Tag Archives: disinformation

News And Political Polarization

A couple of days ago, in a comment to that day’s post, Paul Ogden placed considerable blame for America’s current polarization on the media environment we inhabit. He’s right (although I don’t think the “bubble” of rightwing news sources is incompatible with the research showing that  racial animosity motivates many, if not most, Trump supporters.)

Here’s the problem: Thanks to Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart and thousands of others on and off the web, we don’t have a “marketplace of ideas.” A marketplace contains a wide variety of “goods” openly competing against each other. But research has shown that  those on the right, especially, get almost all of their news from sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. That ideological loyalty, and the decimation of local newspapers (the vestigial Indianapolis Star just announced yet another round of newsroom cuts), has prompted political propagandists to pretend to be local news outlets. The New York Times recently reported on one such effort: a nationwide operation of 1,300 supposedly local sites publishing articles produced by Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms.

The rise of a media ecosystem devoted to active disinformation poses a huge dilemma for people who–like me–tend to be First Amendment purists. I agree with the value judgment implicit in free speech jurisprudence: the circulation of  bad ideas is certainly dangerous, but allowing government to decide which ideas may be circulated would be even more dangerous.

The First Amendment requires government to be content neutral. It forbids government from censoring points of view–as Justice Holmes memorably put it, the Amendment “protects the idea we hate.” But that doesn’t preclude any and all government action.

Last Sunday, in a profoundly important cover story for the Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon considered the problem and some potential solutions. 

Bazelon began with an example, showing how one remark was twisted from its original context into an absolutely false accusation of wrongdoing. She followed that with an important observation: the spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win the battle of ideas; it is meant to prevent that battle from being fought.

This takes us back to Paul’s observation about closed media ecosystems. There is no battle between ideas, because they aren’t expressed in the same marketplace. They aren’t contending against contrary opinions–they’re hermetically sealed against them. Scholars at Harvard analyzed hyperlinks of four million articles, and found that the conservative media did not counter lies and distortions, but actively recycled them through other like-minded  outlets.

Bazelon points out the fatal flaw of Citizens United and preceding cases equating money with speech. “By requiring the state to treat alike categories of speakers — corporations and individuals — the Supreme Court began to go far beyond preventing discrimination based on viewpoint or the identity of an individual speaker.”

Bazelon’s article is a lengthy tour de force. I really urge you to click through and read it in its entirety, because it is not limited to a series of examples of disinformation and the damage  caused–she tackles the all-important question: what can we do about it? Are there measures consistent with the First Amendment that can help restore a genuine marketplace of ideas?

Several of the rules currently imposed by European countries would pass constitutional muster here, and regulations we’ve jettisoned could be revived; she points to former rules on diversity of ownership (until the 1980s, FCC rules barred a single entity from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same local market). We can–and should–beef up anti-trust enforcement.

Online, government could require additional disclosures–identifying the producers and funders of election advertisements. And as she notes, there is no legal barrier to increasing the delivery of reliable information. Government could fund nonprofit journalism or create additional public radio and television outlets. At the least, government could condition the existing legal immunity of social media platforms on more effective efforts to counter disinformation.

In her final paragraph, she explains what is at stake.

As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free. Hannah Arendt finished her classic work on totalitarianism in the early 1950s, after barely escaping Germany with her life, leaving friends and homeland behind. She was a Jewish intellectual who saw the Nazis rise to power by demonizing and blaming Jews and other groups with mockery and scorn. The ideal subject of fascist ideology was the person “for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience),” Arendt wrote, “and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” An information war may seem to simply be about speech. But Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more.

Read it. It’s important.

Reviving Real News

The reports of local journalism’s demise are coming fast and furious.

The Guardian recently reported on the emergence of a conservative “news” ecosystem devoted to spreading rightwing propaganda.The article told how one “fake news” source opposed a school referendum in an Illinois town.

The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.

Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.

The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew….

Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.

The effectiveness of what is essentially a national “disinformation campaign” is amplified enormously by what columnist Margaret Sullivan has called “The  death knell for local newspapers.”

Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke the story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

Sullivan ticks off the reasons for her dismay: the just-completed Gannett and GateHouse merger, which threatens to further reduce newsrooms throughout the country; the fiscal woes of McClatchy, the sale of the Chicago Tribune–a sale that

“ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Sullivan reminds us that, in the past 15 years, more than 2000 newspapers have simply gone out of business, and of those that are left, far too many are “phantoms” of their former selves.  Yet we still rely on local newspapers to provide original local journalism — in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Sullivan then makes an incredibly important point:

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.

Sullivan references the still-fledgling efforts of nonprofits and foundations to fill the local news gap. (Students in my Media and Public Policy class have wondered why local “do-gooders” don’t form a nonprofit to purchase and revitalize the pathetic remains of our local paper–something that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely to happen.)

