Perhaps one of the most noteworthy terms of 2017 has been the phrase #fakenews. Originally coined by then President-elect Donald Trump in response to negative approval ratings after his electoral college victory in 2016, the phrase has exploded onto the American landscape.
Unfortunately, this phrase, largely adopted by fringe Republicans now, has had a corrosive effect on not only American political culture, but also the marijuana movement itself.
Anything I Don’t Like is Fake News
The consequences of the popularization of the term has undermined what little confidence remains in the American public's mind regarding the media. Mass media outlets such as CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have their journalism routinely labeled as #fakenews by those who do not approve of the content, or are not spoken about in a positive light in the content, or who truly do not care to check the accuracy of the accusations.
The #fakenews label is especially devastating when used to attack legitimate journalism and revelations, reports or information that are in fact true.
For a recent example, consider the bombshell report by the Washington Post that exposed how Pharmaceutical companies had exerted pressure on Congress to hobble DEA efforts to track dubious shipments of opioid prescriptions. The report revealed that Representative Tom Marino — Mr. Trump's twice selected nominee for America's next drug czar — played a significant role in hobbling the DEA’s efforts. The report has since led to Marino withdrawing his name for consideration.
For those who have been in the marijuana movement for years, this revelation was mundane and foreseeable. However, for those just getting into the movement, and especially those coming from the right end of the political spectrum, this report was greeted by skepticism and outright accusations of falsity. The thinking goes that the Washington Post does nothing but lie, so the report cannot be true. No, it must be a smear campaign meant to make Republicans and Mr. Trump look bad to 'liberals.'
But the truth is simple and obvious. Powerful corporations, who have a financial interest in fuelling the opioid epidemic, used their financial resources to influence Congress. The evidence can be found in campaign finance reports, which are publicly available. On top of that, insider sources and commentators have corroborated the story. This revelation is not a scheme by the 'liberal' media to smear political opponents. This is the reality America lives in now. Unfortunately, the truth of these revelations has been lost on thousands of readers whose knee-jerk reaction to anything they dislike or disagree with is to immediately label it as #fakenews.
The #fakenews label has become even more sinister as certain companies have learned that they can feed blatant lies and baseless conjecture to consumers by playing to their biases. The marijuana movement is no exception to the corrosive consequences.
Anyone I Don’t Like is Bad
Conspiracy theories and blatant racist lies have run rampant across the marijuana movement as the wildfires in California have ravaged the land. Farfetched theories like concentrated energy weapons testing have been used to explain the natural devastation that has destroyed millions in property and taken far too many lives.
While these conspiracy theories are, for the most part harmless, it is disheartening to see the sources cited to justify such beliefs. Memes, and websites with dubious names fill the web purporting to have proof of some crazy plot or another. Unfortunately, these obviously fake stories are not recognized for their falsity by the same people who claim that true journalism done by the Washington Post in its report is #fakenews.
But even worse than that are the false stories that appeal to real biases. Recently, a popular story purporting to have “the truth” about what caused the devastating wildfire claimed — without providing evidence, or sources — that the wildfire was started by Mexican drug cartels to undercut the burgeoning recreational marijuana market in California.
Not only do such baseless accusations fit neatly into preconceived biases, but they also offer a scapegoat for the disaster — one that justifies fear and hatred. Such rhetoric mirrors the alarmist drug warrior rhetoric parroted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding a “crime wave” of violence hitting our country caused by drug gangs when the reality is crime is at near historic lows in this country. The reality is California is prone to wildfires, and this one was especially devastating. Nature can be an uncaring, cruel place where disaster strikes at any time and for no reason.
The claim that Mexican cartels are responsible for the wildfires has since been debunked, discredited, and denounced. However, even as the falsity of such belief is shown, many in the marijuana movement still espouse such beliefs. Repeating information that is not only false but clearly intended to stoke division and racial tension has a negative effect on the marijuana movement's ability to be taken seriously by society at large, thus undercutting its message.
So the #fakenews label is being used not only to undercut real journalism, and to promote lies as truth but also to discredit entire political movements.
Everyone I Don’t Like is Funded by George Soros
Popular conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who constantly accuses credible journalism of being #fakenews, is paradoxically one of the largest producers of #fakenews in America. The marijuana movement has long been the target of Jones' duplicitous actions and ulterior motives.
Jones has accused the marijuana movement of being orchestrated by billionaire philanthropist George Soros as a covert, globalist plot to destroy America via the reefer. Jones takes this unsubstantiated theory so seriously that during his divorce trial, he admitted to smoking marijuana as a way of monitoring the advancement of Soros’s plot.
Accusations of grand plots to destroy America have long been tied to the marijuana movement by social conservatives and religious zealots. But in this age, where #fakenews has been utilized to discredit entire political movements, the term has become a hindrance to reform.
While working to reform the GOP's stance on marijuana, I have met an astounding number of people who parrot grand tales of how marijuana will destroy American values, how it’s a liberal plot, or how marijuana is only used by this week's disliked minority. As #fakenews stories proliferate and target legitimate political movements, it becomes harder and harder to change people’s minds when they have already formed their opinion based on lies they are unwilling to question.
Cautiously Confirm and Corroborate Credibility
The corrosive effects of #fakenews has had a devastating impact on the effectiveness, legitimacy, and veracity of the marijuana movement. But we can reduce these effects by keeping a few simple rules in mind when reading the news: just because you do not like a story, or do not agree with the story, or do not like the portrayal of this or that in the story does not mean the story is #fakenews. Not everything your political or ideological opponent says is #fakenews, and not everything your political or ideological allies say is true either.
If the story sounds too good to be true, or conforms with everything you think or believe, it probably isn’t true. If a story confirms every single one of your biases, it probably isn’t true. Remember that corroboration with credible sources is key to separating real and fake news.
And until people become more responsible with their media consumption, #fakenews will continue to undercut reality, promote lies as truth, and discredit legitimate political movements.
Hunter J. White is the Communications Director of the national Republican political organization, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, a Non-Profit 501-c3 organization dedicated to the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition in all its forms. In this series of articles, Hunter shares the challenges, experiences, and insights that he has gained from years of working to bring marijuana policy reform to the Republican Party.