The fake news epidemic continues to spread. And it has now affected even the most powerful of news organizations—CNN.
On December 29th, the Obama administration, in a rare and provocative act, publicly expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. in retaliation for alleged Russian cyber-activity that may have interfered with the 2016 presidential election. The diplomats and their families were given 72 hours to leave the country.
This is the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats since President Ronald Reagan put out 80 Soviet diplomats in 1986.
Russian officials vowed to respond in kind, with the official representative for the ministry stating that Russia will react to any “hostile steps” that the U.S. might take in response to election hacking allegations.
CNN covered the range of Russia’s reactions, including the closing of the U.S. embassy vacation house in Serebryany Bor. Also included in CNN’s list of reprisals is the closing of a certain Russian school.
It is this latter claim that is the problem.
In a December 30th report, CNN claimed that “Russian authorities ordered the closure of the Anglo-American School of Moscow, a US official briefed on the matter said. The order from the Russian government closes the school, which serves children of US, British and Canadian embassy personnel, to US and foreign nationals.”
If this were true, it would mark an unusually cruel move by Russian authorities—an act which would expel the children of American diplomats from their place of learning. The news of the school’s closing has raced across social media, igniting outrage.
But there’s one problem. The school was never closed.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has stated that the CNN report is undeniably false, and that Putin is taking a wait-and-see approach to any retaliation as Trump takes power in January.
On the school’s own Facebook page, a post dated December 30th, 2016 reads, “Message from the Director regarding media reports of the closure of the Anglo American School Moscow campus. You may have heard and seen reports coming through the media stating that the Russian authorities have closed the Anglo American School, Moscow campus. Senior Russian officials have refuted this story. The school is planning to open as scheduled following the New Year break. We will keep you updated through e-mails, postings on our website and if it is urgent through SMS.”
CNN’s source on this story remains a mystery, as their article does not cite a call to the school, nor communication with Russian officials.
Profiting on Outrage
Fake news is dangerous. But it’s also profitable.
In this case, it’s likely that CNN simply shot out of the starting gate a bit too early, seizing on an unreliable source in an effort to be the first to cover a hot story.
The more sinister alternative, though, is that CNN deliberately created a piece of fake news in order to garner clicks, and by extension, profit. Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know which is true.
Regardless of the reason behind its creation, fake news preys on our current culture of outrage. We’re all mad. We’re all ready to fight. Culturally, we’re more divided into warring “tribes” than ever before, and news that confirms that “our side” is the correct side gets clicks.
And in the news industry, clicks, for better or for worse, mean revenue. And conflict sells far more than peace.
In this case, CNN was overeager to capture the conflict between Russia and America, focusing on an issue involving children—a sure way of generating maximum emotion—using the small truth of the school’s closure for the holidays to tell the larger untruth that the school had been shut down by the Russian government.
CNN has not retracted or amended the article in which this bit of fake news is embedded, and so thousands of readers have likely adjusted their views of the world based on something that simply isn’t true.
And therein lies the danger.
The news influences the way we think. The way we think influences the way we vote. The way we vote influences how we react to the rest of the world.
So before you accept that next sensational piece of news without a second thought, consider one question.
Do you want the direction of the most powerful country in the world to be decided by lies?