Fake news is dangerous to our health

There’s a new tone to our politics coming from calling accurate, but unfavorable, reporting fake news and creating partisan fake news outlets.  

We’ve seen it in national politics as President Donald Trump rails against the media for reporting on everything from the Russia probe to his policies and even his own words.

In Maine, the Republican party’s executive director Jason Savage created a news site with skewed, inaccurate stories and then claimed it had nothing to do with the political party he directs.

One might ask what’s the harm from the name-calling and shenanigans. The most obvious answer is that these fake news claims and creations are, well, fake.

Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper. Library of Congress

Trump himself is an persistent purveyor of falsehoods. As of a few days ago Trump had told 2,436 false or misleading claims during his presidency. As a Washington Post analysis found, “the average number of claims has been creeping up” from an average of 4.9 incorrect statements per day in the first 100 days to six on average overall.

As for the Maine GOP’s executive director’s fake news site, journalist Steve Collins reported stories were posted every day and the most common time Savage posted was between 9 a.m. and noon, a schedule that contradicts the claim this activity was merely Savage’s hobby.

Telling mistruths also undermines our shared sense of reality and our ability to have a common set of facts. It makes it easy to be intellectually lazy, to take signals from a leader or party, thus reinforcing political tribalism.

Now, using cues from others is not novel and neither is the tendency to create realities that aren’t real. As George Orwell wrote in 1946, “To see what is in front of your nose is a constant struggle.”

But partisan polarization has deepened, with schisms growing about even scientific facts such as climate change.

People who share facts still might disagree about what to do since they have different values, but a common reality is important for voters and officials.

We can’t address real problems that harm real people without telling, knowing and using the truth to make assessments and plan responses. That goes for child abuse, domestic violence, health care, environmental peril, war and peace and more.

Decades ago Americans were not told what Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon knew about the Vietnam War. Democratic and Republican presidents hid analyses that showed war efforts were failing, even as more and more young Americans went to Vietnam and laid down their lives. It took a whistleblower, congressional oversight, journalists and the Supreme Court to uncover the truth about the war.

Health policy also involves life and death. When people go without coverage, chronic and mild problems become more dangerous. Before the Affordable Care Act, 10 percent of people with cancer hit lifetime coverage limits, meaning insurance companies would stop paying for their treatment.

One way people get covered is through Medicaid, which was expanded nationally by the ACA. Then the Supreme Court made expansion optional for states, making accurate information about the program essential for state publics and policy-makers.

Yet we’ve repeatedly seen fake news about Medicaid from its political opponents.

In Maine in 2014, the LePage administration gave a no-bid contract to the already controversial Gary Alexander to produce a report on the impacts of Medicaid expansion. Besides including plagiarized material, the document appeared cooked to support the anti-Medicaid side.

About six months ago, Rep. Bruce Poliquin told donors behind closed doors that Sen. Susan Collins should have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Poliquin falsely claimed “it is a flat out untruthful statement” to say the repeal bill included a Medicaid cut. The truth, according to the Congressional Budget Office, was that the bill Poliquin supported would spend $834 billion less on Medicaid over a decade, capped how much states would receive, and would cause 14 million people to lose coverage due to these cuts.

Even more recently BDN reporter Matt Stone discovered that a LePage administration plan to outsource the administration of Medicaid would cost taxpayers more than current policy though Commissioner Mary Mayhew had said it would cost Mainers less.

The fake news about Medicaid is so damaging because it undermines more than financial health.

But whatever fake news is about, it’s harmful to us all.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.