Dealing with Fake News!

Kim BurninghamTo maintain any sort of a free society, the unfettered flow of accurate information is vital. To assure the availability of this information, our Constitution prohibits “abridging the freedom…of the press.”  (First Amendment)

Thomas Jefferson asserted that our “only security” was to be found in a free press which was necessary “to keep the waters pure.” (Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823) His emphatic dictum is well-known: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” (Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787)
James Madison emphasized that importance when he said, “[T]o the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs by reason and humanity, over error and oppression…” (The Virginia Report, 1799)
Jefferson, however, did not stop with just urging a free press, he understood that the other side was that the public must read and understand the information they receive. “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” (Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816)
Today, freedom of the press and the ability to “read” and understand that press is in jeopardy. I believe this to be true for two major reasons:
  • Some public figures are exaggerating distrust of the media and inappropriately discrediting it. 
  • We are being barraged by fake news. (Of this problem, I write today.)                                  
Fake news distorts the truth.
Defining “fake news” is somewhat challenging because usage of the term is comparatively new. It is not, however, a new problem. (As a college journalism student in the 1950s I studied about “yellow” journalism and its contribution to instigating the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century.) However, it has become a lively recent concern, and many contend that it played an important role in the 2016 US presidential election.

A recent Wikipedia discussion of the subject (updated December 29, 2016) explains that fake news websites “deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation, using social media…to mislead…readers for financial or other gain.” I would add that fake news appears beyond the social media, certainly, in my opinion, in print media. A New York Times article says fake news means “a made-up story with an intention to deceive.” (Sabrina Tavernise, “As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth,” December 7, 2016)
Such news spreads misunderstanding of the actual facts, exaggerating and contorting—sometimes completely negating–the truth.
Unfortunately, some political strategists are mislabeling information as fake news. Fake news is not to be equated with negative news. Much very important information may be negative. Fake news is untrue, and that is a different thing. In his press conference of January 11, 2017, President-elect Trump labeled a particular news source as “fake news.” In this instance I found his use to be propaganda and inaccurate. He was saying just because they published negative information it was fake. To this precise issue, Thomas Burr, president of the National Press Club said, “”It is dangerous and unhealthy to declare a news item as ‘fake news’ to distract from facts that you may not like or don’t favor your perspective. Our incoming president must treat the news media as the vital cornerstone of our democracy that it is. To label something as ‘fake’ in an effort to undermine news outlets endangers the trust granted journalists by the public and is antithetical to our country’s values.” (John M. Donnelly, National Press Club, “National Press Club raises concerns about Trump’s use of ‘fake news,’” January 11, 2017) I agree wholeheartedly.
It also alarms me when some political strategists appear to justify the use of fake news, claiming facts no longer exist. Scottie Nell Hughes, for instance, conservative columnist and Trump supporter, argued that political concepts are all a question of interpretation, concluding, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” (Max Greenwood, “Trump’s Lies Aren’t Lies because ‘There’s No Such Thing’ As Facts Anymore, His Surrogate Says,” The Huffington Post, December 1, 2016)
On November 14, 2016, The Washington Post reproduced an item. (Philip Bump, “Google’s top news link for ‘final election results’ goes to a fake news site with false numbers”) The article explained that if you went to Google, it would take you to the pictured screenshot below. Clearly, it is a fake news story. The article is dated 5 days after the election! Final election results never showed Trump ahead in the popular vote (although he won the Electoral College). Ultimately he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. Where on earth did these figures come from?
That’s not true. It is fake news!
Other samples of what I consider fake news are illustrative:
  • Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump  (Anthony Cuthbertson, Newsweek, November 26, 2016)
  • Climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. (Edward Wong, The New York Times, November 18, 2016)
  • Vaccines cause autism. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, November 23, 2015)
  • Hillary Clinton runs a child sex trafficking ring.  (Barakat and Gresko, Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, December 7, 2016)
All of the above have circulated on the internet and in print. Apparently, a significant number of people believe these statements to be true. I do not.
Fake news may lead to irreparable harm
Not everyone finds fake news stories cause for alarm. Dan Liljenquist, former Utah State senator and current columnist in the Deseret News, is such a person explaining that he finds it “hard to believe that such obvious click-bait fodder…poses an existential threat to our democracy.” (“News stories about fake news stories,” December 8, 2016.)
