Fake News: A Roundtable Reaction

Illustration of someone with a Pinocchio nose
James Steinberg

Fake news is a real and present danger.

According to BuzzFeed, during the final three months of November’s U.S. presidential campaign, the most-read fake election-news stories on Facebook generated more shares, reactions and comments than the most-read election stories that came from The New York Times, ABC News and other major news outlets.

Far from being just an American concern, fake news, says The Guardian, is “an insidious trend that’s fast becoming a global problem,” distorting politics in nations around the world.

No less a publication than the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cites fake news as a reason it’s moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock even closer to midnight.

Amid the gathering fog, we asked a collection of journalists and public-affairs experts with Brandeis ties what they thought about the assault on news, and what ordinary people can do to fight back.


Alana Abramson ’12, digital news associate for social media and politics at ABC News.

Thomas L. Friedman ’75, H’88, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The New York Times.

Florence Graves, award-winning journalist and founding director of Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

Ben Terris ’08, political feature writer at The Washington Post. Brooke Unger ’79, Americas editor at The Economist (who says that he is speaking here for himself, not his publication).

Julian Zelizer ’91, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and a regular CNN commentator.

In a way, history is repeating itself

Brooke Unger, who grew up in New York City in the 1960s, recalls his teachers “groovily proclaiming that perception is reality”: “Such a dethronement of fact is one of the things that make fake news possible. Over the decades, I’ve watched that belief spread to infect discourse on the right.”

In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal ignited a creeping bias against journalists who seem to have a liberal agenda. As a result, anti-journalism rhetoric has ready-made support, says Florence Graves: “If it’s said enough, it creates a culture of distrust, and that culture of distrust has been at work over the past several decades.”

Julian Zelizer sees parallels between the partisanship of current outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, and the sensationalist 19th-century “yellow press”: “Yellow journalism was meant to capture your attention — like reading fiction. I don’t think it’s that different from the way this stuff is produced today.”

But social media are fanning the flames

Thomas L. Friedman: “Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, it’s just so easy now not only to generate something that looks like real news and is in fact fake, but also to get it out into the world and into the bloodstream of all kinds of people.”

Ben Terris: “It’s a natural outgrowth of social media — you spend a lot of time hearing from people who have the same ideas as you. Facebook and Twitter allow fake news to zip around the internet in ways it never could before.”

Alana Abramson: “There are so many new online sites; it’s easier for a site that’s not necessarily legitimate to disguise itself. You have less control over what you’re seeing. I don’t think people consciously want to read anything fake, but if their feed is populated with a site they don’t know, it’s OK because it’s in their feed.”

Terris: The presidential campaign “was the perfect laboratory for fake news to exist in. I’m not sure if the campaign created fake news or fake news created what happened.”

Graves: “People read fake news because it resonates with them, it seems consistent with their beliefs. Most people aren’t fact checkers, and scholars have found that generally most of us are more willing to believe what comes from the ideological point of view we already lean toward.”

Terris: “The election definitely ramped up the level of both real and fake news. Kind of like drinking from a fire hose, and in that fire hose was more dirty water than normal.”

Traditional media’s crossroads

Unger: “Mainstream media are beginning to come to grips with the challenge of alerting readers and viewers to what’s fake without becoming partisan.”

Zelizer: “It’s not as if the democracy is going to be overturned in a year, but fake news is not good for the democracy. Our media are an important institution for checking political power, and they’re important for simply explaining what’s going on in politics.”

Terris: “I honestly don’t know what we can do to make people trust us more, because it’s clearly partially our fault if people can’t tell the difference between a well-reported story and something somebody made up out of thin air because it serves a purpose.”

Friedman: “It’s unhealthy for daily-beat reporters to tweet things that clearly lapse into opinion. I find that disturbing. If you’re covering the Trump beat at the White House, you shouldn’t be tweeting things that clearly show a negative attitude toward him. That is then used by the White House — rightly so, it seems to me — to say, ‘Well, this reporter is obviously biased.’”

Zelizer: “Clearly, the current administration is willing to put out stories that aren’t true and say things that really don’t have much basis in fact. It’s going to be hard for reporters, not just readers, to know exactly what is real and what isn’t, and when they’re being played. Given how quickly reporters put out their stories now, the immediacy with which they need to work, I think they are going to be a bit unsettled.”

So what’s the answer?

Friedman: “All we can do is continue to do what we do. But now we have to be much more vigilant, because it’s clear we have an administration that plays fast and loose with the facts, and cites fake news or propagates it if it serves its interests. I would urge everyone to get a digital subscription to The New York Times. I can assure you we don’t truck in fake news.”

Unger: “Truth-based publications should say something about the procedures they use — perhaps outline their fact-checking procedures or publish codes of conduct. You’re seeing the emergence of what you might call a pro-truth movement. Of course, fakers also claim to be pro-truth. Distinguishing real truthers from false ones will be important.”

Terris: “Support your local paper and The New York Times, The Washington Post and other national media. Spend money on good journalism because, really, the only defense against fake news is the abundance of real news.”

Zelizer: “The great thing about the internet and social media is that they will move away from something that’s not getting read. That’s the way to fight it.”

Unger: “As citizens, readers and viewers absolutely have a duty to seek out true information that might challenge their preconceptions. Education can play a role. Why shouldn’t school­children learn how to distinguish truth from lies and how to think critically about public issues?”

In the meantime, be vigilant

Abramson: “If it’s a site you’re not necessarily familiar with, do your research before reading the article, and be cautious.”

Tom Kertscher is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.