A standing-room-only crowd packed the Imagine Nation Brewing Company last Thursday for a Humanities Montana-presented panel titled Fake News in a Post-Truth Era. Moderated by retired University of Montana broadcast media director William Marcus, the panel comprised Missoulian editor Kathy Best, UM journalism professor Dennis Swibold, and Jaci Wilkinson, UM assistant professor and web services librarian.

Marcus began by asking the panelists to define “fake news,” a term that’s been used to describe everything from hoaxes to news that doesn’t affirm readers’ opinions. Best said she’s seen it used to describe errors that are corrected and acknowledged, as in the president’s Fake News Awards.

The conversation was most notable for its absences, and the lack of discussion of social media (the subject of Facebook algorithms didn’t come up until 10 minutes before the panel ended) or web literacy.

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Also unaddressed were some recent high-profile examples of how journalists themselves fall for hoaxes or mistake jokes for real incidents. In December, a group of Native American activists created a series of copycat websites mimicking Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and the Washington Post to publish false stories about the Washington Redskins changing their name to the Washington Redhawks. A shocking number of journalists took the bait, not bothering to look at the web addresses (espnsports.news, sportsillustrated.news and washpostsports.com), none of which is that of the imitated outlet.

Then, in January, when Michael Wolff’s Trump chronicle Fire and Fury was released, Twitter user Pixelated Boat tweeted a screenshot that appeared to show a paragraph from the book describing how Trump’s aides had been required to make a fake “Gorilla Channel” for the TV-loving president. Again, people took the bait without bothering to look at the book or even the user’s timeline, which is full of jokes, for context.

Those subjects may have been deemed too insidery for the general public chat, but it was truly surprising that there was no mention of the mailing list missive railing against the media that Secretary of State Corey Stapleton sent out last Wednesday. He didn’t directly call the news “fake,” but his intent was clearly the same as Trump’s fake news awards: to dismiss and discredit potential critics. The Twitter feeds of Montana’s working reporters were aflame about it, and if one of those reporters had been on the panel, it might not have gone overlooked.

Staff Reporter

Susan Elizabeth Shepard lived in Missoula from 2008 to 2011 before returning in 2017 to work at the Independent. She is also a two-time resident of Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, with an interest in labor, music and sports. @susanelizabeth on Twitter.

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