I am more concerned.
I agree with President Barack Obama who described the result of fake news as a “dust cloud of nonsense.” (Chris Sanchez, “Obama says the US is divided because ‘people are no longer talking to each other’,” Business Insider, November 30, 2016) And beyond that, I believe that “dust cloud” is potentially very dangerous.
Alex Younger, the head of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service concluded that such distortion of the facts is “a fundamental threat to our…democratic values.” (Jim Waterson “M16 Chief Says Fake News and Online Propaganda Are A Threat To Democracy,” BuzzFeed, December 8, 2016.)
The events of December 4, 2016, dramatically suggest the magnitude to which this harm may grow. That day, Edgar Welch had become inflamed by the fake news claiming Hillary Clinton was connected to a “child-sex trafficking ring” operating out of a Washington D.C. Welch went to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant to “self-investigate” the rumor; he carried with him an assault rifle and fired it in the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Edgar told police “he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there.” (Barakat and Gresko)
If fake news is repeated enough, is bizarre enough, and believed enough it may lead to tragic consequences.   
Some observers have suggested that fake news played a significant role in the recent presidential elections. I am uncertain of the extent this may be true. However, if our citizenry in any instance believes false news and makes critical decisions—even voting for an individual—based on that erroneous information, the value of a free press has been countermanded and the potential harm now or in the future is evident.
Fake news comes from a variety of sources
Fake news may come from many different places. It may be passed from person to person in conversation, appear in the newspaper, be broadcast on radio or television, pop up on your computer screen. The stories may begin anywhere and social media like Facebook or Twitter have the capacity to spread such stories rapidly.  
Some fake news is created by pranksters; some created as a money-maker; while other creators are deliberately trying to mislead readers. Some fake news websites originate worldwide from Indonesia to Macedonia, Russia to Sweden, and China to the United States (see Wikipedia, “Fake news website,” originally retrieved December 29, 2016). Curiously, Macedonia is the origin of a large number of fake news sites. BuzzFeed identified over 100 sites originating from the town of Veles (population 45,000) in Macedonia. Apparently, a 17-year-old Macedonian was interviewed replying, “I started the site for a way to make money.” (Nicholas Kristof, “Lies in the Guise of News in the Trump Era,” The New York Times, November 12, 2016)
It appears to me that the problem is not so much the existence of fake news or where it comes from, but whether the reader believes it to be true. To question sources becomes critical. Examining diverse opinions is vital.  
Unfortunately, it appears some well-known political figures may instigate and spread fake news. Accusations have appeared suggesting President-elect Trump’s nominee for national security adviser, Lt. General Michael Flynn and his son has disseminated fake news (Matthew Rosenberg, The New York Times, December 5, 2016).
Even President-elect Trump has been called “the master of manipulation” (Mary Kate Cary, “The Master of Manipulation,” U.S. News, November 6, 2015) and has been accused of creating fake news. Shortly following his election, he suggested, but gave no evidence, that he would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote if “you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” (Andrew Restuccia, “Trump’s baseless assertions of voter fraud called ‘stunning,’” Politico, November 27, 2016) And it was Donald Trump who was the primary advocate of the fable that Obama was “born abroad and ineligible for the White House.” He has since recanted: “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Apparently, however, it is still believed by 44 percent of Republicans. (Katie Reilly, “Donald Trump Finally Admits President Obama Was Born in the United States,” Time, September 16, 2016; Kristof.)
Suggestions for resisting fake news
Clearly fake news is abundant. The greater question is how the public can separate the false from the fact. How can we build a wall around ourselves to resist the bombardment of fake news? I have four suggestions:
1. Be a skeptical reader/viewer.
Unfortunately, fake news is successful in its purposes because so many people believe it to be true. The first remedy is for readers to view the news they hear—whether from other people, the press, or the media—with a degree of skepticism. The statement may be true; it may also be false. The picture may be photoshopped. The headline may mislead. The entire statement may be a lie. Wise thinkers will consider the issue, but not necessarily accept it without further validation.
The advice of Albert Einstein applies here when he explained that belief without questioning (what he called “blind belief”) is “the greatest enemy of truth.”
