Tag Archives: fake news

Why Trust Matters

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style. In it, I looked at the issue of trust through the lens of social capital scholarship. Trust and reciprocity are essential to social capital–and especially to the creation of “bridging” social capital, the relationships that allow us to connect with and value people different from ourselves.

I didn’t address an issue that I now see as critical: the intentional production of distrust.

Today’s propagandists learned a valuable tactic from Big Tobacco. For many years, as health professionals insisted that smoking was harmful, Big Tobacco responded brilliantly. Rather than flatly disputing the validity of the claim, a response that would have invited people to take sides and decide who they trusted, their doctors or tobacco manufacturers,  they trotted out their own well-paid “scientists” to claim that the research was still inconclusive, that “we just don’t know what medical science will ultimately conclude.”

In other words, they sowed confusion–while giving people who didn’t want to believe that smoking was harmful something to hang their hat on. If “we don’t really know…,” then why  stop smoking? Just wait for a definitive answer.

It is a tactic that has since been adopted by several interest groups, most notably the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing that– as ice shelves melted and oceans rose– few would believe a flat denial that climate change is real and occurring, they focused their disinformation efforts on creating confusion about what was causing the globe to warm. Thus their insistence that the scientific “jury” was still out, that the changes visible to everyone might be part of natural historical cycles, and especially that there wasn’t really consensus among climate scientists. (Ninety-seven percent isn’t everyone!)

The goal was to sow doubt among all us non-scientists. Who and what should we believe?

Now, as information about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election is emerging, it is becoming apparent that Russian operatives, too, made effective use of that strategy. In addition to exacerbating American racial and religious divisions, Russian bots relentlessly cast doubt on the accuracy of traditional media reporting. Taking a cue from Sarah Palin and her ilk, they portrayed the “lamestream” media as a cesspool of liberal bias.

In fact, the GOP’s right wing has been employing this tactic for years–through Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh and a variety of others, the Republican party has engaged in a steady attack on the very notion of objective fact. That attack reached its apogee with Donald Trump’s insistence that any reporting he doesn’t like is “Fake News.”

Both the Republican and Democratic bases have embraced the belief that inconvenient facts are simply untrue, that reality is whatever they choose to believe. (Granted, this is far more prevalent on the Right, but there’s plenty of evidence that the fringe Left does the same thing.)

The rest of us are left in an uncomfortable gray area, increasingly unsure of the veracity of the items that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s bad enough that years of Republican propaganda have convinced the GOP base that credible outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have “libtard agendas,” but thanks to the explosion of new media outlets made possible by the Internet, even those of us who are trying to access accurate, objective reporting are inundated with “news” from unfamiliar sources, many of which are reliable and many of which are not. The result is insecurity–is this true? Has that been report verified? By whom? What should I believe? Who can I trust?

Zealots don’t worry about the accuracy of the information they act on, but rational people who distrust their facts tend to be paralyzed.

And that, of course, is the goal.

 

 

 

Fake News and the Big Lie

A few days ago, Vox reported that

Attacks on the “fake news” media have become a staple of the Trump administration — and nearly half of voters, including the vast majority of Republicans, believe the president when he claims that the media is making up stories about him.

Forty-six percent of voters believe that major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump, while 37 percent do not and 17 percent are undecided, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Note that the question was focused on “major” news organizations–journalism outlets with institutional commitments to verification and accuracy. The questions weren’t about dubious websites or partisan outlets.

A study by an organization called Study Soup, with which I am unfamiliar, found that Limbaugh, Breitbart and Fox News–rather than traditional media– were seen as the biggest purveyors of “fake news.” This particular study asked people whether they’d been personally duped; I suppose it is plausible that people who recognize that they’ve been fooled by dubious reporting would subsequently be less trusting of all media.

Americans across the political spectrum, led by Republicans, admit they have been duped by “fake news,” or partisan propaganda and outright fabrications, a new national study has found.

“In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same,” said the analysis accompanying the survey of 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup.com.

The study did find that Trump’s constant calling-out of specific media sources affected public perceptions of the accuracy of those sources. That shouldn’t surprise us. There is a famous Joseph Goebbels quote, describing the propaganda tactic known as “The Big Lie.”

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The Big Lie is an all-purpose propaganda technique. According to Wikipedia,

The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Use of the technique isn’t limited to politics. Back in 2011, Joseph Nocera demonstrated how politically convenient myths about the collapse of the housing bubble had been promulgated.

