Stuart Elliott: Fake News, Real Problems

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
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These days, it seems, the only thing easier to find than fake news is discussion of the phenomenon of fake news. That's because while more and more of the news may be fake, the problems it's causing are very, very real.

There's no question why there's so much fake news or why so much attention is being paid to it. The presidential election generated a veritable tsunami of deliberately wrong and misleading content, presented as if it were legitimate news coverage. And in the weeks since, experts have found that most of the make-believe facts in the make-believe news articles were concocted on behalf of the Trump candidacy.

Those ersatz news articles were being churned out by ideologues trying to gain votes, entrepreneurs or scammers trying to make bank and agents of the Russian government trying to score points. They so overwhelmed social media that, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News, during the last three months of the campaign the 20 top fake news stories on Facebook produced more engagement in the form of likes, shares and comments than the 20 top real news stories from actual news websites.

And now, with Donald Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor, a maestro of fake news will be ensconced in the White House, steps from the Oval Office. The swamp over which Bannon presides, Breitbart News, is known for formulating diatribes in the guise of news that carry such incendiary headlines as "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew"; "Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage," and "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy."

What's brought us to this lamentable state of affairs? Well, fake news could be considered part of the continuing falsification of American institutions. For example, Airbnb offers fake hotel rooms, Uber provides fake cab rides and the Republican Party rails against fake voter fraud. Now, there are fake facts.

You also could point a finger at Fox News, which critics long have derided as Faux News because of on-air talent that wraps opinions in the trappings of news reports, relaying partisan points of view as if they were objective coverage of events. Its role in the rise of our "post-fact" world, including the proliferation of hyper partisan blogs, can't be overestimated.

Then, too, there's the immeasurable influence of the Internet, and social media, which have leveled the playing field between actual and phony news outlets. The old saying "A cat can look at a king" can be recast: Thanks to technology, a Breitbart News can look at a New York Times, or a CNN, or a Time magazine.

On one hand, it's wonderful for the Times that it has slipped the bonds of print, available to be read online by anyone from Tennessee to Tallinn to Tasmania. But that, cruelly, cuts both ways: Anyone on a laptop or a smartphone can see headlines invented by fake-news websites that look no different from headlines reported by real-news websites.

Once upon a time, the medium of newsprint conferred legitimacy. Readers could tell pretty easily if someone was faking it, and they could discern the difference between articles in their local daily and articles in the Weekly World News. If you lived in Denver, for instance, you knew there was no Denver Guardian and thus wouldn't believe something you ran across that claimed to be published by such a paper.

Now, on the Internet, you can stumble upon fake news about Hillary Clinton that claims to be from the Denver Guardian and not know any better. Why people are so willing to believe what they read online, suspending the skepticism they often bring to the printed word, is a mystery that certainly ought to be studied further.

No less a personage than Trump himself voiced the new normal. When asked by Chuck Todd in March about a video on YouTube that was faked to make it seem as if a protester at a Trump rally had ties to ISIS, Trump replied: "What do I know about it? All I know is what's on the Internet."

Stephen Colbert's reaction was priceless. "Trump is America's gullible uncle, just forwarding anything he sees online," he told his Late Show audience. Trump's remarks echoed the famous line that the comedian Will Rogers opened his act with -- "All I know is what I read in the papers" -- but at the same time repudiated it; Trump was suggesting that what you read online trumps, you should pardon the expression, what you read in print.

(Another well-known Rogers line is still timely: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.")

Trump's seeming incredulous attitude toward online news may have larger implications. Trump himself might be "the biggest source of fake news," the journalist Elizabeth Spiers tweeted Sunday, "and it works because so many of his followers want desperately to believe it." Her assertion was prompted by tweets from Trump earlier that day, including one that read, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Real news outlets were quick to take to Twitter to take issue with Trump. The Associated Press deemed his claims "without evidence," while Time and People magazines both used the word "falsely" to characterize them; People even declared the tweets "bizarre." In a twist that only can be described as bizarre, the fake news folks at Breitbart played their post straight, under the headline "Donald Trump: 'I Won the Popular Vote' if Illegal Voters Discounted."

Sometimes, it seems as if up is down and black is white and ... yes, 2016 is 1984, as in the George Orwell novel with that year as its title. The concept of a Ministry of Truth that disseminates lies isn't all that far from the concept of people fabricating fake news for their own greedy or nefarious purposes.

That's why it's crucial that powerful technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter must do all they can to crack down on the spread of fake news. Sure, fake news hurts marketers whose ads appear alongside suspect or specious content by devaluing their pitches. If you can't believe the so-called news, how can you believe the claims of efficacy for a toothpaste?

Far more importantly, fake news needs to be stamped out because it's a threat to democracy. Initially, Mark Zuckerberg, the grand poohbah of Facebook, pooh-poohed fears that bogus news influenced or even skewed the outcome of the Clinton-Trump race, calling it "a pretty crazy idea" and estimating that only "a very small amount" of Facebook content, less than 1 percent, is "fake news and hoaxes."

After days of furious pushback from users, he outlined steps the company was considering to clean up the Facebook news feed, including making it easier to flag suspicious content and enlisting third parties to verify posts.

"We believe in giving people a voice," Zuckerberg wrote, "which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible."

To err is human, they say. Fake it till you make it, they also say. But fake news is a menace, a scourge, a plague and erring on the side of caution in fighting it could turn out to be as bad as the problem itself.   

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