“Fake News” from the Journal of American Folklore, Part 2

This is the second installment of our blog series exploring the articles in the special issue on “Fake News” from the Journal of American Folklore (vol. 131, no. 522). The issue will be available on JSTOR and in print in mid-October. Check this blog in the coming weeks for frequent posts by some of the folklorists who examined the concept of fake news in their 2017 AFS conference presentations and contributed to the special issue of the Journal of American Folklore.

A Doubt-Centered Approach to Contemporary Legend and Fake News
By Tom Mould, guest editor of the Special Issue on Fake News

Red or blue, Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive, the issue of fake news inspires strong emotions. Yet while some contemplate fake news in horror, others shout it as liberation. In a rose-colored world where glasses are half full, we might imagine that the divergence is merely a semantic one. Sometimes fake news is used to describe news parody such as “The Daily Show,” and The Onion, other times to describe intentionally false and misleading stories, and still others to impugn the motive and reporting of very real journals and journalists. I am a card-carrying optimist, but even I cannot explain away the deep divide where fake news is used in such clearly contradictory ways.

It is tempting to believe that these three categories are easily recognizable and distinguishable, that we can laugh at the first, dismiss the second, and critique the third. But as folklorists know from the study of traditional communication grounded in real social contexts, boundaries between real and parody, rumor and truth, conspiracy and fact are hardly so clear. Belief is not understood as an either/or proposition, and meaning is not fixed but created in the moment. A fabricated news story written as satire from The Onion can get tweeted or emailed without the clear graphic and verbal markers that signal parody and be interpreted as a true story. A story researched and vetted accordingly to the highest standards of journalism can be dismissed out of hand simply because of the news agency who produced it. And as we know all too well, hackers from around the globe can spread false stories through social media that help shape our views, from opinions about politicians to issues of immigration.

It is therefore no exaggeration to say that fake news poses a deep and dire threat to democracy.

It is also no exaggeration to say that fake news in all its dimensions has inspired an explosion of creativity, often, but not solely, as a critical response to misinformation and outright fabrications passed off as truth. And so, a group of fifteen folklorists well-practiced in the study of belief, narrative, politics, and online lore gathered together to discuss fake news, not just as a timely phenomenon, but as a contemporary expression of forces that have inspired and plagued us for at least two thousand years.

In my own piece, I consider how the phenomenon of fake news may benefit from a new approach to the study of contemporary legends, attending not only to how narrators make their stories credible, but how audiences hear those stories and find doubt. Taken together, the articles in the special issue “Fake News” from the Journal of American Folklore challenge us to consider the chilling threats and wildly creative responses created and inspired by fake news, providing a powerful example of how scholars can weigh in productively in contemporary cultural and political discussions.

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