 

So this is how the Big Lie works.

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views…

The success of the Big Lie rests on two characteristics of human nature. First, people have a tendency to believe a big lie more easily than a little one; most of us are familiar with”little white lies,” but we find it hard to believe that someone would invent an enormous (and more easily refuted) fiction. Second, if you repeat even a ridiculous lie frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

So–accuse respected journalists of “fake” news.

Does media bias exist? Of course–although the bias is usually toward conflict, not ideology. (Conflict, after all, is what makes something newsworthy, or at least interesting.) And reporters are human–they see things through their own “lenses,” no matter how hard they try for total objectivity.

Credible journalists do not, however, simply fabricate stories.

That so many Americans believe mainstream news outlets are manufacturing reports out of whole cloth is disquieting, to put it mildly. It’s one thing to be leery of conspiracy websites and partisan propaganda. When people don’t believe anything, from any source, there is no civic common ground. Without agreed-upon facts, we become uneasy; we can’t communicate.

That distrust creates an environment conducive to authoritarianism. Which is, of course, the point.

 

About That Echo Chamber…

As this blog frequently notes, one of the thorniest problems bedeviling our unravelling democracy is the distortion of reality–intentional and unintentional– provided via the Internet. That distortion is immensely aided by our tendency to live in echo chambers populated by friends who think like we do.

Most of us trust links from friends – a vulnerability exploited by phishing sites and other forms of online manipulation. An increasing number of us “unfriend” contacts who post uncongenial opinions or facts inconsistent with our political prejudices.

This is a real problem.

On the one hand, citizens who occupy different realities cannot have productive conversations or negotiate practical solutions to common problems; on the other hand, censorship of electronic media, in an effort to separate wheat from chaff, is neither wise nor possible.

Can technology save us?

Most of us, whatever our political orientation, recognize the problem. As an IU Professor of Computer Science and Informatics puts it,

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

As he notes, the Internet has spawned an entire industry of fake news and digital misinformation.

Clickbait sites manufacture hoaxes to make money from ads, while so-called hyperpartisan sites publish and spread rumors and conspiracy theories to influence public opinion….

This industry is bolstered by how easy it is to create social bots, fake accounts controlled by software that look like real people and therefore can have real influence. Research in my lab uncovered many examples of fake grassroots campaigns, also called political astroturfing.

In response, we developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements. Using BotOrNot, our colleagues found that a large portion of online chatter about the 2016 elections was generated by bots.

The real question–as the author readily concedes–is how to combat technology that spreads propaganda, or “fake news.” As he says, the first step is to analyze how these sites are operating.  Then we can hope that smart people adept in use of these technologies can devise tools to combat the spread of false and misleading information.

Long-term, however, “fixing” the problem of fake news will require fixing the humans who have a need to believe whatever it is that such “news” is peddling. That fix will necessarily begin with better civic education and news literacy, but it can’t end there.

Ultimately, we have a problem of political psychology…It would seem that we humans have invented tools that have outstripped our ability to properly use them.

Speaking of “Fake News”…

Well, well….

Despite all his fulminating about “fake news,” it appears that our President–whose definition of “fake” is any coverage (covfefe??) he doesn’t like–isn’t above generating some fakery of his own.

Remember Trump’s preening over his massive, multi-billion dollar “deal” with Saudi Arabia? Bruce Reidel of The Brookings Institution reports that no such deal exists.

Last month, President Trump visited Saudi Arabia and his administration announced that he had concluded a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom. Only problem is that there is no deal. It’s fake news.

I’ve spoken to contacts in the defense business and on the Hill, and all of them say the same thing: There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them “intended sales.” None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.

In my ethnic group, this is what we call chutzpah. (Chutzpah is sort of like nerve or gall, but on steroids. The standard example is the guy who kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.)

It appears that the “Art of the Deal” braggart, the guy who “makes the best deals,” lied through his teeth again, this time about a huge transaction that doesn’t exist–and to the extent it may exist in the future, it was initiated by his “Kenyan” predecessor.

As Reidel also notes,

Moreover, it’s unlikely that the Saudis could pay for a $110 billion deal any longer, due to low oil prices and the two-plus years old war in Yemen. President Obama sold the kingdom $112 billion in weapons over eight years, most of which was a single, huge deal in 2012 negotiated by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. To get that deal through Congressional approval, Gates also negotiated a deal with Israel to compensate the Israelis and preserve their qualitative edge over their Arab neighbors. With the fall in oil prices, the Saudis have struggled to meet their payments since.

