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America’s Democracy in Danger: The Threat of Fake News

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Introduction

Fake news, one of the most debated political topics today in the US, has been labeled one of the biggest threats to America’s democracy because misleading information has the ability to diminish confidence and trust in the democratic government. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, fake news is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”

I am interested in exploring this problem because I am growing up in a time where social media has a really big impact upon the public. While the term ‘fake news’ may seem like a humorous political joke, misleading information can manipulate large audiences and even play a role in presidential elections. I believe that supplying readers with the proper tools to spot disinformation can help combat the effects of misinformation, and I would love to assist in the change to provide accurate, dependable information to the public.

The History

Fake news has been a continuous problem in the press since the beginnings of journalism in America, yet hundreds of years later, a definite solution has yet to be implemented. Although the term recently became a phenomenon on social media, President Donald Trump was not the first to engage in or talk about the spread of fake news. Dishonesty in the U.S. media has been a concern since the first American newspaper companies were guaranteed the freedom of the press in 1791.

Pulitzer, drawn as Pinocchio, interrupts President McKinley in his office in this 1898 cartoon (Alamy).

In 1898, Yellow journalism, sensationalistic yet factually untrue stories, assisted in the start of the Spanish-American War (Burston). When a U.S. battleship sunk in Havana Harbor, Cuba on February 15, 1898, newspapers blamed Spain for the explosion and deaths of Americans aboard the Maine. By rousing detest toward Spain, the competition for profits between Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s New York Journal pressured the US into war (Hamilton).


Vespertilio-Homo, one of various kinds of life found on the moon, according to Locke (The Sun)

“The Great Moon Hoax” of 1935, another example of a newspaper pumping a sensational story exaggerated to the point of fiction, was a result of false articles published in a newspaper called the New York Sun. After the English astronomer John Hershel traveled to Africa to view the moon through a telescope, “Sun editor Richard Adams Locke took this kernel of truth, and… pumped out several sensational days of science fiction that was taken for news and reproduced all over the U.S. and Europe for several weeks” (Wills). These articles convinced many readers worldwide that the moon was inhabited by intelligent man-bats who communicated and lived in huts, and the Sun suddenly became the most widely read newspaper in the world. In short, the effects of past erroneous information vary from fictional articles about man-bats to the Spanish American War and the consequential Philippine Insurrection which caused the deaths of 4,234 people.

The Present Problem


The problem of misinformation has a vast impact upon the public, because false news receives far more engagement than accurate sources (Meserole).

A study conducted during the 2016 election found that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined” (Akpan). For example, #Pizzagate was a direct manifestation due to the spread of pre-election misinformation.

Comet Ping Pong Pizza (Bartlett)

On December 5, 2016, a man entered Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington DC with an AR-15 assault rifle after news stories falsely claimed that “Hillary Clinton allegedly led a child-trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong” (Akpan). Planning to rescue the children, he fired shots into the restaurant, endangering innocent bystanders and workers. These untrue stories were originally written to discourage people from voting for the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but instead resulted in a dangerous situation involving gunfire in a restaurant.

A Russian propaganda campaign also assisted in the spread of misleading articles during the 2016 election (Timberg). Thousands of Russian botnets and fake social media accounts shared right-wing sites, helping Republican Donald Trump and weakening faith in the U.S. government. It is unknown whether the “Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders” (Timberg). Although interference with elections, gunfire, and the loss of faith in American democracy are only a small fraction of the symptoms of misleading news, their extensive impact upon the public shows the substantial influence misinformation has upon the masses.

A brief, personal video introducing current solutions combating today’s fake news

Current Solutions

Fact-checking organizations and internet platforms are fighting to raise awareness and prevent the problem of false information in the news. Although the U.S. government does not regulate social media, social networks are responsible for protecting their platforms from fake news. Facebook has recruited 24 fact-checking organizations from 14 different countries to combat the spread of misinformation on its website. Google highlights fact checks in the search results, and Bing created an individual page which displays the latest fact checks (Kessler). The number of “fact-checking projects now stands at 149 in 53 countries,”  (Kessler) which is three times the number recorded in 2014. In 2016, a meeting of fact-checkers like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org created a code of principles which “laid out guidelines on a commitment to political neutrality, transparency on sourcing and funding and robust correction policies” (Kessler). After the code’s creation, organizations like Facebook only enlisted fact-checkers in compliance with the code, which ensured the veracity of the organizations checking the internet’s sources.

