Fake News Pollutes American Psyche
by George Wolfe
“Fake news” is nothing new. Prior to 1982, I spent five years teaching at James Madison University. The student paper published an article I wrote complaining about the students wasting their time reading pop magazines and newspapers like National Enquirer and The Globe. And it’s still a problem today.
Somehow, slanderous articles, like those recently about the Obamas’ supposedly impending divorce, are more enticing than reading Aristotle.
There’s a difference between fake news and “spin.” When politicians and commentators put their spin on a report, they interpret the news and speculate on political motivations. But the news they are interpreting is usually factual. Spin borders on propaganda, but propaganda usually ignores context.
I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stright, giving an illustration of propaganda. She said there was an auto race between two cars: an American made car and a Soviet car. The American car won the race, but the state-controlled Soviet news agency, without stating that there were only two cars in the race, reported that the Soviet car came in “second” and the American car came in “next to last.” The Soviet report was true, but it ignored the context and thus gave a report that was highly misleading.
Spin and propaganda are not fake news, because fake news is false. It may, at some time, be viewed as true, but time eventually reveals that it is false. And this is what makes Trump’s fake news far more dangerous than political spin or propaganda.
Fake news became a prominent part of the political landscape in 2003 when President George W. Bush insisted that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He even duped Secretary of Defense, Colin Powell, who presented the so-called “evidence” to the United Nations to justify the U.S. pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. And look where it has led us.
Bush’s fake news led to the Iraqi failed state; ISIS, an organization far more extremist that Al-Qaida, was eventually born along with one of the worst humanitarian crises in history; Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly paranoid, and North Korea accelerated its nuclear program, no doubt to deter a pre-emptive strike by the United States.
Around the same time, in the fall of 2004, Ball State University and the Center for Peace and conflict Studies became a victim of fake news. National right-wing bi-polar political commentator David Horowitz began criticizing collegiate peace studies programs throughout the country, claiming they were indoctrinating students with a liberal anti-American political agenda. As director of the Ball State Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, I became one of his prime targets, along with peace studies faculty teaching in Indiana at Earlham College and Purdue.
Horowitz used his Internet publication Frontpage Magazine, as well as conservative radio and television talk shows, to launch his nationwide campaign. The Associated Press covered the controversy, and articles were run in media outlets throughout the country, including on the CNN website and in USA Today.
This barrage of fake news even went so far as to accuse the Ball State peace center, the Muslim Students Association, and a student organization named Peaceworkers of supporting terrorism. Horowitz’s fake news machine also published a cartoon caricature depicting me playing the saxophone while the World Trade Center burned in the background.
The false and misleading accusations, however, eventually backfired, as is usually the case with fake news. Two honors students in my class wrote a letter refuting the accusations made against me. After I submitted documentation to Provost Beverly Pitts proving the accusations were not true, Ball State University president Jo Ann Gora published a guest editorial in The Star Press on December 15, 2004 supporting my teaching and validating the academic discipline of peace studies. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and The Star Press of Muncie also published editorials condemning Mr. Horowitz.
Today we are in a worse crisis with fake news because of the prevalence of social media. Anyone with modest computer skills can publish fake news, and apparently, over 40 percent of Americans gobble it up as gospel.
More social media sites need to follow the example of Facebook and publish warnings when they detect certain posts that could potentially constitute fake news. Otherwise, news from non-professional sources will continue to degenerate into the National Inquirer sickness that pollutes the American psyche.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus and former director of the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.