The conventional wisdom among media observers is that there is no longer a viable business model for local newspapers (even those that are entirely on-line)–that the loss of advertising dollars that provided them with once-cushy profit margins, together with the dramatic decline in subscriptions, simply dooms them.

But here’s a “what if” for our “who can you trust?” age.

What if a local news source marketed itself with a twofold promise: that it would staff its newsroom with enough reporters to adequately cover its geographic area, including especially the agencies of local government; and that it would report nothing those reporters had not verified?  The reason we used to trust local newspapers was our confidence that they had actually confirmed the facts they reported. However, they rarely felt the need to point that out. In the era of “fake news,” trustworthiness needs to be an explicit part of marketing campaigns.

I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news. And some advertisers might even see the reputational benefit of supporting actual journalism.

After all, someone is paying for the propaganda…

 

The Era Of Disinformation

I know I’ve shared this story before, but it seems more relevant than ever. After publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was interviewed on a South Carolina radio call-in show. It turned out to be the Rush Limbaugh station, so listeners weren’t exactly sympathetic.

A caller challenged the ACLU’s opposition to the then-rampant efforts to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings. He informed me that James Madison had said “We are giving the Bill of Rights to people who follow the Ten Commandments.” When I responded that Madison scholars had debunked that “quotation” (a fabrication that had been circulating in rightwing echo chambers), and that, by the way, it was contrary to everything we knew Madison had said, he yelled “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

That caller’s misinformation–and his ability to indulge his confirmation bias–have been amplified enormously by the propaganda mills that litter the Internet. The New York Times recently ran articles about one such outlet, and the details are enough to chill your bones.

It may not be a household name, but few publications have had the reach, and potentially the influence, in American politics as The Western Journal.

Even the right-wing publication’s audience of more than 36 million people, eclipsing many of the nation’s largest news organizations, doesn’t know much about the company, or who’s behind it.

Thirty-six million readers–prresumably, a lot like the caller who chose to believe what he wanted to believe.

The “good news”–sort of–is that the Silicon Valley is making an effort to lessen its reach.

The site has struggled to maintain its audience through Facebook’s and Google’s algorithmic changes aimed at reducing disinformation — actions the site’s leaders see as evidence of political bias.

This is the question for our “Information Age”–what is the difference between an effort to protect fact-based information and political bias ? And who should have the power to decide? As repulsive as this particular site appears to be, the line between legitimate information and “curated reality” is hard to define.

Here’s the lede for the Times investigative report on the site:

Each day, in an office outside Phoenix, a team of young writers and editors curates reality.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website, WesternJournal.com, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover”of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposesa “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The report notes that the publication doesn’t bother with reporters. Nevertheless, it shapes the political beliefs of those 36 million readers– and in the last three years, its Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, “almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.”

The Western Journal rose on the forces that have remade — and warped — American politics, as activists, publishers and politicians harnessed social media’s power and reach to serve fine-tuned ideological content to an ever-agitated audience. Founded by the veteran conservative provocateur Floyd G. Brown, who began his career with the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, and run by his younger son, Patrick, The Western Journal uses misleading headlines and sensationalized stories to attract partisans, then profit from their anger.

But Silicon Valley’s efforts to crack down on clickbait and disinformation have pummeled traffic to The Western Journal and other partisan news sites. Some leading far-right figures have been kicked off social media platforms entirely, after violating rules against hate speech and incitement. Republican politicians and activists have alleged that the tech companies are unfairly censoring the right, threatening conservatives’ ability to sway public opinion and win elections.

In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.

Most of my students get their news from social media. To say that the outcome (not to mention the sincerity) of Silicon Valley’s efforts to clean up cyberspace will determine what kind of world we inhabit isn’t hyperbole.

 

How The Internet Facilitates Dishonesty

Sometimes, just skimming the news is enough to trigger heartburn.

In addition to the hourly reminders that our country is being “governed” (note quotation marks) by a dangerously ignorant lunatic and the daily disclosures of corruption and cronyism, we are routinely reminded of the difficulty of separating all manner of informational wheat from both inadvertent and purposeful chaff.

The other day, the Guardian carried a story about dishonesty in–of all things– a women’s fertility app.

I didn’t even know such things existed. It would never have occurred to me that fertility could be managed on line–but evidently, in the age of the Internet, pretty much everything is subject to online interventions.

The problem is, it turns out that this particular app comes with an agenda.

A popular women’s health and fertility app sows doubt about birth control, features claims from medical advisers who are not licensed to practice in the US, and is funded and led by anti-abortion, anti-gay Catholic campaigners, a Guardian investigation has found.

