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Fake News–Part 2

December 12, 2016

The problem is worse than I thought.

A couple of nights ago, NBC Nightly News interviewed a man who creates fake news for a living. For instance, before the election he generated a fake news story with this headline: “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The totally fabricated story, designed to grab the attention of conspiracy theorists, went viral–shared by 500,000 people and read by 1.6 million viewers on his website. The creator of the fake news item was not anti-Hillary; in fact, he voted for her. So why did he do it? For the ad revenue. He estimates he made about $8000 off of that fake news item.

A few days ago, as we all know by now, a man stepped into a pizzeria and shot off some rounds from his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle because he believed the pizzeria was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. What caused him to believe such a preposterous thing? Widespread fake news reports that were spread on Facebook, Twitter, and conservative talk radio.

In this morning’s newspaper, president-elect Donald Trump says he does not want the daily intelligence briefing provided by the CIA that every president has gotten for decades. Trump says he doesn’t trust the CIA’s information, and has rejected the CIA’s report that Russia hacked into secured emails in order to influence the recent election.

Just when our society needs accurate information now more than ever, the public’s trust in traditional news sources is at an all-time low. This is deeply unsettling to me. Are we all–the president included–free to make up our own facts? We cannot achieve any lasting good as a society, or prevent disastrous decisions, unless we are operating on accurate information.

I hate to state the obvious, but apparently it needs to be said:

  1. We need to distinguish between news reportage, news analysis, and commentary. News reportage means reporting events accurately, checking multiple sources for confirmation, and sticking just to the facts. News analysis means seeing how the events are part of a bigger picture, and interviewing knowledgeable people with multiple perspectives, in order to give the public a grasp of how it all connects and what might be various consequences. Commentary is an opinion about the meaning of the events. So the bedrock of usable, trustworthy news is accurate reportage.
  2. All news sources occasionally make mistakes in news reportage. Sometimes it’s a simple goof, and sometimes it’s fraudulent information. The news sources with the best record of accuracy in reportage are the major city newspapers. They pride themselves on their accuracy and have all sorts of procedures in place to ensure accuracy. On the rare occasions when they are wrong, a responsible newspaper prints retractions and corrections.
  3. But even newspapers with a great track record for accuracy can still display bias through their selection of news stories covered, or by how they analyze the news (usually under a line that says “Analysis”), or by the content of their editorial pages–the commentary. For this reason, it’s good to subscribe to more than one newspaper with more than one dominant perspective.
  4. The least accurate sources for news are blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. These sometimes have no editorial control , no fact-checking, no procedures for accuracy. As a result, they have become the most fertile ground for fake news. (Facebook is trying to find ways to limit fake news and take away the financial incentive for creating fake news.)
  5. News sources that put most of their focus on commentary (serious or satirical) are also the most likely to be biased. Commentary is the most biased form of news. But commentary is still invaluable for thinking about the bigger meaning of events, so it is best to choose multiple sources of commentary with multiple perspectives. For instance, a newspaper editorial page that features only liberal commentators or only conservative commentators is not serving its readers well.

So how did we get to a point where the most accurate news sources are the most distrusted by many Americans, and the least accurate are the most trusted? My guess is that it’s partly the result of decades of anger and disinformation from those who felt marginalized, now greatly accelerated by the ease of spreading fake news and conspiracies on social media.

Another factor is rapid change. Our society has seen extremely rapid change in the past decade or two–technologically, politically, economically, and socially. And change, even if it brings positive benefits to many, is also scary. Fear breeds a readiness to distrust the establishment and to believe in conspiracies.

We also should not overlook the effect of laziness. It’s so much easier now to get one’s “news” from headlines on social media rather than wading through the length and depth of a newspaper.

Finally, I think those who controlled the principle news sources–the urban elites–got out of touch with common people and what made them tick and what they valued and believed in. The elites stopped paying attention to (or understanding and appreciating) such things as religion.

Of course, you should investigate this subject more broadly from a variety of sources. I am, after all, just one person providing commentary in a blog.

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2 Comments
  1. John Ferguson permalink

    Wait a minute, even NPR and the NBC Nightly News is reporting that the problem with Trump’s DBR is that it is repetitive and he wants contacted when it changes. Not to have a daily repeat of the same thing.

    • John Ferguson permalink

      Having said that, the pizzeria shooter is a moron and needs serious counseling.

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