Fake news stories have been at the forefront of our national discussions for four years now. Both sides of the political aisle have accused the other of promulgating lies in the media and on social media.
Add to that the clickbait ads on almost every website you visit that look like news stories. Moreover, the amplifying effect of people sharing stories online with just a few swipes and a poke.
The picture of reality in American life looks grim. When the factual details of an incident matter, they have real consequences.
Michael Brown and the Ferguson Riots
Take the Michael Brown case, for instance. In 2014, things looked very different than they do today. We had our first black president still in office.
However, a police shooting of an unarmed man – white police officer, black man – caused riots to break out in Ferguson, MO.
The movement, “hands up, don’t shoot,” was begun. Not only have we heard this phrase chanted throughout the mass protests over police shootings in 2020, but many of our nation’s elected leaders continue to claim Michael Brown’s death as tragic evidence of police brutality.
The problem is, the story that was told about that case was untrue.
Michael Brown never said those words. In fact, he was reaching into the police vehicle and grabbing officer Wilson by the neck when Wilson shot him.
The Department of Justice under Obama tried to find grounds to charge Wilson with murder, but couldn’t. Yet, the story that was told from the beginning – in this case by mainstream news outlets – remains the preferred narrative.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Slanted media accounts of incidents are one thing, and they can be damaging enough.
Still, Americans need to understand that the internet itself has a way of amplifying sensation over an event.
A study published earlier this year showed that internet robots (programmed accounts not held by real people) appear to be designed to be attracted to the most extreme social media content and inflame it to create a bigger response.
The “business” side of this would be to attract more people and sell more ads. However, the practical repercussions could end up being much more dangerous. For example, when bots started to report fake riots over the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Superbowl in 2018.
In reality, just three people were arrested, and police described celebrations as “largely peaceful.”
False Narratives and 2020 Riots
It was all bad enough before this summer. But since the death of George Floyd, some of the rioting has continued over fake news reports spread through social media.
Author Jonathan Swift said, “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.” Swift lived and died before the internet was ever conceptualized.
Last weekend, hundreds of looters destroyed the city’s shopping district over reports that police had shot an unarmed boy in Chicago.
This lie was being spread on social media. Police spent four hours trying to disperse the crowd, which did $60 million of damage and looting in a single night.
Earlier this summer, Detroit police chief Craig had to work quickly to release bodycam footage of a police shooting that brought a protest which quickly turned violent.
Social media posts had the police shooting an unarmed man when. In reality, the man had shot at an officer’s head and missed before being shot.
A quick internet search for fake social media and police shootings yield more stories of rioting and violence in other parts of the country.
What Does This Mean for You?
One thing it means for ordinary citizens is police departments now have to spend limited resources fighting false information online rather than protecting and serving the community. Citizens are less safe with fewer police.
The other take away for anyone is that most media and social media is ratings or earnings-driven rather than fact-driven. These vehicles of information are designed to get a response from you.
The more fearful the response, the more money they get. It’s best to keep this in mind when you engage with any story being told by any news source.
One thing you can do is try to find out if what you are reading is the truth when you encounter something scary or angering.
However, it can be challenging to corroborate a story online when everyone has access to the internet. The police version of events may not match what you have heard. More and more often, bodycam and police cruiser footage is on hand to corroborate the story.
The other way fake news can have an adverse effect is that you could end up being arrested and facing charges for your actions based on a false or inflated story, especially if a protest you attend involves illegal activity.
In Michigan, being convicted of rioting and inciting to riot are felony offenses. The offenses are punishable by not more than 10 years in prison or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both. (Act 302 of 1968)
If you are facing criminal charges stemming from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, call my office right away. Don’t let one hour of bad judgment ruin your life.