Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Problem of 'Fake News'

There is much ado these days about "fake news” on Facebook and other social media.  Manufacturers of such falsehoods are said by some to have contributed to Donald’s winning the presidential election.  Indeed, one highly-paid writer of such untruths claimed that he alone won the presidency for Donald.

The New York Times exposed and deplored “fake news” in an article last Friday; President Obama railed against it in public comments during his trip to Europe.

Movements are afoot to curb it.  Facebook, the most prominent target of “fake news” adversaries, says it is continuing to take steps to deal with the “fake news” problem.  One move entails creating a commission to review suspect articles and excise those found to be untruthful. But, as the superb investigative journalist  Robert Parry reminds us, who verifies the veracity of the verifiers?

Who gets to decide what is real and what is not real?,” he wrote.  “And – in an age when all sides propagate propaganda – when does conformity in support of a mainstream ‘truth’ become censorship of reasonable skepticism?”

If a commission of major news media were to determine what’s real, what’s not, one might wonder if, say, the deemers included the New York Times of Jayson Blair, Judith Miller and David Sanger, or the Wahington Post of Leonard Downie and Fred Hiatt.  Frying pan to fire?

In a Media Essay in The New York Times, John Herrman wrote:

“‘Fake news’ as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of ‘fake news’ will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.”

How would one classify the work of satirists of contemporary affairs such as The Onion or Stephen Colbert?  Forty years ago a judge held that such satire was fair comment when he dismissed the $6 million lawsuit filed by then  Mayor Frank Rizzo against Desmond Ryan of the Philadelphia Inquirer who, in his column called “The Skeptic,” imagined a conversation in which Rizzo (who opposed putting women on the police force) said:

“I mean, who really wants broads on the police? What about you’re having a fight with the wife and givin’ her the back of your hand when the Polack down the street puts the squeal in. You want some bull dyke come chargin’ on your property all ready with a swift kick in the lasagnas? No way. Not while I’m mayor.”

The very fabric of effective satire, and what makes it funny, is that on its face it’s plausible.  And if the unsophisticated read it and think it’s true?  Shame on them.

The Internet is an incredibly valuable tool in this modern world, but it is, alas, one that can lend credibility to lies.  I used to take delight (until the volume of such messages made the practice too time-consuming) in debunking the falsehoods forwarded to me on e-mail by gullible acquaintances.

There are, of course, those like the Trumpistas who will gleefully circulate certain bits of fake news to further their own agendas.  Donald’s nominee for national security advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, did just that several times during the recent campaign, tweeting lies about Hillary Clinton that he surely knew were lies.

As I was writing this post, a friend forwarded me a longish e-mail that is full of obvious falsehoods regarding Warren Buffet, the U.S. Congress and other public issues.  My dilemma: shall I spend three hours researching and documenting the truth on all of this, or should I ignore it and go out to lunch?

I’m thinking of a reuben.  No fries. 


  1. Regarding the last paragraph: Isn't that what Snopes is for?

    1. Yup, and it's fairly reliable. But how many folks actually bother to check Snopes, or do any other research?