13 Fake News and PR Ethics

Fake news has become so ubiquitous a term in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential election win in 2016, that it has enjoyed an almost protean malleability. As a highly divisive and polarizing phenomenon (with a recent study suggesting that Americans cannot even agree on how to define the term) (Knight Foundation, 2018), fake news has been used to describe false, misleading, or intentionally fabricated stories (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017); state-sponsored or corporately-funded propaganda (Khaldarova & Pantti, 2016; Stauber & Rampton, 1995); satire or news parody (Jones, 2010); partisan or ideological commentary (Taub, 2017); activist interventions (Reilly, 2013); artificial intelligence-doctored text, image, audio, or video content (Reynolds, 2018); and commercial or advertorial content masquerading as news (Hirst, 2017). This is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For each iteration of the term, a different set of applications and outcomes. To date, intentionally false stories and propaganda have attracted the lion’s share of commentary since Trump’s election because news items of this ilk have the capacity to misinform and deceive news-reading publics. The increasing proliferation of these stories simultaneously weakens citizens’ purchase on truthful or reliable accounts of current affairs and contributes to a deepening erosion of trust in both journalists and news organizations (McNair, 2017).

Responding to what they deem an impoverished news and information climate, satirical publications like The Onion and satirists such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee have actively criticized and ridiculed mainstream news media outlets for consistently failing to fulfill their Fourth Estate (i.e., watchdog) role. In drawing attention to news media’s failure to serve as a critical check on corporate, state, and/or institutional power, satire channels the “fake news” format to playfully critique and reform its targets.

Partisan forms of fake news are leveraged to discredit and delegitimize any and all stories, perspectives, or opinions that do not coincide with one’s own. For practitioners of (hyper-)partisan commentary (e.g., Donald Trump), the term fake news has been co-opted to mean anything one doesn’t agree with—a feature (not a bug) of media discourse that risks normalizing lying and dishonesty in the political sphere (Crines, 2017).

Activist groups such as the Yes Men and the Palestine Media Collective (PMC) have created fake newspapers (New York Times and Vancouver Sun, respectively) to openly criticize news media performance and to register their dissent with broader publics. For the Yes Men, their fake NYT (2008) was designed to publish stories they wanted to see in print and to advance utopian ideas (i.e., stories on universal health care, free access to higher education, the advancement of climate change policy).

The expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) across all realms of cultural production has introduced even greater risks into the fabric of everyday news consumption. With AI-driven news bots producing and disseminating a wide range of news content—from seamlessly manipulated photos to algorithm-generated fake audio and video (Welser, 2018)—new challenges to correctly identify and interpret news content have arisen. Without proper vetting, labelling, or skepticism, AI tools may sow unwanted and unnecessary confusion.

Finally, advertorial content that masquerades as news may seem like the most benign form of fake news currently making the rounds, but its broader circulation is contingent upon news media’s wholesale integration of press releases and video news releases. These covertly pitched products and services often appear without disclosure of the funding or production sources, giving unsuspecting audiences the impression that they are consuming legitimate news (Farsetta & Price, 2006; Goodman & Goodman, 2006).

In 2018, the motives for creating, publishing, and recirculating fake news are by now well documented. The economic incentives are such that the creators of fake news content (and the platforms that give this content its visibility) stand to earn considerable sums of ad revenue and capital. During the 2016 US election cycle, Buzzfeed News uncovered a network of over 40 websites responsible for more than 750 fake news stories (Silverman & Singer-Vine, 2016). So pervasive was the network’s influence that Buzzfeed would label it a fake news empire. During this period, a group of now infamous teens in Macedonia generated considerable profit from their pro-Donald Trump fake news narratives (Subramanian, 2017). Capitalists aside, fake news is being leveraged by a broad range of practitioners: propagandists, hoaxers, hackers, partisans, satirists, and activists (Reilly, 2018). While fake news is not inherently destructive in all of the above iterations, it has become increasingly important to properly decipher these activities. Citizens’ abilities to do so will shape how well or how poorly we understand the world.



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