On Fake News


So, here’s the thing about the fake news controversy. It is not about checking a list to see which news sites are “fake” and which are “real.” That list that went around – I shared it – was certainly full of garbage news sites, but it’s not about creating a blacklist or telling people what to read or not to read.

It’s about advising people to use some very basic discernment and judgment. We can all do this. It’s pretty easy. Let’s do it together.

First, I have to ask, do you know anyone in journalism? I do. Quite a few people, in fact. All work or have worked for “mainstream news” and, I hate to break it to you, but they were not initiated into a sinister cabal of corporatist warlords. They just work hard at a job, and do their best to report what is happening in the world.

This job entails fact-checking, using reliable sources, and struggling for maximum accuracy. If they don’t do these things, they imperil their career and ability to make a living, they put their employers at risk of significant loss of profit and reputation, and they open both themselves and whoever they are working for to the threat of lawsuits.

In other words, there is a lot at stake, and systems of accountability in place. Do these systems always work? No, of course not; there are no systems that always work. But generally, it is a pretty big deal when a legitimate news source prints a story with major falsehoods. Mostly, bias in the mainstream media show itself in what stories publications choose to cover, not whether or not those stories are completely fabricated.

A flawed system of accountability and accuracy is a lot better than none at all.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about these clickbait, viral, Facebook news sites that are strewn all over social media, spreading like wildfire and informing, indeed creating, so many opinions in this digital age.

Do you know anybody who writes for them?

Have you ever noticed that the “sources” referenced in these articles, when they exist at all, are usually other blogs or clickbait news sites, in an endless cycle of bullshit that never actually interacts with reality?

Have you Googled the authors of these pieces, when names are even given?

Did you discover a track record of professional, ethical journalism?

Or any training in journalism at all?

Like, school, and stuff? Or even a work history?

What do you think would happen if this person, whoever they are, published a false story? Would there be any consequences for them or their “employer”?

Is there a system of accountability in place? Fact-checkers?

What kind of research was done for this “story”? Any quotes from primary sources?

Was, perhaps, the “research” merely culling items from other clickbait news sources and sticking a photo on it?

Where does the website originate from? Which nation? What role is that nation playing in global affairs currently?

Are you aware of the fake news “factories” coming from foreign nations, and how lucrative they are? Do you have a good indication that this article is not connected to this industry?

Can you find independent verification of the facts in this article?

These are some good questions to ask.

One problem with the Internet is the mass leveling of information, so that outright lies can appear just as legitimate as sourced, researched studies. There they are, back to back, in our news feeds.

Or, as Obama explained to the New Yorker in this week’s issue, “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

In that same issue, he talks about a small town in Macedonia that has gotten wildly rich by disseminating these fake news sites. The name of this town is Veles. I won’t get into the Russian thing, but I’ll leave it you to decide whether, this being true of a small town in Macedonia, it might be remotely possible that the Russians might have the power to do the same, for their own reasons.

People wonder how Trump can get up at his rallies and spout outright, ridiculous, easily disprovable lies – like, say, “The country is falling apart! Crime is at record levels!” – and get away with it. It helps to remember that the people cheering at these rallies are logging into Facebook in the morning and seeing these lies repeated as news. It’s an enclosed, circular, self-perpetuating cycle of nonsense.

Or, think about this. I could start a website right now, today. I could call it TruthWillOut.com, let’s say. I could write an article with the headline “RUSSIAN SCIENTISTS CURE CANCER WITH TURMERIC” or “AL-QAEDA ON THE RAMPAGE IN ALEPPO.” I could then write the article, reference other questionable articles that back it up – or create them, if need be – find a few pictures, invent or steal a few quotes that no one will bother to check out, and share it on Facebook. A ton of people would start sharing it, and within a few days, or a few hours, it would be “news.”

(Maybe I’ll do this, secretly. It’d be an interesting social experiment. I wouldn’t feel very good about myself, though.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be “news.” It would be some dude typing on the Internet. So it’s not about alternative media vs mainstream media. There IS an alternative media that employs real journalists. The question here is whether or not it’s news, or just some dude typing on the Internet, somewhere, for some reason, without a responsibility to anyone.

Of course, it is entirely possible for you to be the sole decider on what is true and what is false, without reference to the facts of the outside world. Solipsism is a philosophical stance that is available to you. And in this digital media age, we all have the option of surrounding ourselves with media that only reinforces whatever we want to believe, no matter how absurd.

But it’s not an ethically responsible choice in these times.


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