With increasing numbers of readers expecting to get their news for free, things are tough enough for the newspaper business. Now comes “fake news,” or, more accurately, “deliberately distorted information,” which is especially appealing to readers because its content is so provocative. But it can have a disastrous impact on our society because its intent is to deceive and confuse the reader.
In decades past, when the tabloids at the supermarket check-out lines reported on three-headed aliens landing in Cleveland or promoted diets that helped people lose 100 pounds in a week, we smiled. These were diversions, no one took them seriously. We knew better. Then the sensational tabloids got more aggressive, mixing “mishugas” with mean-spirited exposés on Hollywood stars and big-name politicians misbehaving. There was the infamous photo of Elvis in his coffin, and reports of affairs involving presidential candidates.
But in the recent presidential election campaign we saw the emergence of fabricated “news” stories that may well have had an impact on the results. We went from stories claiming President Obama was a Muslim, to Huma Abedin, the confidante of Hillary Clinton, having close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, to Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. None of them true, but, still, they served to confuse, mislead, plant doubts, especially because the reader’s assumption is that these stories would never have been approved for posting or publication if they were inaccurate. But such a supposition applies to reputable media companies that seek to present the truth; what we have today are websites that intend to make a political point, or profit, or both — accuracy be damned. Often these stories are posted on sites that mimic the look, and even the names, of reputable news outlets.
The Jewish Week has been a victim of such sites, which take our news articles and change the facts enough to, for example, describe the two perpetrators of a swastika-painting incident on campus as Jews rather than apparent anti-Semites. So far little has been done once the fake story has gone viral, with millions of page views.
But attention is being shifted, and rightly so, to powerful sites like Facebook and Twitter, with calls for them to take responsibility for monitoring false and often harmful reports. This week a far-right group posted a map of Berlin, titled “Jews Among Us,” with the names and addresses of Jewish-owned businesses in the city. According to a report in The New York Times, many of those Jews began receiving threats and expressions of hate via social media and phone calls. Facebook initially told those who complained that the posting complied with “community standards.” Only after the incident became a major news story, and German officials prepared to enforce the country’s strict laws against hate speech, did Facebook back down and remove the site.
Issues like this can pit supporters of free speech against those who seek to protect minorities susceptible to discrimination. At a recent conference at the United Nations dealing with anti-Semitism, sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, Israeli officials joined others in calling on social media giants to take more aggressive, preventive steps or face legal actions for circulating hateful comments directed at vulnerable targets. “The leaders of the social media industry know hatred when they see it,” asserted Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dani Danon.
But does the president-elect of the United States?
During the election campaign Trump exacerbated the problem by re-tweeting “fake news” stories, including those from racist and anti-Semitic sources, ratcheting up divisions within our society. It may be easier to rein in Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets than the incoming leader of our democracy. It remains to be seen whether the Oval Office will have a sobering effect on him, as we would hope.
In the meantime, and in the face of a growing “fake news” industry, the mandate of The Jewish Week remains to report and uphold the truth to the best of our ability. We trust our readers value that goal, and recognize the dangers of a society that literally can’t separate fact from fiction — and starts not to care about the difference.