Since New Yorker editor David Remnick reported in its November 18th issue about President Obama’s deep interest in fake news– fake news itself has become the biggest news story since the election. Echoing President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy, the controversy triggers outrage on the talk shows, investigations at the newspapers, and requiems for the media establishment from websites ranging from Salon.com to Breitbart.

 

Yet a study released yesterday by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York contends that 80% of the 134 adults it tested did not believe a single “fake news” story presented to them. The test consisted of seventeen popular fake news articles mixed randomly amongst thirteen pieces from established news outlets. The research team designed a sample group it says accurately reflects the U.S. audience on Facebook.

 

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950, with permission of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
George Tooker, The Subway, 1950, with permission of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Clicks vs. Credulity

Roger Bartscherer, director of the Language and Thinking program at Bard, says that while the findings are overall “immensely reassuring,” 40% of users under 21 believed a story claiming that Hillary Clinton was part of a conspiracy to suppress “revelations” that Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz never existed.

 

 

“The most persuasive fake news articles ingeniously traffic in allegations that an established news story, or historical event, is itself a lie,” Bartscherer writes in the introduction to the report. “We think that, ironically, younger readers are so trained to view history and facts as contested that any challenge to a standard narrative, however grandiose, is given credence.”

 

Michael Weinstein, director of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, laughed at the suggestion that pseudo-sophistication amongst millenials with too much critical thinking was to blame. “People have always believed what they want to believe. The fake news stories that implicate established media outlets in censorship conspiracies do not ‘traffic’ in tales of corporate greed or foreign policy disasters from the seventies. They legitimize extreme hatreds of certain people or groups that readers would otherwise feel ashamed of.”

The formal Italian garden at the Levy Economics Institute overlooking the Hudson River.
The formal Italian garden at the Levy Economics Institute overlooking the Hudson River.

Real Fake News or Fake Real News?

If most viewers of viral fake news articles understood that they were fake stories, why did they read them and why did they keep on clicking? (Dr. Bartscherer proposes a separate study on the small minority of Facebook users who vehemently push fake news stories daily.) Several senior entertainment industry executives interviewed mused that perhaps there was a vast untapped demand for playful conspiracy theory movies. One suggested that The New York Times itself hire these imaginative characters to write headlines and direct social media distribution.

 

Politicizing Fake News

When the Bard College study predictably does not make television news rounds this week, some will blame a media desperate to indict average Americans as naïve, others will note that the far more pressing controversy is the attempt by centrist policy groups to label any ideological news source as “fake.” This debate itself could confuse millions of Americans who are unaware of what the term “fake news” has meant for the past two years. Ultimately, those on the left and right angered by Dr. Bartscherer’s narrative-shattering study not appearing on CNN and Fox News must ask themselves the paradoxical question: Are the 80% of Americans smart enough to debunk fake news on Facebook going to follow this saga with as much skepticism as their professionally political news editors?

 

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