Remember when President Barack Obama banned the Pledge of Allegiance?
I don’t either, because it never happened. But millions of people believe it did, or at least shared fake news articles — crafted to look like legitimate reporting from an internet news site replete with a web address — saying it did. And that was one of the less vicious fake news stories of the 2016 election campaign.
Fake news spread across social media in 2016 like a cloud of biblical locusts on the plain, causing widespread panic among journalists and politicos and confusion among the general public. And it can have real-world consequences.
Fake news can affect voting, and it can encourage scary incidents. Just ask the patrons of Comet Ping Pong in Washington, DC. In December, after fake-news spreaders and duped internet users claimed the pizzeria was the center of a child-abuse ring linked to Hillary Clinton, a gunman discharged his weapon there. Luckily, no one was hurt.
It should have set off alarm bells in several industries about the fake news potential to result in real-world harm.
Journalists are on the front lines since the White House began using the term "fake news" to describe critical stories.
The media industry’s business side also has an important role to play. Publishers should pressure the ad networks that display dubious click-bait headlines — the "you won’t believe she was allowed to wear this on cable" at the page bottom — to improve their practices.
Much responsibility lies with such social networks as Twitter and Facebook to put an end to demonstrably false content on their platforms, or at least stop it from going viral. One solution? Less technology and more humans, specifically editors or people like them who are critical thinkers and can sniff out conspiracy theories and stories dreamed up to maim.
Crisis communicators have their own role to play. In an era when companies large and small can be victims of even the most outlandish internet rumor, it’s essential for digitally savvy communicators to get the facts out quickly and concisely.
Everyone has a role to play in today’s fight against fake news, and the most important job — not clicking — belongs to the reader.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.