The Brave New World of Fake News

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Fake news has entered the political vocabulary and is an accepted term now.  Political propaganda, even that from foreign countries and actors, has been around for some time.  Fake news is akin to propaganda in that it often, when not portrayed as a hoax or satire, has the common feature of trying to influence people.  With fake news, there is no regards for the truth whatsoever other than to appear true just long enough for the poor fool to believe it in the first place.

It is news put forward fraudulently by people who can game the dissemination system, or it can just be spam.  The problem is this disinformation fosters distrust of institutions and can serve to keep many Americans distant from civil political discourse.  Consider the fact that such a disreputable site like Alex Jones’ Infowars receives about 32 million visits daily and one can see the potential problem.

The problem, as it exists today, has three roots in this writer’s opinion: (1) a gullible, politically illiterate electorate, (2) a mass media is disrepute, and (3) the speed and immediacy of the Internet, especially social media.

Numerous social psychological studies have been done on fake news, persuasion techniques and propaganda.  Those studies have shown that merely refuting a rumor, fake news, or an outright lie can actually reinforce the falsity in the mind of the listener.  This is especially true when the false story offers a simpler explanation than the truth.  Repeating a rumor that one wishes to debunk often has the effect of strengthening the rumor.  The more it is repeated, the more the rumor is reinforced.

A perfect example was the Obama birth story trumpeted by Donald Trump in 2012.  No amount of reasoning dispelled that belief and the more people try to logically refute it, the greater the belief grew because in the mind of the believer, the veracity of those trying to refute the rumor confirmed the truth of the rumor.  Logical refutation can be undone by a single story that in any way leans towards corroboration of the rumor.

Given the fact that the population now largely distrusts traditional news sources, their attempts at fact-checking and dispelling rumors and fake news is looked upon with suspicion.  When we get biased news, frequent errors, a loosening of journalistic ethics and practices and clickbait headlines, the population does not know who to trust.

It is a problem partly the fault of the media itself.  With the advent of cable came 24/7 news outlets.  The fact is that news does not happen 24/7 and something has to fill in that time.  These broadcasts are not like your local newscasts with their time constraints which includes ads, the sports, weather, and straight reporting of the news.  Very little of today’s cable news outlets are actually news and are now more analysis of an event.  For example, a local station will state that Trump gave a speech in Japan or Poland.  But, a 24/7 outlet like CNN will do two hours on Trump feeding a fish in Japan and another 5 hours on what he meant by a single line in a speech in Poland.  Today, a Donald Trump tweet is “news” and the analysis keeps it news until the next tweet comes through.

When you add the proliferation of fake or fraudulent news against a backdrop of American erosion of trust in the media, it poses a potentially serious problem for free expression.  And when, according to Gallup, only 32% of Americans trust the media to report the news fairly and accurately, there is no wonder there are actors out there ready to take advantage of the situation.

The most obvious culprit is social media, something the Russians knew all too well in 2016.  Juicy, yet false stories become popular because they are pushed onto new eyeballs by the software that runs social media.  And it is algorithms that run social media.  One key to finding fake news sites is their length of time on the Internet.  Not that every new website is guilty, but the evidence shows that the less time the website has been up and running, the less accurate it is and the more likely it is to be a suspect source of information.  Thus, it is possible for social media algorithms to flag such sites and forewarn a reader.

Tweaking algorithms, furthermore, is unlike outright censorship.  A warning or advisory “flag” is a far cry from ceasing discourse on the Internet.  It is akin to a warning on a pack of cigarettes, only less dramatic.  Some suggest that such sites be assigned to something like a social media spam folder.  The message or information is not blocked per se,  but the recipient has to look for it.

The fact we now have a very partisan media and anyone can become a “journalist” with the click of a mouse or sending a video/picture with a cell phone, and given the immense amount of information that floods the web every minute, an additional tool to help the electorate make informed decisions is proposed by some.  The problem, however, is the speed with which false stories spread on social media coupled with good old fashioned human psychology.

An additional problem is that news stories are often complicated in ways  that computers have dealing with them and any automated fact-checking can reflect the bias of those doing the programming.  And that is a very real fear.

The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech.  However, private entities like Google, Facebook and Twitter are free to do so and often do.  They have the ability to crack down not only on the ads that support fake news, but on the content itself.  It is for good reason that the government is precluded from impinging on the right of free speech and the question now is whether these non-governmental actors should do so.  As private platforms, perhaps they should police fake news and make sure the stories do not proliferate, or “go viral.”  But, what if they over-police and silence edgy speech, or even speech with which they disagree?

Obviously, government regulation of the Internet, whether through well-meaning but ineffective laws like the Honest Ads Act or through the Orwellian sounding “net neutrality” would simply compound the problem.  It would then seriously implicate the First Amendment by drawing the government and Congress into the policing of speech, which may be false and misleading, on social media sites and throughout the Internet.

Some attempts are being made in this area by foreign governments.  In France, the leading newspaper, Le Monde, has set up a fact-checking site.  Upon publication of a story, suspicious ones are flagged warning the potential reader of the possible inaccuracy of the content.  That may work well in traditional news sites, but as we have seen, those who disseminate fake news don’t really use traditional sites where it is easier to debunk their claims.  Social media moves much quicker.

Some have suggested using the CRAAP method:

  • Currency- when was it published?
  • Relevance- who is the intended target audience?
  • Authority- who wrote it?
  • Accuracy- are the assertions backed up with relevant data?
  • Purpose- why was it created and is there underlying bias?

This is all well and good, but one doubts that anyone in today’s hustle, bustle world of the internet has the time or inclination to do these things.  Instead of instilling belief in “reliable” or traditional news sources trying to regain the trust of Americans they once enjoyed, a better recourse would be to be skeptical of all sources.

Consumers are the best defense against these new masters of deceit.  Unfortunately, we have a highly polarized political atmosphere compounded by, hate to say it, a politically illiterate electorate.  Finland has undertaken a massive effort to educate their population and future voters about fake news.  Again, this is a worthy effort that will not see immediate results and is a long term effort.

The United States had such an effort at one time called civics education.  That was jettisoned in favor of multicultural gibberish in grade levels where future voters started to become somewhat interested in politics.  Instead, today civics education is given a perfunctory reading before moving on to the role of women, African-Americans or Hispanics in American history and denigrating Western culture.

In the interim, those of us who truly care about truthful news should do our due diligence with a healthy dose of skepticism about all sources despite their origin.  If the Russian government can do it, so can the occupant of the White House, any traditional news service, or anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.  Welcome to the brave new world of fake news.


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