someone holds a smartphone with a news app open


Fake News Is Real! (And What to Do About It)

In his new book, Dr. Nolan Higdon unpacks the history of misinformation in American culture to help teachers bring media literacy into their classrooms

Four years ago, a destabilizing concept was injected into America's cultural bloodstream: fake news. As applied by Donald Trump, first as the Republican presidential candidate and then as president, “fake news” meant media reports that were contrary to or critical of his campaign, administration, or Twitter proclamations. That definition—information published maliciously by partisan journalists out to get political enemies—quickly took hold and became a cudgel used by politicians, commentators, social media users, cable news viewers, voters, and consumers. The long-term impact has been nefarious. Misinformation and alternative facts can be repeated and repackaged as legitimate by truth-tellers from within the echo chambers of our biases and feeds, with social media superspreading baseless claims, falsehoods, and lies.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1983. Today, many reject that claim. But as the quote suggests, fake news—and its weaponization—isn’t a new phenomenon. In America, it’s a menace as old as the country itself.

That’s one point Dr. Nolan Higdon makes in his new book, The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education. A lecturer in media studies and history at California State University, East Bay and co-host of the podcast Along the Line, Higdon has studied fake news for a decade. His book—a guide aimed at educators who teach, or want to teach, media literacy—presents a cultural history of fake news in America. It’s an expansive, at times provocative narrative that forces readers to confront their assumptions and media consumption habits while starting the conversation about repairing media’s role in our democracy—and improving our role in the media ecosystem.

Higdon spoke to The Elective about how and why he wrote the book, and why media literacy needs to be incorporated into as much of the curriculum as possible.

A headshot of Nolan Higdon on the left, the cover of Anatomy of Fake News on the right

California State University, East Bay (author), University of California Press (cover)

What spurred you to write Anatomy of Fake News?

I first got interested in the topic around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was always hard to talk to people about the coverage of that because everyone thinks they're a news expert. You’d point out that there were some things that are fake or inaccurate in a reputable outlet, like The New York Times, so they'd assume you're a conservative. But Trump, ironically, during the 2015-16 campaign opened up an opportunity. He popularized the topic. And I was both happy and dismayed—dismayed that he was weaponizing this real problem for his own purposes but happy that people were considering the important impact of media in general and news media specifically. I went to my academic conferences and gave my typical talks. I was invited to a number of schools, ready to talk to parents and things like that, and I came to realize quite quickly that a large part of the country either felt that the problem was all the doing of conservatives—Trump and Russians—or it was all liberal bias—CNN and The New York Times. I wanted to write a book that showed there's a long history of the problem, that it's much bigger than any of those actors or institutions, and that we can't address it unless we understand what it is.

Although people knew the term “fake news,” did they have too limited a sense of what it meant?

Too limited for my taste. For example, some folks thought fake news was just an internet phenomenon. Congress reacted by trying to understand the internet and trying to regulate it. But even if you did perfect regulation of Mark Zuckerberg and Google, fake news would still be a problem. Having said that, I do think the internet is a game-changer in the influence fake news has. But we have to understand that the internet itself doesn't produce fake news. People and institutions do, sometimes with pernicious motives.

You write about how corporate imperatives and economic goals impact what we see, how we see it, how stories are headlined, and so on, with clicks and traffic prioritized over quality. It's a dead end for most of the media. Do you see a way out of it?

We need more diversity of ownership. I support, obviously, privately owned media. But we need more diversity of ownership, and we need the media competing for more stories rather than trying to maximize their profit from smaller audiences. The economic incentives right now are to capture a small part of the audience, usually based on political ideology, and scare them as much as possible so they keep coming back. Make them feel like they’re the good guys and the other side is the bad guy. But that isn’t conducive to a democracy. I used the example in the book of Keith Olbermann [on MSNBC] and Bill O'Reilly [on Fox News] lampooning each other. I used to watch The Daily Show. Jon Stewart would do the same thing to Republicans. But none of that is news, and none of that really affects my life or policies. It might make me feel good to see Bill O'Reilly get owned, but it's not going to change my economic reality. It’s not going to create opportunities for my community.

I think changing economic incentives can be quite powerful. News organizations used to compete against each other to get a story because they wouldn't want another outlet to scoop them. That’s mostly dead. Now it's who can scare their audience the most and keep their eyeballs on the screen.

