Check out this nice article in the Atlantic, written by Adrienne LaFrance, that shows that fake news is not just a new thing.
Quote from the article:
“It could not be foreseen that a time would come when a partisan press would seek to mislead the people,” a columnist lamented for The Davenport Daily Republican in 1896. “It could not be foreseen that a time would come when whole columns of fake news would be published, that whole columns of sensational stuff would be printed and read.”
James Warren, writes a nice article on Poynter (whose mission is to train journalists and support journalism) reviewing the work of Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, two economists who claim in an academic article that fake news and social media had very little influence on the election.
On first blush, this seems like an important paper to read if you’re into the fake-news issue.
Great story by Scott Shane of the New York Times on Cameron Harris and his fake-news concoctions.
“Asked whether he felt any guilt at having spread lies about a presidential candidate, Mr. Harris grew thoughtful. But he took refuge in the notion that politics is by its nature replete with exaggerations, half-truths and outright whoppers, so he was hardly adding much to the sum total.”
The good news is that his most important motivation, being able to earn money, was wiped away by Google and Facebook… so hopefully, there will be fewer independents out there spreading lies.
Here is a quote from the article:
The credibility of today’s democracies depends on reinstating the value of truth—something that no number of social-media followers or cybercapabilities should be able to subvert. At the moment, we are experiencing a cultural crisis in which propaganda has a tactical advantage. It is easy to lie; finding the truth requires more effort. But that effort is the only way to defend ourselves from exploitation and our democracies from subversion.
Public legislation, corporate policy, and technology can’t get us through this crisis alone. We, as individuals, need to raise awareness and take action.
Sally Hubbard, writing on Forbes, says that Facebook and Google’s designs are intentionally stealing user’s attention, keeping it away from it’s competition, legitimate media companies. A very provocative read!
Many smart people are throwing up their hands and have given up, believing that our current political-information system is doomed to failure. For example, see Harvard professor Bhirat Anand’s thoughtful article.
Here are some of the many arguments for this pessimism:
- Donald Trump is a sociopathic liar and will be lying through his presidency.
- Social media’s business model benefits from fake news, so they won’t change it.
- People live in information bubbles and can’t access corrective information.
- People live in partisan echo chambers and don’t want corrective information.
- The main stream media’s business model is collapsing, so it can’t provide a corrective.
- The partisan media’s business model is based solely on slanting the information they provide.
- Politicians lie in general and always have and always will.
- The American people (okay, any people) are too lazy, gullible, stupid to search out good news.
- Fact-checkers are impotent against people’s prior beliefs.
- When we try to help people overcome their misconceptions, our attempts to debunk will backfire.
I’m an optimist at heart and a true-believer when it comes to believing that we will overcome our current level of dishonesty.
I certainly don’t have answers to all the factors that might prod us toward pessimism, but let me address the last two, having to do with fact-checking and debunking. While it is true that lots of research shows that debunking may backfire and fact-checking can be impotent, I don’t think we’re stuck.
First, people have always changed their minds, even about deeply held beliefs. Go into any church, synagogue, mosque, or nonreligious congregation and you’ll find people who were once true believers in another faith. There is not a form of belief more fundamental than a religious belief, and these change for some people. Other beliefs and behaviors change too. Hardened criminals turn their lives around and work to do good in the world. The German’s once bought into Nazism and later rejected it. Racists become tolerant. Haters become loving. Republicans become Democrats and Democrats become Republicans. While belief and behavior-change are hard, they are not impossible.
Second, there are many bodies of research which have not yet been utilized in trying to fight against dishonest and misinformation. There’s research on persuasion, behavior change, advertising, learning, and more that simply have not yet been called upon to make an impact.
Third, there is research going on now — and that has been done recently — that shows that people can change their minds, that fact-checking can work, that feedback can correct misconceptions. Rich and Zaragoza (2016) found that misinformation can be fixed with corrections. Rich, Van Loon, Dunlosky, and Zaragoza (2016) found that corrective feedback could work, if it was designed to be believed. More directly, Nyham and Reifler (2016), in work cited by the American Press Institute Accountability Project, found that fact checking can work to debunk misinformation.
Here’s what they concluded:
“Our findings indicate that fact-checking exposure significantly increases the accuracy of people’s beliefs, especially among individuals with high political knowledge. We find only limited evidence that these effects vary by whether the fact-check is politically congenial to respondents. While Republicans feel less positively about fact-checking than Democrats, fact-checking improves belief accuracy among Republicans and Democrats for both belief-consistent and belief-inconsistent items.”
I remain optimistic. It is true we are in a period of great dishonesty and misinformation, but we will come through it. With more science, more applications of good science, more innovation, more technology, and renewed dedication of journalists, advocates, citizens, and technologists; we will push the pendulum to the other side.
