Niagara University faculty discuss fake news and alternative facts
By Jacob Foote
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK – On Thursday, March 16, various Communication Studies, History, and Political Science professors – among others – participated in the engaging panel discussion “Fake News and Alternative Facts: Are We Living in a Post-Fact World?” Given recent events in the media, like White House Spokesman Sean Spicer’s infamous declaration of alternative facts regarding the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, such a discussion seemed more relevant than ever.
As made apparent by Dr. Robert Kane, a History professor and Associate Dean of the school of Arts and Sciences at Niagara University, the distribution of false information by the media is by no means novel. Rather, he found that developments in technology – moving from the printing press to the computer – have simply changed the medium upon which the same practices are found.
Sociology Professor Ken Culton, when asked why people seem to be flocking to fake news recently, ultimately focussed on the behavior as an act of consumption. In his eyes, individuals looking for a news source choose one on the basis that it correlates with their identity. It is no coincidence that conservatives identify themselves with Fox News as much as with owning a pickup truck, he said. In fact, the process of consuming media has less to do with its content than how it fits into one’s worldview (that is, what it means to an individual). Political Science and Criminal Justice Professor Kevin Hinkley noted that in the news market, there is an incentive to sensationalize – and fabricate – stories in order to do what businesses do best: sell a product for profit’s sake.
According to Dr. James Wittebols, a professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor, the marketing of fake news can be seen as a kind of factual nihilism, “done for money and ideological purposes.”
The dangers of this practice are readily apparent. Most people are aware of the concept of propaganda and may point to examples in foreign nations, yet fail to recognize the hand of the United States in the game. Dr. Wittebols said fake news starts wars, citing the yellow journalism surrounding the explosion of the USS Maine that began the Spanish-American War, the Second Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought the U.S. closer to Vietnam, and the recent lie regarding the presence of WMD’s in Iraq claimed by George W. Bush.
Of course, the danger is not always that extreme, though this does not mean people should not care to remain aware. The denial of climate change, a position overwhelmingly supported by fraudulent sources, poses a threat to life on this planet regardless of one’s political stance on the issue. Unvaccinated children, a result of misinformed parents, also pose a great risk to society. “We have become more selfish and more individualistic, and this threatens to destroy us,” said Dr. Culton.
One of the main focuses of the event was the question, “Are we living in a post-fact world?” Dr. Kane said no.
The question looming in the background throughout the event, Dr. Carrie Teresa, a Communication Studies professor and moderator of the discussion, asked the panel what ought to be done. Professor Hinkley made clear that government intervention was not an option, due to the nature of the First Amendment in the United States which prevents interference with the marketplace of ideas, even when there is a clear failure in that market. In addition, giving the government the reigns to ban certain news outlets and speech would throw the nation into a state of despotism, especially considering the power of Republicans in D.C.
Rather, the responsibility to affect change lies in the hands of individuals and organizations. The public should not see news at face value, said Dr. Kane. He continued “it is important to take media with a grain of salt.”
In the same right, false information needs to be challenged before it begins to circulate, and only more so as it is promulgated. This conflict for truth, if it may be so called, requires serious action if fake news is to be dispelled from the world scene.
“One thing the media need to do is to practice journalism again,” said Dr. Wittebols.