Fake News In Perspective

Fake News In Perspective

By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

image-1What is fake news?  A simple question that is not so easy to answer.  The extreme forms featuring outright fabrications can be identified quickly, but some stories are far more difficult to categorize.  Because true and false information can be blended together easily and harnessed to serve a variety of goals, fake news in one form or another has been around for quite a while.

A recent article featuring thoughts from a writer who reports on such matters suggests “the origins of ‘fake news’ go back to the 1950s when UFO newsletters from organizations like the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization reported on alien abductions and government coverups.” Jumping from UFO groups to radio programs and beyond produces a simple straight line extrapolation leading to Breitbart News.

The UFO community has experienced quite directly the negative impacts of fake news.  Charlatans and hoaxers have prospered on fertile grounds while poisoning progress toward meaningful comprehension of the phenomena.  Misinformation and deliberate disinformation have agitated leaders and the rank-and-file alike.  Unable to establish much of anything in the way of reliable, agreed-on fact, the community has devolved into small profit center fiefdoms.

Ufology has been plagued by fake news from without and within, but that device certainly did not originate in UFO interest group newsletters.  To make such a claim is to ignore a great body of history that reveals forms of fake news have been with us for centuries.  ‘Yellow’ journalism helped drive the United States into war with Spain over a century ago as publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tried to out sensationalize each other’s news stories.  Edward Bernays wrote the book on the dark aspects of propaganda – ‘engineering public consent’- nearly 25 years before Coral and Jim Lorenzen founded APRO.  Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, pushed the American colonies on the path to independence.

Fake news may be purpose built, but it can also come about through journalistic carelessness.  Experts consenting to interviews must take care to provide informed perspectives and interviewers/authors may wish to vet the assertions carefully.  It seems possible that Long John Nebel might have influenced Art Bell, but what evidence is there that chain extends forward through persons like Rush Limbaugh and beyond?  Maybe it is just as valid to postulate later day radio personalities were influenced by Harry Emerson Fosdick and the many evangelists of the airwaves who followed him.  Lacking corroboration these statements seem more akin to a conspiracy theory than an evidenced explanation of the history of fake news.

The take home lesson is clear; fake news is pervasive, some of it may not be intentional.  Manage it by honing your critical thinking skills.

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2 thoughts on “Fake News In Perspective

  1. I always thought fake news was The Onion. If we’re talking about manipulation of information via the media, that’s something that those of us who remember getting The Onion as a newsprint publication through the mail grew up calling “propaganda.”

    This post raises an excellent point, that there’s no straight-line extrapolation from UFO zines of the 50s to a Breitbartian, evil Onion. I think a sociologist or historian would find that kind of reasoning too misguided to even consider when investigating the social genesis of contemporary fake news. Dr. Kokjohn is quite accurate in saying there’s a large body of research and theory about various forms of propaganda. Sloppy reasoning and uninformed, blame-oriented story lines stand out pretty plainly against that backdrop. Then there’s this: probably the LAST source I would look to for any sort of insightful commentary or analysis of the fake news would be . . . the news media.

    My feeling is that, like the poor, fringe groups and subcultures will always be with us, and that’s mostly a good thing (except for the part about the poor, obviously). The current fake news issue has specific underlying social, historical and technological causes. The credulity and lack of reason that can flourish in fringe groups and subcultures is not where the current fake news issue came from; it came from large-scale, known or knowable social and political forces pursuing agendas related to their interests. However, it may be easier to blame UFOs than to look at those issues.

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