This website is being built to fund a nonprofit organization — Truth For Democracy — that will (hopefully if funded) provide a nonpartisan effort to “make truth a virtue again in our American political conversations.” Of course, nonpartisan does not mean BLIND! So we must report when our most powerful politicians continue to push falsehoods.
In today’s New York Times, an editorial excoriated Donald Trump for responding to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech. Streep said she was heartbroken seeing Trump insult a physically-challenged New York Times reporter. In responding to Streep’s speech, Trump Tweeted that it never happened. Of course, as you probably know, it did happen and it has been caught on video.
The Times editorial said this:
He hasn’t taken office yet, but Donald Trump is lost, wandering in a labyrinth of lies and trying to drag the country in with him.
The implication from the editorial is that Donald Trump and his administration are in danger of creating a dystopian Dishonest-World where it will become virtually impossible to know when Trump or his administration or his advocates are telling the truth. This is terrifying!
Of course, lying about one’s own behavior is a character issue.
Lying in relation to issues is even more dangerous! When Trump tells Americans that the murder rate has gone up, when in fact it is way down from five years ago, and ten years ago, and 20 years ago; he is hurting democracy much more than when he lies about his own boorish behavior. Same with Bill Clinton’s angry retort, “I did not have sex with that woman!” These lies are wrong, they show a character flaw, and they are stupid to say because they usually backfire — BUT, they are not as dangerous as lies about facts that relate to issues that politicians and the body electorate of us citizens have to think about and make decisions on.
Perhaps we need not a rating system based NOT on an undifferentiated continuum ending with “pants on fire,” but a continuum from white lies to treason. Wikipedia has a great collection of the many types of lies there are, but it is too many for a rating system and many are not relevant for rating political commerce.
Here is my first draft:
Pagan Kennedy, writing in the New York Times, details a Twitter group that is taking aim at cutting off online advertising dollars to websites like Breitbart, which spew racist antagonisms.
As the Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) Twitter account says, “We are trying to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars. Many companies don’t even know it’s happening. It’s time to tell them.”
It’s not that companies like Adidas or Avis intentionally put their ads on Breitbart. Online advertising is largely an automatic process. You sign up to spread your advertising cheaply and they can go to a gazillion websites…
In a deeply intriguing and rather depressing article, Bharat Anand describes how fundamental forces are working together to encourage a dysfunctional political process. And he doesn’t see any way out.
Anand ends with this:
Three forces combine to create the media coverage of political campaigns we observe today: connected media, which spreads messages faster than traditional media; fixed costs and advertising-reliant business models in traditional media, which amplify sensational messages; and viewers’ news consumption patterns, which leads to people sorting across media outlets based on their beliefs and makes messages they already agree with far more effective. Each reinforces the others. Without these enabling factors, even the best marketing campaign would go nowhere, and fake news or leaked information from cyberattacks would have little effect.
Fair questions have been raised about the lack of investigative journalism early in the campaign, false equivalencies in reporting, and the use of paid campaign operatives as experts on television news. But digital technology and business incentives exerted more influence over the media coverage than editorial decisions and missing voices did. The ratings bubble had as much impact as filter bubbles did. The forces at work here — the search for profitability, competition, and self-interest — are things we embrace as profoundly American.
Competition in the media leads to efficiency as well as to checks and balances — all good things. But it fails to internalize the externalities from profitable but sensational coverage. It leads to differentiation and more voices (also good, and what’s been the focus of regulatory efforts) but also to fragmentation, polarization, and less-penetrable filter bubbles (dangerous).
I’m not as pessimistic as Anand is. First of all, people can change their minds — so they can correct their falsely held beliefs. Second, there have been cycles of media truthiness in the past, for example in the early 1900’s American newspaper readers got fed up with “tabloid” misinformation and some newspapers used truth-telling to begin out-competing the dirty rags. Third, science has not yet begun to unwind the debunking backfire effect. Science and experience have taught us that trying to persuade a try believer can make them even more of a true believer — but too few alternative debunking strategies have been tested.
Instigated by Will Thalheimer, a regular American citizen, because of his belief that America's political dialogue is dangerously dysfunctional, especially in being intentionally manipulated with misinformation to prompt voters to misinterpret the factors utilized in their own decision-making.
If our inaugural campaign is successful, and we raise enough money to fund a nonprofit, our future headquarters will be located somewhere near Boston.
And, if we grow, we'll look to have offices in Washington, DC... to keep a close eye on those who might hope to bend the truth...
So you can do your due-diligence, the instigator of Make Truth Great Again is Will Thalheimer, and you can learn about him through his websites and social media links:
LinkedIn: Will Thalheimer