University of Wisconsin-Whitewater communications professor Corey Davis speaks about the spread of false news through social media at a recent Whitewater League of Women Voters meeting. (Ryan Spoehr photo)

By Ryan Spoehr

The phrase “fake news” is thrown around often in present time, particularly by a sitting U.S. president, and social media has become the target of foreign powers circulating information based on few, if any, facts.

A University of Wisconsin-Whitewater communications professor took the floor recently at a Whitewater League of Women Voters meeting to speak about the subject.

In his March 15 lecture, Corey Davis pushed for improved critical analysis of news sources in hopes that people could identify fake news stories more quickly and not take part in distributing purported facts on the web.

The advocacy of improved news literacy came during his lecture titled “Fake News: Conjecture, Conspiracy and Consequences for American Democracy” at the Whitewater Municipal Building.

“What we have found recently, though, rather than claiming the news is a trifle biased, the idea is that the journalists are actually lying,” said Davis, who has a PhD in communications from the University of Missouri.

Davis said it’s important to understand what fake news is in order to identify it.

“Fake news is conjecture, innuendo, rumor or blatant lies masquerading as the sourced, verified, fact-based reporting we had come to expect from mid-20th-century journalism,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, it’s way out of style, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.”

He said the issue of fake news has been perpetuated in recent years with the growth of the Internet and social media.

“My political memories go back to the 2000 presidential election and the 2004 presidential election and the 2008 presidential election and the 2012 presidential election, and certainly when fake news became hot during the 2016 presidential election,” Davis said. “If we go back to the election and even the primary in 2000, there was fake news about Sen. John McCain, who then eventually, of course, lost that primary to George W. Bush. But during that South Carolina primary, there was a lot of fake news that he had allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock,” Davis said. “We fast forward to 2004 and it was Legends for Truth alleging that John Kerry had not actually served in the virtuous and heroic way that he was alleged to have in the Vietnam War.

“In both the 2000 and 2004 elections, there were whispers about George W. Bush’s political career, and, of course, the whole Dan Rather blow-up about his supposedly never showing up for his guard duty in Texas.”

Davis said 2016 was a completely different animal.

“The reason why 2016 was different than 2008 or 2004 or 2000 is because of social media and because of this newfound ability to have citizen journalists, and we can put some really emphatic quotes around the phrase, ‘citizen journalist,’” Davis said.

The lecture was focused on social media and its role in the dissemination of items reported as news that were not 100 percent factual.

However, Davis said there has been regression over time.

“It’s not just the Internet’s fault. It’s not just social media’s fault,” he said.

But what can be done about fake news?

For more on Davis’ speech, pick up a copy of the April 5 Whitewater Register.


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