An elderly woman in a make America great again hat shouts and points at Jim Acosta, who is standing behind a metal barricade

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Maria Rojas shouts at CNN's Jim Acosta before a Columbia, SC, event featuring President Donald Trump, on June 25, 2018. Trump's use of "fake news" and the anger he has directed toward the media has made covering rallies challenging for journalists.

I'm glad you brought up The Daily Show. The term "fake news" has a specific resonance right now, mostly because of Trump and his Orwellian doublespeak. But you take a very expansive definition of fake news. I didn't necessarily expect to find satire and The Daily Show bundled into this concept.

About 10 years ago, if we were having this conversation, we probably would be focused on The Daily Show. That's largely what "fake news" was applied to. It meant talking about satirical content that was presented as news. So I wanted to make sure I included that history. I also wanted to take back control over fake news. There's this almost spineless sensibility where we cede terms to people who misuse them, like “fake news” or “conspiracy theory” and things like this. These have specific meanings, and we should hold on to them regardless of who uses them. Language is so powerful. I tried, to the best of my ability, not to discount any type of false content that could be introduced as news. I wanted to, again, make the case that we have to look at all of this stuff if we're going to have this conversation in any meaningful way.

In that Olbermann/O'Reilly/Daily Show example, do you think viewers go to those people or shows and confuse them for objective outlets? What role does objectivity play in this conversation?  

At some level, you're always striving for but never achieving objectivity. But at least with 24-hour news—and unfortunately this is happening more and more even in print journalism—these individuals are turning themselves into brands. It’s becoming more about them than it is the story. Matt Taibbi said this brilliantly: if you go back to the '60s and '70s, journalists were usually working-class stiffs who wanted to stick it to elites. Now they're these professionals who want to rub elbows with elites. They don't have objectivity because access means everything to them. Chuck Todd, about a decade ago, famously said he didn't criticize then-Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview because if he did, Dick Cheney wouldn't come back on his show. Nobody from the White House would either. He got a bunch of flack for it, but I thought, What an honest admission that, basically, if you ever hold these people accountable, you'll lose access to them, which means you'll lose your audience share, which means you're out of a job. That's where I think economic incentives play a crucial role.

A larger point you raise in the book is that fake news is a massive issue and something we all have to confront. At the same time, so many bits of news are flying at us from every direction, it's distracting. How do people—not only news consumers but people who teach this or who want to teach it—zoom out and refocus on the big picture to make the small things make more sense?

We need to reexamine why we look at news in the first place. Allison Butler, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says we should recast ourselves as media citizens. That’s the reason why we have a free press or are supposed to—because we believe it was intrinsic to serving democracy. Journalism exists to uphold our democracy. So when we encounter news content, it's not to own the libs or to find out what celebrities are doing or whatever. It’s about how we can inform ourselves to make the right decisions in our democracy, whether it be who to vote for or who to protest or who to write letters to or how to vote with our wallets. We need to reframe our understanding of why we sit down with news content. When you do that, you start to realize what you don't need to look at. I don't need to hear 24-hour network blowhards express their opinions. I don't need to know what celebrities are doing. I don't need to know who Trump offended with his tweet this morning. These aren’t things that matter to most people's lives. Think about what you care about—policy and things like this—to start looking for news that actually matters in your life.

In the process, though, be cognizant of your proclivities and biases. I talk in the book about how social media reinforces our biases. If you’re a Republican who hates Democrats and all the news you're reading is about how bad Democrats suck, you’ve got to pull yourself out of that. You have to have principles and say that, no, there are certain things—truth, policy, morality, ethics—that I care about more than party. I’m going to try and find news that best informs me about those topics, regardless of whether it helps or hurts whatever party.

And for many of us who have privilege—privilege comes with its own set of blinders. If you're privileged, often you’re unable to account for the way people who don't have privilege view certain messages or see certain policy. Striving to get rid of the privilege blinders is crucial. Think what it's like to be a person of color or a woman, a poor person, a non-hetero minority, or something like that, to see how they understand the same things you're reading differently. That way we can develop empathy and sympathy, which are necessary for a democracy.

That's a long way of saying that we need to take news content much more seriously than we do. It's not trivial stuff to be shared online. You need to appreciate it, analyze it, and use it.

