PEN America and President Trump have something in common: Both hate fake news.
They define the term a bit differently, however.
According to PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free speech and human rights, fake news is “demonstrably false information that is being presented as a factual news report with the intention to deceive the public.” According to Trump, who once declared that “any negative polls are fake news,” the label applies to just about every piece of information he doesn't like.
In the absence of a universally accepted definition, combating fake news (whatever that means) is a difficult — even frightening — proposition.
Trump seems to think a congressional investigation might be a good idea. He suggested last week that the Senate Intelligence Committee should probe “the Fake News Networks in OUR country” and on Thursday told reporters in the Oval Office that “it's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
A Trump-initiated crackdown on fake news surely would threaten real news, too. In fact, PEN America argues in a report published on Thursday that any new legal restrictions could trample on the First Amendment.
“Recognizing fraudulent news as a threat to free expression should not be employed as a justification for broad new government or corporate restrictions on speech, measures whose effects would be far more harmful to free speech,” the organization wrote.
PEN America contends that “the best prescription against the epidemic of fake news is to inoculate consumers by building up their ability to defend themselves.”
Among PEN America's recommendations:
- Educators should “adopt news literacy education as a core part of school curriculums.”
- Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook should “identify purveyors of fraudulent news . . . and take steps to ensure that they are not able to sustain themselves and profit from access to advertising services on your platforms.”
- Social media networks also should “develop additional ways to offer users content that may differ from their own beliefs or views, in ways that are transparent to users and sustain their control over what they see.”
- News outlets should “emphasize transparency of operations as a high priority, including finding new ways to be more open with readers about the journalistic and editing processes and the handling of errors.”
- News outlets also should “clearly label different types of content as reporting, commentary, opinion, analysis, etc.”
There are many more proposals packed into a 132-page report, but these stand out as sensible, doable suggestions. Something as simple as categorizing news articles (note the “analysis” tag at the top of this one) should help avoid accusations that journalists are trying to pass off opinion as straight reporting.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders leveled that charge during a briefing last week.
“A lot of times you have opinions that are being presented as news, and they're not,” she said.
Actively exposing social media users to differing views might puncture, even slightly, the information bubbles that lead people to believe, often falsely, that those who disagree with them are out of the mainstream. Residents of bubbles can mistakenly conclude that contrasting opinions are extreme — and perhaps based on fake news — because they seldom confront sources that challenge their existing beliefs.
And news literacy education sure sounds like a necessary prescription. As Trump made clear when he incorrectly claimed that “the press is able to write whatever they want,” even the president does not fully understand how the media works.
Maybe the first class could be held at the White House.