By Patrick B. Omilian
Fake news has existed in some form for centuries. Back in 1801, Thomas Jefferson noted, “as for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.” Within the past year, however, fake news has emerged as a threat to democracy in the United States and beyond.
This became apparent during the 2016 presidential election when fake news stories, read and spread by millions through the use of social media, became rampant. The widespread dissemination of fake news had real impacts on political discourse and has steadily eroded the general public’s trust in media outlets across the political spectrum.
Viral fake news stories have had surprising and near-tragic results. For example, the fictional story about a pedophile sex ring run out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C., that caused a 28-year old man to drive from North Carolina to the pizza shop and fire a shot at an employee with an assault rifle. The shop also reportedly received hundreds of death threats, all caused by the fictional story.
Another false story in which Israel allegedly threatened war against Pakistan caused Pakistan to respond with an actual threat of nuclear war against Israel.
Many commentators, including this one, credit fake news for impacting the 2016 presidential election and for helping, at least in part, to push Donald Trump to victory. Trump is not a fan of the media and some of his closest allies are known to have spread fake news stories before the election, most notably Trump’s pick for national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Now, Trump is personally using the fake news phenomenon and its delegitimizing impacts on the media. He is doing so not necessarily by disseminating fake news, but by openly labeling legitimate news organizations as fake news.
At a recent news conference and in a series of tweets, Trump referred to CNN as fake news then denounced the media as a whole, tweeting: “Media is fake.”
Fake news, shared at the speed of light on the internet, threatens the bedrock of U.S. democracy – free elections and our right to vote.
Over the past year, fake news has widely eroded public confidence in the media. Now, with Trump chastising the media as “fake” and further delegitimizing the media as a whole, the impacts of fake news threaten both a free press and free speech. Free press and free speech are regarded as the most vital rights in our American democracy, put in place by Jefferson and the Founding Fathers to protect all other rights bestowed by the Constitution. Once these freedoms fall – and they are teetering – other freedoms will follow.
The unfettered spread of fake news on the internet is playing a major role and has emerged as a real threat to democracy.
Patrick B. Omilian, a native of Amherst, is an attorney and a founding member of TrustworthiNEWS.org, an organization formed in 2016 to combat the spread of fake news on the internet.