical fake news meant to inform the public and offer information redacted or ignored by the news media. Their comedic fake news, in fact, offers viewers far more truth than they would typically get in any other news venue.

So before we freak out about the advent of fake news, we would do well to remember that not all fake news is created equal. And before we go on a fake news witch-hunt, we should recall the way that fake news saved us during the Bush years. As we prepare to usher in a post-truth president who makes up his own reality and bullies anyone who disagrees, we have good reason to worry that the mainstream news media will continue to fall down on the job and the Breitbarts will gain in power. In the face of that fake news reality, we are going to need all of the ironic, satirical fake news we can get.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Alex Jones Comedy Fake News Satire The Daily Show The Onion