By Mark C. Marino
A story has been running all night through the streets of Los Angeles. “Fake News, It’s everywhere.” We caught up with it just long enough to take a selfie with it before it leapt off the Hollywood sign. It wasn’t the first. Fortunately, it sustained only minor injuries.
Fake News is a contemporary moral panic. It’s noise jamming the channels of transmission, but it’s also troubling our ability to recognize real news. It may have even influenced the recent U.S. Presidential election.
In response to this panic, and in order to make sure we left no bandwagon behind, Talan Memmott, the Provisional Provost at the UnderAcademy College, a non-degree granting alternative non-institution of higher learning, and I decided to walk into the mouth of the beast to teach a course in “How to Write and Read Fake News,” subtitled, “Journullism in the age of Trump.”
For the course, we used Medium (medium.com), which is also a strong platform for making any article look like real news, though I don’t know of any fake news scandals that have used it. Our chief organ is The Fake News Reader: (https://medium.com/the-fake-news-reader), which serves as our central course hub. Our journullists have the opportunity to publish in any of our three other course publications: CTRL-ALT-RIGHT: our right-wing tabloid; West of Knob Lick: our left-leaning broadsheet; and The Trumpet Blow Institute: A think tank where journullists can publish fake studies to support their fake news posts.
The goal of the course is to address this moment, what some might call a crisis if they wanted some serious clickbait, by diving straight into the shark infested waters and swimming around. We ask the students to write a Fake News article per day. However, since UnderAcademy is an alternative institution, we give them the option not to, and most of the lazy s.o.b.s (students over burdened) take that second option.
But what is Fake News? For the most part, it’s propaganda. But for our course, I’ve created a typology of about 6 kinds of fake news. Fantasy Fake, stories designed to be fun diversions; Funny Fake, generally satire; Fony Fake, hoaxes and ruses; Falacious Fake, misleading or sensationalized news; Flat Fake, an unfunny story passing itself off as real news; and Falshivka Fake, fake news from Moscow. My way might not be for everyone, and for those who don’t like it there is also “the highway.” However, I do feel that distinctions must be made between various kinds of Fake News, for example between Fake News and fake news, lest we give Fake News a bad name, unintentionally.
What about the Fake News Media? Well, the Trump Administration and his Trump Train have attempted to delegitamize professional journalists by denigrating their work as fake. Historically, this would be considered a kind of psychosis as it represents a break from reality. But in this case, the term is being wielded more as another form of propaganda through censorship and censuring any organization considered to be critical of the administration.
Can their be real news after fake news? I hope not. In other words, if you mean, can we go back to innocent perception of news as being free from ideology, then that would seem to me both unlikely and undesirable. If you mean go back to a time when people did not routinely deny empirical facts, then I’m doubtful but have some hope.
How can we tell real news from fake news? Well, you have got to think critically and triangulate. First, receive all news with a hermeneutics of suspicion. Long before this moment, even before the days of yellow journalism, consumers of news or official announcements needed to read between the lines. On the other hand, an educated citizenry requires sources, other trustworthy authorities, that can be used to try to corroborate or disprove the current story. Even then, a certain critical distance is obviously necessary to assess the legitimacy of those sources.
Curiously, the Trump Army believes that it is doing this critical work by circulating its counternarratives about hidden monetary forces behind grass roots protests or conspiratorial jihads for global domination in Islam. Reading through the Trumpian Twitterverse, I see these messages and the pride and righteous indignation of those who reTweet them.
The bigger question, I suppose, is how does anyone develop the critical faculties to critically evaluate not only the news they are receiving but also their corroborating sources when our tendency is to accept only the stories that jive with our narratives, our politics, our ideology. In a U.S. divided — actively pulled apart — by partisan media channels, how can a thoughtful citizen see past their own biases?
I suspect only through person-to-person human contact with those who believe differently. That is step one.
