The Disinformation Age: How to Stave Off "Fake News"
It was frightening, but not surprising, when a troubled young man with an AR-15 arrived here from North Carolina to “investigate” whether a popular pizza parlor was a front for a child pedophilia ring being operated by Hillary Clinton allies. That loopy theory had been pushed online by far-right conspiracy buffs until it found a taker.
It was also inevitable that a news organization with global reach would root around in the Internet’s fever swamps to find someone who would attach his name to the vilest imaginable insult of Melania Trump—that she had once been a prostitute. The blogger, a left-wing conspiratorialist who likes to compare Donald Trump to Hitler, and the news outlet—the Daily Mail—retracted the slur, but Mrs. Trump sued for libel anyway.
Meanwhile, journalism is confronting a Frankenstein of our own making that no one knows how to kill. Like Lucifer, this monster is not new, takes many different forms, and goes by many names. The latest is “fake news.”
While the definition is vague, the phrase is being used promiscuously. Take the recent appearance of liberal Newsweek contributor Kurt Eichenwald on conservative Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. Eichenwald implied in tweets that The Donald was once a mental patient. Afterwards, the predictable flame war ensued on Twitter. Newsweek was accused of being a purveyor of “fake news,” while the Daily Caller, which Carlson edits, was called “a fake news site.”
Several Twitter denizens noted that Eichenwald in the flesh (or at least on television) is heavier, older, and balder than in his Twitter picture. His critics called this an example of “fake news.” Considering the photo that accompanies my articles, this seemed a good place to devise a working definition of “fake news.” It’s not an easy undertaking. I came up with various categories:
Misunderstood Satire. In 1998, the New York Times pulled from the Internet a series of absurdly literal Chinese translations of actual Hollywood movies. “The Crying Game” became “Oh No! My Girlfriend Has a Penis!” “Babe” was “The Happy Dumpling-To-Be Who Talks and Solves Agricultural Problems.” That sort of thing.
If Times editors had checked they would have learned that the “translations” came from a website that billed itself as offering “dangerously original humor.” Dangerously turned out to be the right modifier, because even after the Times issued a red-faced correction, the “translations” kept showing up in other media outlets.
Deliberate Hoaxes. After the 2016 presidential campaign ended, The Washington Post located a peddler of disinformation named Paul Horner, who said, “I think Trump is the White House because of me.” How so? Because Horner produced invented stories, such as one about Clinton bribing people to protest Trump; these were passed around on Facebook by Trump supporters.
If this seems odd, considering that Horner detests Trump, his motivation is an ancient one: boosting profits by pumping up readership. In 1835, Benjamin H. Day, founder of the New York Sun, published a six-part series detailing the discovery of life on the moon. Long before “clicks” were a thing, this hoax worked: The Sun’s circulation shot up.
Reporters’ Hoaxes: Sometimes, editors aren’t in on the joke. This leads to firings, shame, recrimination, and returned Pulitzers, which is what happened to The Washington Post in 1981 with “Jimmy’s World”— Janet Cooke’s story of an 8-year-old heroin addict who proved to be fictional. In the ensuing 35 years, Stephen Glass (The New Republic), Jayson Blair (New York Times), and Jack Kelley (USA Today) were also caught defrauding their bosses and, more importantly, their readers, with invented stories.
Repeating the Lies of Others: In the early 1930s, while 25,000 Ukrainians a day were dying because of Kremlin-ordered food shortages, the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent assured his readers everything was fine. “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be,” Walter Duranty wrote in 1931. In 1933, when other news outlets were starting to cover the story, Duranty claimed, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
Russia was in the news during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did the Kremlin influence the election in Trump’s favor? So says the CIA, at least according to The Times and The Post. Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, noted that the CIA leaked this story line to reporters before presenting it to Congress. “It’s almost as if people in the intelligence community are carrying out a disinformation campaign against the president-elect of the United States,” King said. In his end-of-year press conference Friday, President Obama said that the congressional leadership has now been briefed, and predicted that eventually both parties will agree that Russia was behind the WikiLeaks-revealed hacks of the DNC, which he characterized as “Internet propaganda.”
A “Post-Fact” Environment: Whether Trump is speaking at a rally, giving television interviews, tweeting, or issuing statements through his campaign, he’s not what you’d call a stickler for accuracy. Just last week, he claimed, “We had a massive landslide victory.” Days later, the incoming president’s press office released a written statement: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.”
This is ludicrous. Let’s look at the past 30 U.S. presidential elections. In only five (1916, 1960, 1976, 2000, and 2004) was the Electoral College margin smaller. In three elections (1936, 1972, and 1984) the losing candidate carried just two states, if you count Washington, D.C. I don’t know if “fake news” is the phrase for this kind of bloviating, but a president-elect shouldn’t do it.
Partisan Animus: Was the mainstream media unfair to Trump in this campaign? I think so, and have written that. I believe the bias against him continues, most conspicuously in the press’s willingness to regurgitate almost any slander against his Cabinet choices, regardless of the source. News organizations—I’m thinking of The Washington Post—should know that when they publish articles about “fake news” efforts to help Trump, they should be extra careful with their sourcing, not extra trusting.
Another issue is opinion writers. When newspapers are accused of bias, they fall back on the old saw that columnists are free to express their views, and only the news staff must operate in a factual world. That’s a dodge. Where is it written that opinion writers are allowed to pass along partisan talking points as facts? And don’t get me started on talk radio.
How can those of us in the Fourth Estate can restore our missing trust? By resorting to first principles—the stuff we learned in J-school. Use original sourcing. Be skeptical, even when quoting those you agree with. And, yes, try to be objective. Pure objectivity may be impossible, but try. Here are three other steps that might stave off the “fake news” zombies, and they are as applicable to network anchors as to your Facebook friends.
-- Never invoke Hitler. The Third Reich murdered 6 million people, most of them Jews, while starting a war that took 10 times that many lives. If you compare any contemporary U.S. political figure to Nazis, you are conceding that you have no confidence in the facts, while advertising that you are a nasty person, quite possibly a nut, who shouldn’t be taken seriously.
-- When characterizing the argument of someone you disagree with, make sure they recognize it as their argument. Otherwise, you’re knocking down straw men.
-- Finally, when ascribing motives to other people, use this thought experiment: Would you condemn someone on your own side of the political divide with that level of evidence? It’s the Golden Rule, really, and this is a fitting time of year to try it out.