This Is Not Fake News (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a speech I gave to the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Sunday, July 16, 2017 (You can listen to the audio here)…

Now let’s differentiate between bogus news and mistakes. If I get something wrong on my radio show, I’ll know it pretty quickly because the phones will light up. When I started doing radio in the 1970s, there was no internet, so I relied on my listenership to keep me honest. I still do, to some extent. If my colleagues in the studio don’t catch my error, the listeners always will. If necessary, we’ll Google it to see who’s right. Frankly, I’m happy to be caught making a mistake, because I can learn something from it.

You wouldn’t condemn the entire restaurant industry because your waiter brought you a Diet Coke when you asked for a regular Coke — and if they’re any good at their job, they’d apologize, pour out the wrong beverage and bring you the right one. Like that waiter, or any other person or organization, news outlets occasionally get something wrong. But the mark of any reputable business is whether they admit it and try to correct it. CNN did that last month when it went with a single-sourced story about a member of Donald Trump’s transition team meeting with an executive of a Russian investment fund before Trump took office. When challenged on the story, CNN realized it was wrong, retracted it, apologized, and three staff members resigned. That’s not fake news, it’s a bad job of reporting, and the correction was the right thing to do. On the other hand, when was the last time you heard Trump or his spokesperson ever admit they were wrong about anything? We should apply the same standard to both.

Which leads me to invoke another word that can be applied to so much of what is wrongly called “fake news.” That word is “lie.”

I’m a skeptical person by nature. My default approach to most of the things I hear is that if the person offering them up can’t provide some proof of their claim, I assume they’re lying until I see evidence that they’re not. And as the great Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” For instance, if you tell me that you can fly just by flapping your arms, I’m not buying it. But if you’d like, we can go up to the roof of this building and you can jump off the edge. We will discover very quickly whether you were telling the truth or lying.

Now, it’s impossible to get that kind of validation from every claim or story we hear. That’s where the reputation of the source comes into play. Unfortunately, we live in an age of so much information — and so much misdirection — that everyone has developed their thoughts on which news outlets they believe or disbelieve. If you’re a Fox News Channel stalwart, you’re unlikely to consider MSNBC or the New York Times a valid source of news. And the reverse is certainly true, as well.

So, how can you know when a news story is real? First, ask yourself if other reputable news organizations are covering the story as factual. There tends to be truth in numbers — not the number of Twitter comments on a story, but the number of mainstream news outlets that have jumped on it. You can define mainstream any way you like, but look for the verification that I mentioned at the beginning while discussing Snopes — in other words, when you see something mentioned on your Facebook news feed, with a link to a news source you’ve never heard of, be skeptical about its veracity until you see it picked up by one that you do know.

Facebook and the other social media outlets present a startling new front in the distribution of bogus news stories designed to change your mind. The May 29, 2017, issue of Time magazine had a lengthy story by Massimo Calabresi about this, which discussed how you voluntarily hand over a treasure trove of information about yourself online. That data can then be exploited to target stories to influence you. Algorithms determine your hot-button issues and identify those most susceptible to suggestion. Then propagandists craft messages to steer you towards believing things that aren’t true in the hope of altering your behavior.

According to Calabresi, that’s what Moscow is doing:

The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic…”

In one case last year, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a US social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.

Stories with a blatant agenda went viral during last year’s election. Remember the one about Hillary Clinton and her aides running a pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington DC pizza parlor? According to Wikipedia:

On October 30, 2016, a reputed white supremacist Twitter account claimed the New York City Police Department, which was searching emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop as part of an investigation into his sexting scandals, had discovered the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. The theory also proposed that the ring was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse. The theory was then posted on the message board Godlike Productions. The following day, the story was repeated on YourNewsWire citing a 4chan post from earlier that year. The story was then spread by and elaborated on by other fake news websites, including SubjectPolitics, which falsely claimed the New York Police Department had raided Hillary Clinton’s property. The website Conservative Daily Post ran a headline falsely stating that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had confirmed that story.

A post on Reddit about the story alleged the involvement of a DC pizza place called Comet Ping Pong. That was picked up by the bogus news website InfoWars and promoted by several alt-right activists. As the story spread, Comet Ping Pong, which had done absolutely nothing wrong, got hundreds of threats from people who believed the conspiracy theory. Then, on December 4, 2016, a guy from North Carolina named Edgar Welch, went to DC and fired three shots inside Comet Ping Pong with a rifle. He didn’t kill anyone but did hit walls, a desk, and a door.

After police responded, Welch said he had planned to investigate the conspiracy theory himself. After finding no evidence that underage children were being held in the restaurant, Welch surrendered and was arrested. He told police he had read about the child sex slaves story online and wanted to see for himself if it was true — but even after discovering it wasn’t, he wouldn’t dismiss the story, and neither would other conspiracy theorists, who claimed that Welch’s shooting was a false flag attack staged to discredit the original stories, which they still believed even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence it was true.

I remind you of this story because it’s important to understand how harmful bogus news stories can be when they’re tied to an agenda, political or otherwise. And when it comes to politics, we have an entire industry geared to promote these stories as factual — Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio hosts, InfoWars, etc. spread lies and create new ones almost every day. By repeating claims from each other, these outlets create a bubble of information that their viewers, listeners, and readers buy into completely. And the fact that the stories aren’t reported by other, more mainstream outlets, only confirms the veracity in their own minds — just like the conspiracy theorists I was just discussing. They’re covering it up, we’re the only ones telling the truth.

Because they’re on TV, or on the radio, or in a newspaper, or in the White House or Congress or preaching in a church, or on a website, they are considered authority figures and thus have the aura of validity to their consumers. They repeatedly claim, “We would never lie to you, like they would.” They being anyone on the opposite side of any issue.

How insane have Americans become in this regard? On July 4th, NPR tweeted the entire text of the Declaration of Independence, in 113 posts, 140 characters at a time. When it got to the part about the colonies’ complaints about England’s George III, plenty of Trump supporters took offense, thinking NPR was attacking their King, with lines like “He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” and “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Forget the fact that those words were written by Thomas Jefferson about the English sovereign 241 years ago — it sounded a little bit too much like an attack on the current Ego-In-Chief, who can never be criticized in the eyes of his believers. So they lit up Twitter in rage about this perceived slight.

Tomorrow in Part 3: breaking news, click-bait, and how to avoid an avalanche of bogus information.