The Femm app, which collects personal information about sex and menstruation from users, has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015, according to developers. It has users in the US, the EU, Africa and Latin America, its operating company claims.

Although it markets itself as a way to “avoid or achieve pregnancy,” what the app really does is create doubts about the safety of birth control.

Femm receives much of its income from private donors including the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity backed almost exclusively by Sean Fieler, a wealthy Catholic hedge-funder based in New York.

Fieler’s foundation has long supported organizations– and politicians such as the vice-president, Mike Pence – that oppose birth control and abortion. Fieler has criticized Republicans for failing to outlaw abortion, calling their reticence “the tyranny of moderation” in a recent editorial.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation, with Fieler as its chairman and main backer, provided $1.79m to the developers of the Femm app over the last three years, according to IRS statements. Fieler also sits on the board of directors for the Femm Foundation, a not-for-profit which operates the app.

The Femm app asserts that “hormonal” birth control–i.e., the pill– may be “deleterious to a woman’s health” and promotes learning one’s “cycles” as  a safer, “natural” way to avoid pregnancy. This is medically inaccurate information.

“The birth control pill is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has studied fertility apps extensively. “This is part of standard women’s healthcare.”

“Natural” family planning methods using fertility awareness are known to have a failure rate of about 25 unintended pregnancies for every 100 women a year in the US.

I wonder how many women have downloaded this app in good faith, relying on the professional advice of “doctors” who are unlicensed in the U.S. and who are peddling information inconsistent with sound science and best practices.

For that matter, I wonder how many other apps, websites and blogs are providing information they know or should know is both untrue and potentially damaging, whether for ideological reasons or financial ones. We already know about the so-called “dark web,” where alt-right white nationalist propaganda radicalizes the vulnerable, and conspiracy theories ensnare the gullible. Add to that the new “deep fake” technologies, and the potential for mischief (and worse) is enormous.

I have no idea how we combat the avalanche of misinformation that is facilitated by the Internet’s low entry barriers. It seems clear that the “big guys”–the social media mavens–don’t know how either.

Ultimately, better education (and better mental healthcare), plus development of some sort of “Good housekeeping seal of approval” denoting credibility might act as warning devices, but for right now, it’s a Wild West–and the bad guys aren’t wearing black hats so that we can recognize them.

Baffle Them With Bullshit

The BBC recently opined that the goal of all those Russian bots and trolls isn’t to convince Americans of any particular fact or position–it’s to bombard us with so many competing versions of everything that nothing makes sense.

The observation reminded me of the old saying, “If you can’t convince them with your arguments, baffle them with your bullshit.”

CNN recently ran a story with a similar premise: the title was “Why Russian Trolls May be More Excited That the NFL is Back Than You Are.

The same Kremlin-linked group that posed as Americans on social media during the 2016 US presidential election has repeatedly exploited the controversy surrounding the NFL and players who have protested police brutality and racial injustice during the National Anthem, playing both sides in an effort to exacerbate divides in American society.

The debate is almost certainly an irresistible one for the Russians, given that it includes issues of race, patriotism, and national identity — topics the Russian trolls sought to exploit during the run-up to the election, and have continued to focus on in the two years since.

Propaganda in the age of the Internet has gotten far more sophisticated, and the goals it pursues are no longer limited to winning a particular debate or political campaign. The changes really started in earnest with Big Tobacco–the PR firms trying to head off new regulations realized that a frontal attack on the medical science showing that smoking is linked to cancer would fail, because contrary scientific studies paid for by the tobacco companies wouldn’t be seen as credible.

Instead, they hit on a tactic that has since been used to great effect by  other special interests, most notably fossil fuel companies denying climate change: they claimed that the evidence was still “inconclusive” and Congress should wait for more information before acting. Encouraging confusion was far more effective than attacking the science. The tactic played into the reluctance of lawmakers to pick a side in contentious debates.

It’s even easier for the Russians, because their goal is simply to divide us. They don’t care which side “wins” a debate–their goal is to add fuel to the fire and watch it burn.

Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who has been studying the Russian group’s behavior with his colleague Patrick Warren, explained that the trolls “don’t slant toward one side or the other in the NFL flag debate, but they do slant very steeply to both extremes,” he said.

“Kaepernick is either a hero fighting a corrupt system or a villain who has betrayed his country. It’s two very simple, divisive story lines told at the same time with the goal of dividing our country rather than adding nuance to an ongoing, important national conversation.”

The most pernicious aspect of a fragmented media environment in which partisans can “shop” for the realities they want to find is the overwhelming uncertainty that less ideological citizens experience. We no longer know which sources are credible, which advocacy groups we can trust, which “breaking news” items have been vetted and verified.

We don’t know what’s bullshit and what isn’t–and that’s paralyzing.