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Future of Fake News

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Will people be able to distinguish between real and fake news in the future when we can’t do so now?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a larger series of Q&As that originated in the future-focused UD Magazine. To see additional questions, please visit the Envisioning the Future website.

The question assumes that we ever could. Half a century ago, political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is… that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.” In 1964, Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which chronicled how “anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science” sentiments have long been part of the American political and social landscape.

In recent decades, with the rise of the cable TV shout shows; talk radio’s frequently vacuous, vituperative invective; and shorter, lighter local and network television news stories with sometimes cartoonish graphics to make sure the audience understands, too many of our fellow Americans are benumbed and be-dumbed by what journalist Carl Bernstein has called “the spectacle, and the triumph, of the idiot culture.”

According to studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, roughly 35 percent of Americans could not name any of the three branches of the federal government, and more than 60 percent didn’t know which political party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Political scientists have found that just 49 percent of Americans knew that the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in a war is the United States. Of course, there are also the online, miscreant manipulations of social media and our electoral process.

The most heinous atrocities known to humankind, dating back thousands of years, were accomplished with the help of “fake news” — i.e. false information, also known as “lies” purveyed by despotic leaders and heinous, conscience-less abusers of human rights. The fact is, we must always be careful consumers of information. Now more than ever.

Charles Lewis, AS75, is the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a professor at American University in Washington, DC. A veteran investigative journalist, he is also the founder of two Pulitzer Prize–winning nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. His most recent book is 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity.

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