“What I’m about to show you is keeping me up at night,” said former CBS correspondent and current UVA professor Wyatt Andrews at a February 9 seminar addressing the relationship between President Donald Trump, the media and “fake news.” And what he said might surprise you.
At 1.2 million, the Wall Street Journal has the largest number of print subscribers of any national newspaper. The New York Times has the greatest number of online subscribers—3 million—and the biggest audience of cable news viewers—4.4 million of them—belongs to “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News. Lester Holt has the overall largest audience in daily TV news with 9.2 million viewers on “NBC Nightly News”—but none of those can hold a candle to the (mostly untrue) news being consumed on Facebook.
Facebook reaches about 67 percent of adults in America, and two-thirds of them say they get their news there, according to the Pew Research Center in 2015. That’s a potential reach of 13 million people and 44 percent of the general population.
But it gets worse, said Andrews. And here’s the real kicker: From August until election day, Facebook users engaged with 8.7 million fake news stories, surpassing the 7.3 million mainstream news engagements. So while the majority of people received their news from Facebook, more than half of it was fake. No scientific poll was taken on whether that swayed the election.
Two of the most widely read stories—the social media platform stopped counting after each story reached 900,000 engagements —had headlines that read, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” and “Wiki-Leaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS.” Both are, quite obviously, completely false.
Perhaps even scarier is new face-altering software that already exists and could be made accessible to the public soon, said Andrews. He showed a video of a man sitting next to a computer screen. When the man began to speak, his words appeared to be coming out of George W. Bush’s mouth on the screen beside him.
“What happens when someone makes a video of Trump saying something really horrible?” he asks, alluding to a fake news story that caused a Pakistani minister to threaten nuclear war with Israel on Christmas Eve.
The number of lies and fake news coming from the Trump administration is also a concern, said Andrews, pointing to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s January 21 press conference—amid thousands of people marching for women’s rights in Washington—to announce that Trump’s inauguration was the most heavily attended in history. “Period,” Spicer said.
“Yeah, the dishonest media drew all that white space in the photograph,” Andrews said, adding that he saw for himself the much more massive crowd at Barack Obama’s ceremony, which he covered for CBS. And though he’s covered many White House press briefings, Andrews said, “the idea of using that podium for a purposeful falsehood is new,” and shows that disregarding the truth won’t just be the way Trump campaigned, but the way he governs.
Lest we forget, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s claims, calling them “alternative facts” on a “Meet the Press” interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.
“The media should decline to air any of the serial liars, beginning with Kellyanne Conway,” Andrews said.
Wyatt Andrews on…
…how Trump thinks: “He’s wired from his time in business to counter-punch, to never admit that what he’s done is wrong.”
…a bully pulpit: “The thing about presidential power is that it’s finite. No one has ever insulted their way into the presidency before.”
…fighting back: “Should the press declare war in a reciprocal basis? My answer to that is a resounding ‘no.’”
…the truth: “Let’s all become advocates of facts. That’s a way to look at it.”
…the news: “When you hear anyone say, ‘You won’t hear the mainstream media report X or Y,’ that’s because it’s 90 percent nonsense.”
FIVE TIPS FOR THE MEDIA:
- Cover more policy and real citizen concern.
- Media owners should spend more money on reporters.
- Declare war on provable falsehoods.
- Decline to air serial liars.
- Demand the president defend fake news claims.