Following the unprecedented attack on U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, a local news outlet, the Santa Monica Observer, published a conspiracy theory to explain the incident. Elon Musk tweeted a link to the story, and then deleted it a few hours later.
The Santa Monica Observer is known for publishing fake news, and it’s been around since 1998, but this past week, it enjoyed its highest profile moment as its false story of the attack on Pelosi’s husband went viral.
The dissemination of false information has become more widespread as some media outlets — particularly those with a right-wing perspective — find ways to make lies look and sound like legitimate news.
Gabe Kahn, professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism describes the Santa Monica Observer as: "A site that has a patina of news, which is mostly crime reports, some of which seem to be scraped from social media, others of which are scraped from local TV news. And then occasionally, it has other stories that mingle with that, most of which try to ridicule the left-leaning politics of Santa Monica.”
David Folkenflik, who covers media for NPR, points out that this is all too common across America, noting that in recent reporting, he found over 1,200 such publications. “In certain instances, it appears as though [these outlets] exist to peddle a kind of partisan and hard-right ideological take. And news is just the wrapping around it. And it's not really even that convincing as news.”
Kahn says that there is a long history of news organizations with political leanings who are open about their ideologies and diligent in their news coverage. He says these new hyper-local outlets aren’t that. “These are not publications that have a reporting staff. These are publications that have a name that sounds like a newspaper, they have a website that looks like a newspaper's website. But that's really where the similarity ends.”
So how did America get to this place? Kahn cites an alarming number of shuttered local newsrooms, leading to “news deserts” across the country. “When there is no legitimate respected local news organization that has a relationship and a reputation with the community that it serves, it basically opens up the opportunity for all of these pseudo publications to rush in and flood that space.”
Folkenfilk adds that not only are there news deserts, but “the water has declined to alarming levels.”
“There may still be newsrooms around,” Folkenflik states. “But their ambition and reach has really retrenched to just maybe one county or one city, as opposed to large regions they used to have a full coverage of.”
And then comes social media to help spread and sometimes legitimize this disinformation. “It all gets mixed together, which creates a real confusing environment for the public,” says Kahn.
Kahn adds that the public has a role to play too: “What we have now, what we didn't have 30-40 years ago, is the requirement of the audience to be discerning. … It is now not necessarily the responsibility of the news organization only to be clear and truthful. It is the responsibility of the news consumer to make sure that what you're consuming is legit. And that takes some work.”
He continues, “I think the analogy is that you have to make sure that your news diet is healthy, just the way you would make sure that your food diet is healthy. And if your food diet is entirely junk food, there's consequences. The same is true if your news diet is entirely junk, it basically loosens your grip on reality.”