Above all of our more physical challenges of wildfires and a wild virus, we find ourselves also living in an age of hoaxes. A hoax is a deliberate lie told to create a false reality where the hoaxer takes advantage of the innocent and unaware. Unchecked, these false realities can spread widely enough among us to be more real than the real real.
So now we don’t know what to believe and that’s a very dangerous place to be. The epitome of this infirmity is hearing that our president has been stricken with COVID-19 and hordes of us assume it might be a hoax instead of a true tragedy.
This age of hoaxes has entangled the science of climate change, Russian election tampering, QAnon sex trafficking conspiracies, mail-in voter fraud allegations and the coronavirus pandemic itself. (A daughter blamed her father’s death from COVID-19 on the fact that he believed the pandemic was a hoax.) There’s a book titled “Hoax” by Brian Stelter on the bestseller list right now and there was a “Hoax” Netflix movie last year about Bigfoot. A Google search just now tallied 50,800,000 results for “hoax.”
What’s the best defense against all these hoaxes? They are embedded in our daily social media feeds. We see activist movements and political groups based on their own self-created hoaxes. There are so many hurled assaults about fake news that unfaked facts are becoming too battered to matter. Some of us are living in “hoaxed universes” where the climate will get cooler soon, the coronavirus will magically go away, the Russians are innocent and there is no racism in America.
Truth and trust are the shields against lies, hoaxes and false claims of authenticity. Truth and trust in America is the purview and purpose of newspapers. Newspapers — and the journalists that work for them — are the front guard against hoax-making. They are our truth seekers and our crap detectors. They are America’s essential watchdogs of our government leaders, policy makers and the powerful.
As we’ve been writing for a tiresome and lengthening period, we need truth-seeking journalists and their newspapers now more than ever. This week, Oct. 4-10 happens to be National Newspaper Week. Help us celebrate by extending your subscription and supporting our anti-hoax efforts.
Hoaxes aren’t new to newspapers. In 1835, several newspapers chased a fabricated story that someone had landed on the moon and found fantastical living beings. There are people still alive today that believe the 1969 moon landing by Apollo 11 was all a hoax. But these are tame compared to the hoaxes we face today.
To combat hoax-making and to defend the truth, fact-checked news reporting, and the health of newspapers, more people need to become critical and alert news consumers. Most hoaxes and sources of disinformation are too outlandish or too perfect to believe. But some can be quite canny and fiendish.
Like good journalists, always check your sources and use more than one source. Make sure these are separate sources and not versions of the same possible deception. Ask who might gain from a news story or report. Watch for opinion dressed as news. Especially on social media it is easy to be manipulated and repeat a hoax to your friends. Avoid “confirmation bias.” Don’t just use news sources you agree with all the time. Challenge your own set of facts.
The task of a journalist is to be a faithful eyewitness to events, conversations and public decision making. Journalists must research history and laws, do “background checks” on public figures and local organizations and always challenge themselves for their own biases. The theme for this year’s National Newspaper Week is, “America Needs Journalists.” One reason this is true is because journalists empower their readers. The more accuracy a local newspaper provides, the less chance there is for hoaxes to spread.