Reidel isn’t above snark: he says we’ll know the Trump deal is real when Israel begins to ask for money to keep the Israeli Defense Forces’ qualitative edge preserved.

A deal that evidently is coming is a munitions sale to the Royal Saudi Air Force,  which will enable the Saudis to continue air bombardment of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

Finally, just as the arms deal is not what it was advertised, so is the much-hyped united Muslim campaign against terrorism. Instead, the Gulf states have turned on one of their own. Saudi Arabia has orchestrated a campaign to isolate Qatar. This weekend Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt broke relations with Qatar. Saudi allies like the Maldives and Yemen jumped on the bandwagon. Saudi Arabia has closed its land border with Qatar.

This is not the first such spat but it may be the most dangerous. The Saudis and their allies are eager to punish Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, for hosting Al-Jazeera, and keeping ties with Iran. Rather than a united front to contain Iran, the Riyadh summit’s outcome is exacerbating sectarian and political tensions in the region.

The Middle East has long been the world’s most dangerously unstable area. Now we have put management of the tensions generated there in the hands of the most dangerously unstable person ever to occupy America’s Oval Office–a man who has no ability to distinguish between reality and ego gratifying bullshit.

What could possibly go wrong?

Do Facts Matter Any More?

Fake news. “Alternative” facts. Welcome to the age of Trump.

There is no generally accepted definition of “fake news,” and no bright line separating it from the increasing proliferation of propaganda, but the essential characteristic is that it is not factual. (Fake news is not, as Trump asserts, any news that disparages him.)

Concern about fake news has risen, and Facebook and Google have recently announced steps to combat it. Journalist’s Resource has compiled the still-scanty academic research on the phenomenon.

While much has been written about fake news, scholars have published a limited amount of peer-reviewed research on the topic. Below, Journalist’s Resource has compiled studies that examine fake news and the spread of misinformation more broadly to help journalists better understand the problem and its impacts. Other resources that may be helpful are Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and a well-circulated list of fake, unreliable and questionable news websites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College. The First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations, was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news.

Starting in January 2017, Stony Brook University, home to the Center for News Literacy, will offer a free online course in news literacy.

The research papers described at the link are worth reading; they confirm what most of us suspect–namely, that misinformation, propaganda and fake news have a pernicious effect. Especially when you consider that most of us engage in confirmation bias–looking for information that validates our preferred versions of reality–it can be difficult or impossible to disabuse people of “facts” they want to believe.

As I tell my students, if you truly believe that aliens landed at Roswell, I can find you several websites confirming that belief. (Some even have pictures of the aliens’ bodies!)

As troubling as this aspect of our current information environment is, what makes it far more troubling is the election of a President with a very tenuous connection to reality, and a staff willing to double down on his consistent lies and misstatements. Never before, to my knowledge, have we had an administration for which facts are at best irrelevant and at worst enemies to be contradicted.

The latest evidence of this Administration’s allergy to facts was a surreal “press conference” on Saturday, in which Sean Spicer berated the media for reporting “falsehoods” about the size of the inauguration crowds. (Trump had asserted that it “looked like a million and a half people.”)

The New York Times reported,

An expert hired by The Times found that Mr. Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009….

Speaking later on Saturday in the White House briefing room, Mr. Spicer amplified Mr. Trump’s false claims. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he said.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Not only was Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd far smaller than Mr. Obama’s in 2009, but he also drew fewer television viewers in the United States (30.6 million) than Mr. Obama did in 2009 (38 million) and Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (42 million), Nielsen reported.

For that matter, most estimates showed that the Women’s March the next day drew three times more people — about 500,000 — than Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, but the White House flatout refused to accept those numbers.

Nor was Spicer the only Administration figure to make bizarre claims. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway said the Trump team is offering “alternative facts” to media reports about President Trump’s inauguration. (This led to immense amusement on social media, with people posting things like “I’m thin and rich” and “Best game the Green Bay Packers ever played” #alternative facts.)

In the wake of the election, many of us worried–and continue to worry–that our unstable new President would take America into a misconceived war. We didn’t realize that the first war he would declare would be a war on reality and those pesky and inconvenient facts.