When Fake News Divides

In this week’s spotlight I wish to address something we all hear a lot about today, and that is the idea of fake news. Now I’m not going to go down the road of Trumpian fake news, so relax if that concerns you. No, I’m more interested in bringing to your attention how the media can rush to judgment in ways that divide our country and contaminate our thinking about matters outside of the world of politics.


We hear a lot today about the evils of Google, as this past weekend’s 60 Minutes show argued, or the Facebook scandal and their involvement with Cambridge Analytica, and these stories are important. What we don’t hear much about is the good things that occur everyday. Moreover, since it seems that most folks want to hear the sensational, or so the ratings would suggest, when a story is sensational, it is repeated everywhere and, as a result, it becomes a meme of our culture.


Think about the meme, “I can see Russia from my kitchen.” This is a narrative that many people still believe Sarah Palin actually said. Unfortunately the research data shows us that, even when a person is informed that the information they hold as true has been recanted and is totally false, folks tend to remember the original piece and where they saw or heard the information, and keep right on repeating it.

In other words, a retraction run in the newspaper where you read the original article, is totally insufficient to change your mind if you agreed, or wanted to believe, what you read in the first place.

Rush to Judgement

Okay, we’ve all heard a lot in the news during the past couple of years about police shootings and much of what we have heard is fiction. For example, as Jim Comey so aptly points out in his book, A Higher Loyalty, the press reported the shooting of the young black American, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of 2014. This incident touched off weeks of rioting and unrest in the community. The press reported that some 25 businesses burned down including Walgreen’s, Little Caesar’s, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Auto By Credit, Beauty World, Sam’s Meat Market, Autozone, Public Storage, JC Wireless, and more. Two police cruisers were burned out, one person died, and many more were injured. The total cost of the riot in dollars, according to the Hoosier Econ, was 5.7 million for the first riot alone, and there were more riots to follow.1

Time Delays and the Truth

The DOJ spent months investigating the case and determined that the media accounts were factually wrong and misleading. Quoting Comey, “Contrary to what most people of the public heard or thought they had seen, there was reliable evidence that Michael Brown was not surrendering when he was shot, and there was DNA evidence that he had assaulted the officer and tried to take his gun.”

Unfortunately, by the time the facts were released the damage was done. The hands up—don’t shoot story, repeated over and over in the media, dramatized by members of congress, shared in posts on social media platforms, repeated on posters held high by protestors, etc., had become a meme. You can think of this meme as a Hollywood meme like’ “Go ahead and make my day.” It is a total fiction!

Our Responsibility

Now as a bit of an aside, even if retractions generally fail at convincing those who wish to believe otherwise, if you posted this meme and then learned that it was false, but failed to retract or correct your post, then you’re as guilty of spreading divisive lies as anyone. Sorry—that may be very blunt—but it’s absolutely true!

It disturbs me, and should disturb every thinking person, that a fictional narrative can be the basis for violence—that a pure fiction can lead to so much distrust that we forget to value the men and women who regularly put their lives on the line to protect each of us.

My thoughts anyway, what are yours?


  1. Staff. 2015. Total Cost of Ferguson Riots. Hoosier Econ. March 7, 2015.