The explosion of online and social media platforms has brought tremendous benefits. Open, honest and timely sharing of information can break down barriers, subvert government oppression, and lead to more free and liberated societies around the globe. Social media has provided us with a personal look at the tragedy in Aleppo while giving hope to long lost relatives and parents a thousand gingerbread house ideas.
The power each person holds in the palm of his or her hand has tremendous possibilities; but with that, also tremendous responsibility. Online and social media have given new life to "fake news." Once isolated among tabloids in the supermarket check-out, online fake news is so prevalent and so influential that PolitiFact named it the "Lie of the Year."
Following her defeat to President-elect Trump, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed her loss, partially, on the prevalence of fake stories. President Obama echoed similar concerns, saying recently, "if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems."
The "Pizzagate" conspiracy, an absurd story alleging that a Washington, D.C., pizza place was a front for a child molestation ring, led a North Carolina man to bring and fire a gun during his "investigation" of the community restaurant. Obviously, #Pizzagate represents an extreme case of the impact of fake news, but the fact remains, fake stories, misinformation and "news" backed with little-to-no-sourcing are driving public opinion and action more than ever before. While the blame is shared among many factors including the ubiquitousness of social media, "reporting" from non-reputable journalists, and readers' lack of critical thinking; in the end, made-up "facts" are shaping the public's perception of reality.
We saw fake news play a critical role in the public's outcry in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. From my perspective, it was astounding that individuals and even elected officials were so loose with the truth and so unaffected by the facts.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a 1,170 mile project extending across the Midwest from North Dakota's Bakken region in to Illinois. For the past four months, its completion has been delayed and now halted, despite being fully permitted by four states and the federal government, validated by two federal courts, sited along the path of preexisting energy infrastructure, avoids the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and yet, the public protest effectively stopped the project in its tracks. And much of the protest, and its coverage in the mainstream media, has been based on falsities.
For example, in September, an image of a young girl whose face was supposedly mauled by private security dogs made the rounds on social media by protest supporters. Outrage followed and the ranks of the protest swelled. It was later revealed that the picture was taken from a news story about an incident in Texas nearly four years prior.
A few days later, another Facebook image — ostensibly of thousands of Standing Rock protesters — was shared more than 400,000 times. However, a critical eye and a quick Google search debunked the image as a photo from Woodstock 1969.
It was this white noise that allowed mainstream media to miss the simplest facts about the project. Multiple outlets continued to report that the pipeline crossed the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, when it unequivocally does not. Elected officials championed the claim that there was "insufficient" consultation with Native tribes, when nearly 400 consultations took place over a two-year span, including at least 11 meetings between the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Little attention was paid to the fact that two federal courts said project officials exceeded the necessary requirements. And that the pipeline would be built more than 90 feet below the Missouri riverbed was virtually ignored.
Fake social media accounts and memes were created to appear as though local law enforcement and company officials held attitudes and made statements they did not; and dozens of organizations emailed their lists with outrageous claims of police brutality and unfair arrests.
Taken together, this groundswell of armchair activism, coupled with the perpetuation of fake news, helped support an ultimately political decision that halted a $3.8 billion dollar infrastructure project. It's concerning that as we move forward, elected officials and policymakers could so easily be swayed by rhetoric lined with demonstrably false statements. Hopefully 2017 will bring with it a healthy cynicism towards unsourced and uninformed opinion posing as "news" and will allow sound and legal public policy and private development to move forward.
Craig Stevens, a former senior advisor and spokesman for Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, currently serves as the spokesman for the MAIN Coalition, a group of businesses, labor, and citizens throughout the Midwest who support infrastructure development, including the Dakota Access pipeline. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.