An oft-repeated narrative over the past two months since the election has focused on the potential conflicts of interest soon-to-be President Trump will have presiding over both the United States and his business and financial interests, domestic and foreign. Recently, the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. federal government have released a document which claims to have compromising information on the relationship between President-elect Donald Trump and the Russian government. In response, Trump has tweeted this denial of the document—“FAKE NEWS—A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
The contents of the document remain to be verified. Should the document prove to be true, it will have far-reaching ramifications regarding Trump’s constitutional eligibility to enter upon the office of President. Should the document prove to be false, it will be another case in point of the harmful effects of fake news, amplified in this case by the multitude of popular, typically-credible media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Buzzfeed who are reporting the story.
Over winter break, I read three separate articles from self-proclaiming credible sources on the Internet. We have all heard the admonition “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” but how many of us are mindful (or willing enough) to parse through the whole flood of information the Internet unleashes upon us? When I discovered that each of these three articles was false (each of the authors claimed to be acting in the name of public interest and raising awareness regarding fake news), I had to question the strength of the walls of criticism and analysis I had thought fortified my mind.
A fake news article claiming the death of Michael Jordan or the dissolution of Coldplay can quickly be discredited through a Google search and is rather inconsequential. However, in the case of the leaked document on President-elect Trump, the worst effects of fake—though in this case, unverified—news can be seen. Whatever one’s political opinion, it must be admitted that fake news has the ability to excite hysteria and damage reputation. In the 1930s, listeners tuning in to the middle of a radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds heard of alien invaders destroying Earth. This created a stir among a populace already anxious about existing social and political conditions—namely, the Great Depression and the expansionist tendencies of Nazi Germany. Then there is the more amusing though apocryphal story of Benjamin Franklin running his rival’s newspaper out of business by printing false articles on his rival’s death.
Many A-list news media outlets are reporting the compromising Trump document and thus heightening tension prior to Trump’s Friday inauguration. The question regarding fake news is one of authority. Consumers often only look for familiar logos to confirm the credibility of information. Authority, when coupled with malicious intent, can have far-reaching effects. In this case, the document in question has the potential to destabilize the transition of American executive power.
When confronted with fake news, these are my points of advice: Be alert. Question everything. Do not be quick to judge. As members of an intellectual, Christian community, we must familiarize ourselves with the practice of viewing everything with a mind toward knowing the truth and not giving into our immediate, instinctual emotions.