What’s “Fake” About “Fake News”? A critical media literacy perspective

by Bill Yousman

Among my friends and colleagues who do media studies and media activism there is a split on how to think about the newfound attention to so-called “fake news.”

This reminds me of debates about subliminal advertising years ago. Some insisted that it was real and pervasive; others pointed to empirical studies that disproved the many myths about subliminal advertising. But it was a third position that I found most compelling: that we needed to broaden our conception of “subliminal” in order to understand that all advertising is meant to affect us on a mostly unconscious level. In other words, an ad for alcohol doesn’t need to include the word “sex” hidden in ice cubes for it to suggest a wealth of ideas about gender, relationships, and power.

This broader understanding of “subliminal” allows us to see that it is not just a few unscrupulous rogue advertisers that manipulate us but all of the advertising and marketing which we encounter on a daily basis.

With that in mind, I would like to suggest a parallel understanding of the concept of “fake news.” Currently, there appear to be two takes on that term:

(1) The corporate media are just using that term to disparage alternative news sources and fake news is actually not a problem at all.

(2) Fake news is at the heart of our political and social problems and therefore we should only rely on traditional news sources like the New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN.

The third position is this: Fake news is indeed a significant problem. In the digital media environment, anyone can easily create any sort of nonsense they want, make it look authentic, and disseminate it widely through social media. Many people are taken in by this disinformation, which leads to serious social and political consequences, as we have recently seen.

However, fake news is not just the purview of a few isolated deviants with smart phones and broadband. The corporate media themselves often promulgate misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and lies. For an organization like Fox News, for example, to critique “fake news” is absurdity of the highest level. Similarly, when the New York Times led us into war with Iraq based on lies from the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA, which they dutifully reported as if it were all verifiable, this too was fake news.

In sum, we need critical media literacy more than ever. Critical media literacy should challenge fake news in all its manifestations, whether its origin is an insane blogger in their basement or a well-funded corporate news outlet. We have to teach people which alternative news sources are reliable and which are pure propaganda. Finally, we have to argue that having a point of view is fine but making stuff up is not. News that lacks objectivity isn’t the problem. News that lacks facts is.

Bill Yousman, Ph.D., is the director of the Media Literacy and Digital Culture graduate program at Sacred Heart University and the former managing director of the Media Education Foundation. Yousman has published numerous journal articles and anthology chapters on media literacy and popular culture.

One thought on “What’s “Fake” About “Fake News”? A critical media literacy perspective

  1. Some essential reading from a self-professed news faker.

    “For people who are desperate, however, believing in grand master plans to bring them down—no matter how obviously fake they immediately appear to be—is almost a necessity.
    For moderates, I think it’s a bit easier to avoid pitfalls: The mainstream news may not always be accurate on everything but there is a lot of it and they get the main points right. For conservatives there is no trusted media. There are only trusted positions.
    Breitbart, World Net Daily, even InfoWars now count as on-my-side places where they believe the real truth lies. When the only news you are willing to believe is partisan news, you are susceptible to stories written “in your language” that are complete, obvious, utter fabrications.”


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