Did You Know?

Efforts to counter the effects of fake news are not completely successful because people possess natural, internal biases and will therefore deny accurate information. Although a fact check can change a person’s mind about particular point, they may disregard the truth because it doesn’t align with their party’s ideals (Greenblatt). Instead of listening to logic and reason, people overlook the rational decision and follow their emotions. The same trait applies to the fact-checkers themselves. Examiners, “no matter how well-intended or neutral they consider themselves to be, must be willing to check themselves for bias” (Greenblatt). Organizations like PolitiFact must have an objective staff that remains impartial while writing about emotional, political events. Moving forward, fact-checking should not only focus on individual statements, but “finding ways to empower audiences to understand things for themselves, rather than telling them whether something is right or wrong” (Greenblatt).

Looking Forward: What can you do?

How to Identify Fake News in 10 Steps (Proquest)

The spread of fake news, which possesses the power to misinform readers and influence political views, can be solved individually through educating oneself on ways to identify false news. To solve the problem of fake news, individuals should learn to identify false stories so they may tell when they are being manipulated or influenced by a piece of disinformation. The ability to “judge news sites and protect oneself from inaccurate information is a high priority in the digital age” (West). To do so, one may take classes like FutureLearn’s free, online course on Making Sense of Data in the Media where the student learns “what numbers reveal, when and why they mislead, and how to spot fake news” (FutureLearn). Other resources like Proquest’s “How to Identify Fake News in 10 Steps” worksheet guides the reader through a checklist of qualifications the sources should possess to be a reputable source (ProQuest). These resources teach readers to follow a diversity of perspectives, to be skeptical about new sources, to use fact checkers, and other useful rules. Educating the reader on fake news, whether it be through classes, worksheets, or personal research, will provide people with the tools needed to recognize false information. If false stories can be identified, then they will not be read, believed, or shared, and the effects of fake news upon the public will be prevented.

Worldwide Steps for Change

“News literacy is the acquisition of 21st-century, critical-thinking skills for analyzing and judging the reliability of news and information, differentiating among facts, opinions and assertions in the media we consume, create and distribute. It can be taught most effectively in cross-curricular, inquiry-based formats at all grade levels. It is a necessary component for literacy in contemporary society.”

(Six Principles of News Literacy)

On a larger scale, government funding to enhance news literacy by providing nationwide classes would reduce the impact of fake news. While the previous individual solution mainly pertains to older, self-motivated persons, this solution provides a solution for the younger generation. This solution combats disinformation “without endangering freedom of expression and investigative journalism” (West) because it doesn’t involve the government censorship of content which weakens the public’s freedom of expression. Instead, funding would go towards in-school and online classes which will provide students with news literacy. If children were to be given the skills needed to recognize fake news, as they grow up, they will not be influenced by disinformation. In today’s society with constant access to millions of sources, we need to adapt to educate future generations about fake news and eventually stop its widespread impact through news literacy.

Ways to Get Involved

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Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 4
  1. April 26, 2019 by Rosemary

    This article was great! I can tell you spent a lot of time researching and writing this. I especially found the section about people’s natural internal biases very interesting and I would like to do my own research on it. The Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant story was shocking and shows you how extreme this problem is. Thank you so much.

    • April 29, 2019 by Kealia Victorino

      Thank you for taking the time to read my article.

  2. April 27, 2019 by Andrew S Wu

    Having also experienced a lot of the effects of fake news, your article was a blast to read. I think you bring up a lot of great points: internal biases, potential government solutions, and sensationalism. I do, however, think that there is a danger in government involvment in combatting fake news: how do we educate students to tell what is fake and what is not? Also, shouldn’t students also learn to have a healthy mistrust of their government as well?

    • April 29, 2019 by Kealia Victorino

      Thank you for your comment. I definitely agree that there is danger in government involvement when trying to stop the spread of fake news. With such a complex problem, this solution would require a lot more time and research to take these ideas into consideration.

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