By Sean Graham
Back in the fall of 2014, we had an idea for a podcast episode. The premise was that you were at a party, somebody finds out that you study history and asks a question to which you don’t know the answer. Normally, you might say that you weren’t sure, but in this setting you decide to have fun and make up an answer that sounds plausible. Perhaps not the most inspired idea we ever had, but we thought it was fun and recorded the show on November 27, 2014.
The decision was made, however, to not run the episode that fall, in part because we had a bunch of other material to post. Little did we know that the show was merely ahead of its time. Two years later the idea of Fake News has entered the political arena and there is more focus than ever on what constitutes ‘facts.’ In reading about ‘Fake News’ and the term’s changing meaning over the past few months, I constantly thought about this episode. In this episode we created fake history – everything was made up out of thin air. That’s fake. History that challenges your preconceived world view is not fake, however. Just as news that challenges your political perspective isn’t fake.
When we are too liberal in using the term fake news to describe stories based in fact that we disagree with, we distract from what truly constitutes fake news – like those conspiratorial stories that lead a person to a pizza place in Washington, D.C. with a gun. When CBS edits an interview that portrays Sean Hannity negatively, that’s not fake news. While Hannity has a legitimate argument about the context of the exchange and the need to make the entire interview available, the portion CBS aired isn’t fake. And when it’s called fake, it minimizes the damage done by ‘news’ stories that are complete fabrications.
That false equivalency between truly fake stories and stories that you may disagree with is dangerous. By using the term fake news as a partisan method to discredit political opponents, the term loses its significance when applied to stories that are legitimately fake.
This is ultimately why I decided to post this episode. We had a lot of fun recording this back in 2014 – there are a lot of laughs in this episodes. It is meant to entertain (whether we accomplish that is up to you), but in the current context, I think it shows just how easy it is to make things up that sound plausible. As we recorded, I was the only one who knew the topics ahead of time, the others were coming up with their answers off the top of their heads. That the answers sound plausible is evidence of how fake stories can sound real and how important it is to check the veracity of the content we consume on a daily basis.
In that spirit, I hope you enjoy this episode of the History Slam!
Sean Graham is an editor with Activehistory.ca and the host/producer of the History Slam podcast.