Is The War on Fake News the New War on Drugs?

April 24, 2017

Fake news — or as Trump recently renamed it, “very fake news” — is still big news. It comes up in seemingly most press conferences or discussions of the 2016 election or even general daily discourse. It’s everywhere, and has been for months. Even 60 Minutes, maybe one of the all-time not-fake-news programs, recently covered it.

At a recent PR conference in Chicago, one of the smartest people I know in communications cheekily said, “Fake news is like drugs.” I started thinking about this for a minute, and that comment isn’t that far off.

The “War on Drugs,” which Nixon began around 1971, has never really been successful. There are many arguments as to why it hasn’t been successful, but the simplest economic concept is supply and demand. As long as there is demand for drugs, someone will supply them. We’ve locked up El Chapo (a few times, actually), the world’s biggest drug lord, and drugs are being bought and sold around the world, even while he’s locked inside prison cell. We’ve ramped up border security in an effort to slow supply, and we’ve even tried to curb demand– remember “Just Say No” from the Reagan years?

When I think about the anti-drug tactics of years past, I notice an eerily similar approach happening now as companies like Facebook seek to fight fake news. After all, fake news operates on supply and demand, too.


There is a demand for fake news: people want headlines that claim Hillary had Parkinson’s, or claim the Pope endorsed Trump. They want to share those outrageous headlines (ones that echo their personal beliefs) and get reactions. A December 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that 23 percent of U.S. adults have shared fake news, knowingly or unknowingly, with friends and others. The supply is there, too– there are hundreds of websites spewing out false information, generating millions of pageviews and shares. Several people around the world made six figures on fake news, to the point that Wired even admitted the best way to stop fake news was to choke its ad money.

Before we look at another scary parallel between “War on Drugs” and fake news, consider the role of education in all this. There are strong ties between the “War and Drugs” and declining public school education, with The Huffington Post once calling the war on drugs “a war on children.” I’m not here to undermine education while discussing the war on drugs, but there is a tie somewhere. And, in that same education vein, NPR and others have recently done studies about how high school students can’t identify what news is real versus what news is fake.

Would improved education and opportunity curb both these issues? Likely.

Now think of the generally-agreed upon reasons why people take illegal drugs:

  • To fit in/peer pressure
  • To escape, relax or ease pain
  • To relieve boredom

  • To seem grown up

  • To rebel

  • To experiment/out of curiosity 

  • Think drugs are a solution

When you attribute these reasons to fake news, the results are intriguing:   

To fit in/peer pressure

During the election, I would get any number of emails from friends about Trump this and Hillary that…all generated from fake news machines. I knew it was junk on an initial scan, but as the email thread grew or the Facebook comments expanded,I found myself wanting to jump in and be a part of the group (a well-reasoned part, that is). Before I knew it, I was in the middle of some flame war. Despite knowing it was all absurd, peer pressure made me dive in.

To escape, relax or ease pain

The definition of escapism is the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. When people click on fake news stories, they’re escaping an unpleasant reality (after all, reality isn’t always pleasant) and indulging in a fantasy.

To relieve boredom

This one’s easy. If you haven’t found yourself clicking on random things on the internet out of boredom, you’re clearly not living the fullest internet life possible.

To seem grown up

This one is troubling because most fake news targets millennials and younger. And, interestingly, this is really an issue of branding. I’d personally rather my kids read the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, etc. But fake news sites — or even “legitimate” news sites like Buzzfeed that dumb down bigger issues into listicles — often (a) look like a real news site and (b) are easier to read with snappier colors. So what’s someone younger and mobile-first likely to gravitate towards when they seek to be an “informed” adult?

To rebel

I have never forwarded a fake news story, but I’ve wanted to dozens of times. I’m a cautious person — I work in crisis communications, let’s be real — but it often felt like a form of rebellion to forward one on and start a little war of words.

To experiment/out of curiosity

Those headlines are hard not to click. You think to yourself that you’ll just take a peek– it won’t hurt anyone. Take a peek. It won’t hurt anyone. Before you know it, we’re living in a post-truth society.

Think drugs are a solution

Those who seek to do harm by creating or helping to spread fake news– whether it’s a opposing political group or a foreign government– see fake news as a means to accomplish their goals. Those goals, which may be strictly money-driven, political or more nefarious, feel justified by the means. Those sharing fake news are likely victims of confirmation bias— any bad news about their enemy must be true if it fits their narrative.    

What’s the solution, then?

One of the bigger strategies in “The War on Drugs” is interdiction at the border. The problem with the parallel is that the Internet doesn’t necessarily have a border, although you might argue it’s the Balkans in the context of fake news.

Facebook has been training users recently to spot fake news, which is a good move. While fake news spreads in many ways (email, Twitter, etc.), Facebook is the big player in the space. It might be “too little, too late” for the ‘16 election, but at least they’re doing something now. In advance of the French election — which has a Trump-like feel to it — Facebook just shut down 30,000 fake news accounts on that side of the pond.

The supply of fake news will always be there, though, so we need to find ways to curb the demand. This is where the education parallels come into play again. As a dad (and a kid that survived public school), the surest path to beating fake news seems to be real arguments. When you hear BS, call it out and challenge the person. Over time, possession and distribution of fake news — much like drugs — needs to become socially unacceptable. Then less people will traffic in it.


It’s easy to say “Schools need to be better about curbing fake news!” It’s much harder to say “The real path here is teaching kids how to spot fallacies and argue points with fact.” That doesn’t mean more debate clubs in public high schools, but it does mean teaching our next generation that it’s OK to call out BS, and healthy discourse is one of the most legitimate ways to drive ideas forward.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.