When did all this fake news start? It started with the first lie, the first rumor. Seriously, fake news seems to begin with the advent of communication itself. I have published a timeline where I try to review some of the more notable moments, though, including wonderful gems like The New York Sun publishing stories of winged humanoids on the moon, the Yellow Journalism that Hearst promoted, and the various attempts to create bogeymen out of one minority group or another (to name a few).
But in more contemporary times, it’s only about as old as the Internet. Here I’m referring to Populist Propaganda or Flat Fakes, or those news stories that look indistinguishable from something you could find posted on abc.com, except it turns out the source is abc.com.com. For as big a difference as those two little letters make to nature of source, the difference between the way those pages look is small.
Are there any fun ways people can approach fake news? I mean, is it okay to have fun with this?
Hmm. Do you want to have REAL fun with fake news? Find a story that seems to good to be true: Trump wins Nobel Peace Prize. Then send it to 15 of your most partisan family members. Watch to see if anyone reposts it on social media, and when they do laugh the bitter guffaws of those who brought lighter fluid to the fire of Rome.
Does satire still have a place? Yes, but it has to learn to be a bit smarter and maybe try to get a bit more sleep. More blue pills, fewer red pills. Or is it the other way around?
What’s the play with the Fake News Course? Well, the UnderAcademy has a tradition of provocative courses, including my class in Grammar Porn. Talan and I felt the current moment was offering an assault on reason, so we figured we’d assault it right back. In other words, to fly straight into the mouth of the fake news beast and see if we could at least make it down to the entrails.
Does the fake news class really teach people to write fake news? What are some of the assignments?
We teach people what is in fake news, largely through modeling and burying them in readings, and we also spend a little time explaining our 80-20-10 model of Fake News writing. However, what they do with that information is up to them? Most of them seem to be ignoring it.
I think my favorite is the post-fact checking, in which we ask students to corroborate an existing fake news story by finding support for its claims on the Internet. For every fiction, you can find a dozen sites (or more) with the same story. It’s very hard to break out of that bubble.
How does fake news connect with your broader experience of subverting / bringing play to the new media? (and what is the new media? How might we think of it?)
I have a bit of a history in troubling the waters of new media. First, there’s the overall creative category of netprov, or improvised networked narratives, that Rob Wittig and I have been working to promote. Our recent collaboration with Samara Hayley Steele and Cathy Podeszwa, Thermophiles and Love, brought play to online dating as we imagined a 5-gendered dating site for micro-organisms.
Other netprovs have been a bit more hoaxy. In Realy: Being @Spencerpratt and Speidishow, Rob and I played in the world of a Reality TV Star, playing with the borders of the same surreality in which our current President flourished. However, our work was to play improv and poetry games with the followers of Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag.
We took up a more direct political cause with Occupy MLA, a fictional occupy collective taking on the Modern Language Association, particularly on the topic of adjunct labor. However, we learned quickly that sometimes literary organizations like when things operate literally.
Our goal with these was never to troll or moll or manipulate. Our goal was create art that challenged people’s relationships to social media and that raised important issues through the telling of stories of characters. For example, the Occupy MLA group were terribly dysfunctional, ridden with in-fighting and acrimony, dragged down by the collegiate forces they sought to oppose, all the slings and arrows that assaulted their self esteem. Tempspence, the obscure poet who took over @SpencerPratt’s account, only wanted to get his name out there, but because he had taken on someone else’s (illegally) he was doomed to obscurity.
Even in our fake news class, we have fictional characters, who are posting articles — but their articles challenge the authority and structure of the class itself. So in my impish brain, I guess I’m always trying to undercut any dogmatic agenda my self-righteous brain might put forward as a way of avoiding some of the plights of orthodoxy and to explore the realm of what’s really at stake, the realm of our humanity (and inhumanity).
There is the money-making factor of face news. Should we take advantage of it while it lasts?
There’s money in lots of things. Selling mortgage defaults, oxycotin, steaks. So if that’s your thing, have at. But the biggest money will go to those who own the sites that serve up the ads on news fake and real. Want big money? That way go.
Do you think there will always be suckers ready to share fake news? I hope so. It’s perhaps the most truly American virtue.