A young woman holds up a sign that reads science is not a liberal conspiracy

Sarah Morris/Getty Images

Scientists and supporters participate in a March for Science in Los Angeles on April 22, 2017. Critics of President Trump and his use weaponization of "fake news" often find themselves speaking in defense of facts, such as those established by science.

It feels like we might need better education to make this happen. It's asking a lot of people to bring all this into play when they read a story, especially if they're not equipped to take blinders off or have empathy.

I completely agree. I smirked at your education point because that's definitely a bias of mine. I'm an educator, but I'm also critical of our education system. I think it's way too focused on what's called marketable skills. I would reorient our education system to where it actually began, which was by asking, “How do we make the best democratic citizens?” It’s very clear that by giving people the skills to be better democratic citizens—things like critical thinking and critical analysis and exposure to different frameworks—you're giving them the very tools that can serve in the market as well. We'll teach people how to be little obedient workers and never question the system, but we won't teach people what the system is, or how they can challenge it. One of the things the Founding Fathers got correct was that we need to have a free and vibrant press. One of the many things they got wrong is that just because truth is out there doesn’t mean people will find it. People need the skills to be able to find truth. I'm not trying to make lists, to say, “This is good news, and this is bad news.” I'm talking about giving people the skills so they can sift through the news and make decisions on their own. Not what to think, but how to think.

What role do you see this book and the conversation around fake news and media literacy playing in civics education? Does it have a place there, or is it important enough to be a course on its own?  

There's a divide on this among media literacy educators. It should be across the curriculum, intertwining this stuff and all these classes. Whether you like it or not, the majority of Americans consume media, half if not most of their day, and these are the texts influencing them and informing them. Teaching them how to analyze it, consider it, and measure it is crucial. Increasingly, when I teach a history lesson, students bring up a movie, and that's their understanding of history. You have to be prepared to explain to them, “You know, it's two hours and they have to have a happy ending and there's this corporate desire to put in some stories and not others, so it's not really good history.” News, to me, can fit anywhere. Any class can do news literacy. I think covid-19 has revealed another area, which is science literacy in news. We need more of these public science academics who are up to date on the research but are also watchdogs for news media.

That's a really good point, especially as it applies to climate change. Talk about disinformation and misinformation and confusion. I think high school students are way smarter and more engaged about this than adults are, but just having early exposure to climate change science seems so important.  

Yes, I absolutely agree. I'm living through covid-19, where we were in lockdown. I'm in California, where we had wildfires and we couldn't go outside. I recognize that I'm lucky and more privileged than most, but it's the reality of the warnings of climate change I heard maybe 20 years ago. I'm starting to see and live those experiences now.

One of the areas worth bringing up, especially in educational contexts, frightens me. I would say to all my educator friends out there: We should be very careful making statements as if you can't talk to or reach the other side. I've seen many people in the academy get comfortable saying that. If you're an educator, you have to believe we can reach anybody, and you have to believe people are capable of thinking in different ways when they're presented with new information. If we lock that possibility out, if we say all climate-deniers are lost or all Trump supporters are lost, we miss an opportunity to reestablish our democracy. You have to meet people where they are, and fake news helps explain part of the story of why some people ended up where they are.

A row of newspapers with the boston globe in the middle with the headline journalists are not the enemy

Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The August 16, 2018, edition of the Boston Globe is seen on a newsstand in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One effect of the deglitimization of media through the use of "fake news" has been threats on the livelihoods, and lives, of journalists.

How can the press improve? And by press, I mean what we look at as mainstream media. How can it not be these conduits to fake news?

The more that journalists can realize that social media isn’t the world, the better. This vocal-minority-on-social-media game desperately needs to end. Journalists need to stop equating reporting on a tweet with journalism. But I'm also inspired by some of the new media that's coming out right now. I'm a podcaster myself, and I'm really inspired by podcasting. For years, people like me were told, "Oh, you could never do in-depth things. Audiences won't listen. They have short attention spans." You have people tuning in to listen to Joe Rogan talk to somebody for maybe three hours. That's pretty powerful, especially with all the different content that's out there and how much of it is trying to distract us. You get someone to pay attention to someone for three hours—that’s very impressive.

It's funny you mention Joe Rogan because he got busted for pushing fake news about the wildfires.*

Perfect example, yeah.

* Since this interview was conducted Rogan has come under renewed criticism. The latest controversy involves Rogan having Alex Jones on his podcast, where the Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist used the platform to spread misinformation.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.