Fake news statements are often elaborate, making the statement of Voltaire frighteningly applicable: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” His reaction emphasizes the dangers of believing fake news.
2.  Check the reliability of sources.
If I were trying to identify the evils of bootlegging in 1920 Chicago, I would not trust Al Capone for the answer. (St. Rosemary Educational Institution, “Bootlegging, Prohibition, Al Capone (1920),”
We know now the 1973 speech by Richard Nixon where he claimed “no prior knowledge” of the Watergate break-in was absolutely not as he said, “the simple truth.” (History Channel, “Nixon Denies Watergate Allegations,” August 15, 1973)  
During the presidential election of 2016, only the naive turn to Hillary Clinton to learn the strong points of Donald Trump, nor should we turn to Donald Trump if we truly want to appreciate Hillary’s strengths.  
Sources make a difference!
One of the most important steps a person can take to avoid being duped by fake news is to ask, “Who said it? Why is that source to be believed? Is it a credible source? Do they have first-hand knowledge or are they only repeating rumors they have heard?”
Researchers at Stanford’ Graduate School of Education recently released a report examining students nationwide in their ability to evaluate sources. The researchers were “shocked” by the large number of students who failed to determine the credibility of sources of information. Large percentages of students couldn’t tell the difference between fake accounts and real ones, neutral versus prejudiced sources. The study concluded, “Young people tended to credulously accept information as presented even without supporting evidence or citations.”
My observation suggests that this criticism is not just true for students, but for the general population.
Sam Wineburg, lead author of the Stanford study woefully concluded, “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking.” (Camila Domonoske, “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds,” National Public Radio, November 23, 2016)
3. Make an effort to get information from diverse sources.
Determining the credibility of information is not always easy. However, one step that can help is to find an opposite source and compare. If one TV station says one thing, you might want to check a television outlet that represents a differing philosophy. Then, hearing two or more diverse opinions, you are in a better position to draw a conclusion.
Rick Lockridge, former reporter and producer for CNN, summarized this approach well: “As a viewer, the only surefire way to get the news without slant is to sample multiple outlets (each with its own slant) and then average it all together in your head.” He acknowledged. “That is a lot of work….”  (“Is it true that Fox News has a conservative bias and CNN has a liberal bias?”  Quora, date unclear)
As I talk to many of my neighbors, I am surprised how many say they have identified one source of information and rely on that source exclusively. Specifically, they may say they “always watch Fox News,” or alternatively, “Rachel Maddow tells me what to think.”  This, I believe, is an invitation to be misled.
The Pew Research Center (Jesse Holcomb, “5 facts about Fox News,” January 14, 2014) produced an interesting examination that showed how slanted various media are. They found that in the 2012 presidential election, on Fox News, Obama received negative coverage 46% of the time and positive only 6%. On the opposite side, they found that MSNBC produced coverage of Romney that was negative 71% of the time, while only 3% was positive. Pretty obviously, if you watched only one of the channels, you got different information.
Such divergent news coverage has helped to create a divided America. Holcomb also reported the divergence in how viewers identify themselves philosophically:
Fox News
Recently, President Obama said, “The biggest challenge that I think we have right now [regarding ‘growing divisiveness in the country’]…is that the country receives information from completely difference sources.” Some people use only sources with which they agree; they seldom if ever consider opposite sources.  (Sanchez)
To avoid the obvious bifurcation illustrated above, listeners would be wise to seek variety in their news input. Such variety will not assure discovery of the truth, but it is obvious that sticking to one source only will increase the likelihood of unmerited bias.
4. Don’t be afraid to withhold judgment.
Following the above suggestions will help to build a shield against fake news. But the techniques are not foolproof. One may still be misled.
It is for that reason that I make my final suggestion to withhold judgment. If after viewing the information skeptically, evaluating the sources, and seeking opposite points of view, you are still unsure of what to believe, I think it is reasonable to wait. Seek more information. Do not rush to a decision.
As I have aged, I have come to value the opinion of those who do not react hastily–who are thoughtful, and recognize that finding the truth may take time and further examination. Such effort and time will be required if we are to take battle with fake news—a battle which must be won if we are ever to achieve the kind of civilization we long for.