A somewhat similar fake news story about rape was promulgated by Rolling Stone in a 9,000-word article (“A Rape on Campus”) that supposedly detailed a savage gang rape in 2012 of a University of Virginia first year co-ed. The narrative served as an illustration of a supposed nationwide epidemic of sexual assault. Later, Rolling Stone retracted the story as fictional, and was sued by both the innocent students and defamed administrators. But the myth once again served the useful cause of creating hysteria about sexually predatory, white-male undergraduate frat boys. Even after their respective refutations, both the Duke and Virginia fake news cases promoted a climate favoring new campus directives curtailing notions of due process in matters of alleged sexual assault.
Other examples abound. There was the “story” that racial slurs were shouted at a Washington DC 2010 Tea Party demonstration against Obamacare. There was the “story” that the purported last words uttered by Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, were “hands up, don’t shoot”—a story that helped to give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. And there was the hysterical narrative, spun by progressive politicians and environmental activists, that California was in a “permanent drought” due to global warming that required institutionalized water rationing. (Currently, California is enjoying one of the wettest seasons on record following normal precipitation in 2015-16.)
What unites these fake news narratives and gives them greater media resonance than other fables and urban myths is again their progressive resonance. Fake news can become a means to advance supposedly noble ends of racial, gender, class, or environmental justice—such as the need for new sexual assault protocols on campuses. Those larger aims supersede bothersome and inconvenient factual details. The larger “truth” of fake news lives on even after its facts have been utterly debunked.
And indeed, the fake news mindset ultimately can be traced back to the campus. Academic postmodernism derides facts and absolutes, and insists that there are only narratives and interpretations that gain credence, depending on the power of the story-teller. In other words, white male establishment reactionaries have set up fictive rules of “absolute” truth and “unimpeachable” facts, and they have further consolidated their privilege by forcing the Other to buy into their biased and capricious notions of discriminating against one narrative over another.
The work of French postmodernists—such as Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida that mesmerized academics in the 1980s with rehashed Nietzschean banalities about the absence of facts and the primacy of interpretation—has now been filtered by the media to a nationwide audience. If the mythical exclamation “hands up, don’t shoot” was useful in advancing a narrative of inordinate police attacks against African Americans, who cares whether he actually said it? And indeed, why privilege a particular set of elite investigatory methodologies to ascertain its veracity?
In sum, fake news is journalism’s popular version of the nihilism of campus postmodernism. To progressive journalists, advancing a leftwing political agenda is important enough to justify the creation of misleading narratives and outright falsehoods to deceive the public—to justify, in other words, the creation of fake but otherwise useful news.