Fake News A Problem For An Informed Citizenry

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


“People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, British Journalist & Author

Stories about how fake news pervades the internet and how it even helped Donald Trump win the presidency have been wide spread in the news media over the past couple weeks.

First, we don’t think the Republican candidate won because of fake news. He won because a majority of those who voted in states that count in the electoral college did so because of his conservative social stands, because he was a Republican, because many undecided voters detested Democrat Hillary Clinton, because many Democrats wished they had another choice, and because people wanted change in Washington.

But news that is made up, twisted far from the truth, and intended to deceive is a significant problem on the internet and to an informed citizenry. Too often people reading it take what they see and read on the internet as truth, repeat it to friends, and to like-minded people through Facebook sharing, through Tweets, and through other social media.

The false stories develop a life of their own spreading rapidly across the globe. Stories about how Pope Francis endorsed Trump were common on the internet, seen and shared by millions, though he never endorsed either candidate.

A newspaper called the Denver Guardian carried an internet story “days before the election that an F.B.I. agent suspected of involvement in leaking Mrs. Clinton’s emails was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide,” Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, wrote in a column for the New York Times.

As Tufekci points out, there is no newspaper called the Denver Guardian. It is a made-up name. There is a Denver Post and there was Rocky Mountain News in Denver, but no Guardian. Still the story spread among millions of Trump supporters with a false legitimacy.

Not all news that is flat out wrong and misleading is posted to the internet by people who know it is false at the start. Some people just jump to conclusions and throw their false assumptions up on the internet where they are readily picked up by people eager to agree.

Another Times story tracks a post by a Texas man who had fewer than 50 Twitter followers, but whose simple Tweet of a photo of a line of large busses lined up along a street in Austin brought him instant celebrity. Because the busses were lined up relatively close to where a Trump celebration rally was taking place, and because he thought the timing of the busses appearing was relatively close to the time of the rally, he surmised that they must have brought protestors. He never saw anyone get on or off the busses.

But it wasn’t long before his Tweet was shared 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. Even Trump saw it and Tweeted saying, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”

The busses had, in fact, brought a group of people attending a business convention to the venue where they would be meeting.

Some people produce outrageously fake news because they know it will get millions of shares by people who are either ready to accept and spread the news, or by those who are outraged by it. They could care less which side you are on, they are going to make money off all the hits that come to their story. They get a little bit of the revenue each time the advertisements on their pages are viewed.

Google has said it will work to not allow fake news sites access to advertising its places with searches. Facebook has been under considerable pressure to stop the significant role it plays in the spread of fake news stories.

However, in an Associated Press story Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “the problem is ‘complex, both technically and philosophically.’ It is also a sensitive issue for a company that does not want to censor content such as legitimate political satire that some people find offensive. Facebook sees itself not as a traditional publisher, but as a facilitator of global communication.” That is the difference between professional, legitimate news sources and the news you get on the most powerful social media platform in the world. One strives for the truth while the other allows people to be misinformed by deliberately false stories posing as real news.

Even President Obama has called for Facebook and others to be more responsible in dealing with fake news. In “an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television…” there is a need for responsibility in what is disseminated, he said.

Considering an estimated 44 percent of voters get their news off Facebook, the need to identify fake news is crucial to a truthfully informed citizenry. Yes, there has always been slanted news presented to the public, but readers and viewers could weigh how one side viewed the “truth” against how the other side presented it. With fake news there is no truth. It’s simply a lie. It is meant to deceive.

Pointing out to people that they are being misled by fake news stories doesn’t help. “Research has found that when psychologists confront political partisans with facts contradictory to their opinions, they become even more convinced of their existing beliefs,” Gregory Ferenstein, a fellow at the University of California Center for the Study of Democracy, writes. “We have “a tendency to bias our interpretation of facts to fit a version of the world we wish to believe is true.” Give people fake news they want to believe and they will take it to heart.

Considering citizens need to be accurately informed to back their leaders on issues of whether we go to war or not; on whether immigrants are a national threat or key or our growth and prosperity; on how to best address our health insurance cost crisis; and whether our elections are rigged or fair, it is imperative we have facts not fiction.

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