What’s a bigger threat: ‘Fake news’ or our lack of critical thinking?

Fake news from the right. Fake news from the left.

Fake news from the East. Fake news from the West.

We haven’t even shaken off the hangover of the “Fake News Election of 2016”, and we’re already getting inundated with warnings about fake news in this election year of 2020.

One study even finds that half of Americans think “fake news” is a bigger threat than terrorism!

The latest “fake news-news” comes courtesy of a Princeton University study which finds (shockingly!) that people over 65 years old are much more likely to share fake news stories:

“Notably, only 3 percent of those aged 18-29 shared links from fake news sites, compared with 11 percent of those older than age 65.  The association with age appears to be independent of respondents’ ideological or partisan affiliations.”

Three percent of people aged 18-29 and eleven percent of people over 65?

Not sure if those statistics rise to the “crisis level” of the fake news warnings we’ve received, but let’s assume for a moment this is really bad news.

The real question is: What constitutes fake news?

Sure, there is blatantly B.S. news that is beyond the pale in terms of inaccuracy. For example, your Aunt Martha shares an article based on a doctored photo of a politician shaking hands with a dictator.

Okay. Got it. We all agree that’s fake.

But what about other types of “fake news” that are a bit more subjective?

For example, what if a photojournalist snaps a photo of a politician giving a speech, but crops it specifically to make the audience appear sparse when, in fact, the event in question was sold out and standing room only?

Or how about a news anchor running a potentially career-ending story, using doctored or forged documents, accusing a politician of avoiding military service?

What about a newspaper running a story about a new study (funded by the one industry) that attacks a produce produced by a competitor industry — or vice versa?

Or how do we label fear mongering news stories, clearly blown out of proportion, about every coming weather crisis, health scare, or financial collapse — even when they are based on flimsy or no evidence?

What if a major city newspaper owns enough property in the city that it becomes fearful of angering those in power for fear the tax appeals grim reaper may come calling?

Or how about if a major TV news network anchor is caught on a hot mic discussing how her superiors spiked a story damaging to a controversial politically-connected person who may or may not have been murdered in his prison cell?

Examples of the types of news stories I’ve mentioned above go back decades, if not centuries. As someone who worked in public relations for decades, I’ve also seen these examples firsthand.

To be sure, as I write in this post, we do need to be vigilant against news and other programming that can negatively impact our beliefs, views, mood, and behavior.

While I agree with Stanford University researcher Susan Nash’s comments in this story that people need to “evaluate everything” and do a “deeper search” on stories they read, I disagree with her statement that:

“We all know an informed democracy is the only way democracy works.”

Aside from the fact that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, being informed won’t get it done.

One could argue that we’re all too well-informed. According to this story, “in 2011 Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers.”

It’s not about being informed.

It’s about applying critical thinking to the information we receive.

After all, fake news abounded during the era in which our country was born. Numerous leading politicians and political parties funded, published, or distributed their own newspapers, some (such as Thomas Jefferson) writing under fake names.

And yet, our nation lived on.

Perhaps the real crisis today isn’t the prevalence of the type of news, but rather the lack of critical thinking employed by the consumers of news.

I’m not saying “fake news” isn’t a thing. I’m not saying “fake news” is good.

Far from it.

What I’m saying is that perhaps the most damaging “fake news” isn’t that which is blatantly and objectively false, and that the biggest threat to our republic isn’t the type of news, but the ability of citizens to think critically when they read that news.

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