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How Fake News Wins

WASHINGTON, DC – In response to the wave of fake news that inundated the recent presidential election campaign in the United States, much attention has been devoted to those who produce or spread those stories. The assumption is that if news outlets were to report only the “facts,” readers and viewers would always reach the right conclusion about a given story.

But this approach addresses only half of the equation. Yes, we need news organizations to deliver reliable information; but we also need those receiving it to be savvy consumers.

For decades, the US government has supported programs to foster independent media in authoritarian, resource-deprived, or dysfunctional countries. But these programs tacitly assume that the US itself is immune to the problems people in other countries encounter when they create or consume information. We in the US also assume that American media, sustained by advertising, will continue to thrive; that independent journalism is the norm; and that most people are capable of thinking critically and making sound judgments about the information they receive.

In fact, some of the lessons that we have learned while supporting vibrant information gathering and distribution abroad are equally relevant to the US. In the 2016 election, the personal beliefs that drove millions of voters’ decisions were based not only on each person’s experiences and the information they accessed, but also on how they processed those experiences and that information. Voters’ own relationships with content producers, their motivation to believe or disbelieve facts, and their critical thinking skills all determined how they interpreted and acted on information.