Fake news zombies

Zombies Littering the Information Highway – Truth Still Matters

At the dawn of the Information Age, idealists probably assumed that increased access to digital data would boost knowledge in beneficial ways for society. Safe bet? Nope. Instead, the Information Highway is an endless traffic jam of falsehoods trying to block truth.

Visualize it like a zombie movie, a highway littered with crashed cars and mindless human bodies propelled by a virus and hell bent on destruction of others.

How did this happen? In a nutshell, when the internet became commercialized in the 1990s, traditional news organizations didn’t want to be left behind, so they offered their news for free. Non-traditional sources of news popped up online as well, some good, some not so much. Eventually, there was a flattening in which many consumers of information could not distinguish between falsity and truth.

For example, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign season was chock full of fake news, i.e., the tale of an FBI agent investigating Hillary’s emails who killed himself after murdering his wife and being the source of leaks about the investigation. Perhaps you too saw this “Denver Guardian” news story being posted on Facebook. This absurdity led to a great headline by the very real Denver Post: “There is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, despite that Facebook post you saw.”

The fake news machines are still whirling out complete bullsh*t and fact checkers are having trouble keeping up. In Mexico and the United States, Facebook is attempting to ferret out the truth. The Washington Post (a very real news organization) reported that the social media giant is apparently struggling with this task: “The hardest part is where to draw the line between a legitimate political campaign and domestic information operations,” said Guy Rosen, a top security executive at Facebook.

Is it really that hard? How long would it take to disprove that the wife of then candidate and now President Obrador of Mexico is not really the grandchild of a Nazi.

Apparently, Twitter too thinks truth is really hard. “We have not figured this out, but I do think it would be dangerous for a company like ours … to be arbiters of truth,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in an interview on CNN this Sunday. Hmmm, so when Alex Jones says that the Sandy Hook school shooting never happened or some such, is it really that hard to figure out if the speaker/tweeter is lying?

Then again, Rudy Giuliani, formerly America’s Mayor and federal prosecutor who now represents President Trump tells us that “truth isn’t truth.” In an attempt to clarify, Giuliani later tweeted: “My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements.”

Yeah, no. Truth is about incontrovertible facts and evidence. If I tell you 4+5=9, and someone else asserts that the correct answer is 11, that person is either a liar or a dummy who cannot grasp arithmetic.

Unfortunately, the internet, TV and radio are full of malarkey these days and it’s coming from different directions. In addition to the Russian government’s actions in social media content aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. (see indictments) and its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (see these other indictments), now Facebook and Twitter have disclosed they are shutting down an Iranian disinformation campaign.

Still, both companies are grappling with a hydra-headed monster that is harming their appeal with investors. The companies have not only a financial motivation, but a fiduciary duty to enhance security and the value of the content they allow to be published.

But what about users? Where lies our responsibility as social media consumers? Yes, we advise each other about spreading dubious news or chide each other. We can have robust, civil debates about the truth we seek. We can share real news too, even if it’s bad news. And, if the news gets really bad, we need to stick together. The truth is out there and it needs to matter again.

–Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives

The shrill versus the truth

Triumph of the Shrill – Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

A classic example of war propaganda is Triumph of the Will, a lengthy film documenting the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Germany. You may recall how filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl shot and edited the footage to glorify Hitler as a great unifier, bringing order and greatness to a country that had suffered after WWI. It can also be seen as a rallying cry to prepare for more war — war against enemies abroad and internally. Ultimately, that regime created its enemies and then killed them under the guise of some fabricated truth.

Well, we know where that led. Still, of late, it has become fashionable for some Americans and others to deny the Holocaust. This sort of talk used to be decried. Instead, candidates for office pushing “counter-Semitism” might be met with relatively mild comments by established politicos supposedly distancing themselves.

Current affairs in the United States have devolved from culture wars to a Triumph of the Shrill. What used to be fringe ideas snowballed on social media into widely-held notions that even motivate voting and/or vigilantism (see #PizzaGate gunman). In our post-truth reality, a constantly equivocating president decried the press who report his contradictions – as well as unflattering truths – as the enemy of the people.

How did we get this far? In the early 1990s, as a cub reporter, I first encountered people who grumbled about the media. They struck me then as uneducated. Remember the candidate who said he loved the uneducated? Well, there you go.

In the post-truth world, education is elitist. Educated people have supposedly been indoctrinated by a liberal academia. What, though, is liberal? The shrill voices want you to believe the elitist liberals are going to take away other Americans’ rights. This falls into the category of projection: fascists will have you believe that if you don’t go along with them, you are doomed. The politics of fear is not new. But the willingness of more people to go along unquestioningly appears to be getting worse.

In a liberal arts education, students are not told what to think by professors. They are instructed to go figure it out, after researching facts and thorough consideration. And if you don’t fully support your argument, you are going to get a bad grade. Analogously, I came up in a Christian tradition where “discernment” is virtuous. You need to determine your faith, no one can spoon-feed it to you. By extension, Biblical inerrantists will tell you everything in the Bible is fact. Moreover, their translation and interpretation is correct. Period, no ifs, ands or buts. You do not need to be a linguist well-versed in concordances to realize that cannot be possible 100% of the time.

The Reign of Confusion

Bullying people into subscribing to your stated point of view is one tactic. Another mechanism is sowing confusion and disarray into a discourse. Better yet, contradict yourself and then go back again, creating subsets of audiences who hear what they wanted to hear, all the while thinking some other side is wrong.

Fake news falls into this category. It is spun together taking strands of truth and twisting them with outlandish lies. To bolster this dangerous bullsh!t, falsity peddlers will reintroduce old boogeymen, such as the Rothschilds, and marry them to some current event. (I saw a fake news story today on Facebook, ahem, reviving PizzaGate while tying the Clintons to the Rothschilds.

Are you too still seeing actual fake news on Facebook or elsewhere. You betcha you are. In yet another masterstroke of projection, real news is decried as fake news. Screaming fake news has proven more expedient and effective than actually attempting to disprove any real news. Truth is the best defense for libel. Logically, if you cannot defeat the truth, you will not sue for libel. Instead, just shout “fake news” and poof, the story should go away.

Last week, I attended my 25th college reunion at a private, liberal arts university. A professor gave a lecture providing a somewhat sociological explanation for Trump’s win. While attending the school, which has always had a student body that is conservative, I could not have possibly foreseen the possibility of such a presidency. Alumni audience members did not sound like fans of the president in their questions, although one offered up an explanation: he drew his support from people who feel ignored and disrespected.

I raised my hand and shared that I tried to tell some friends during the election that this candidate was regarded in New York as a con artist with dubious ties and big financial woes, and yet they would insist “he’s a great businessman” and “he tells it like it is.” In this opposite world, I had a question for the professor:

“Does the truth matter?” He concurred he is concerned about whether it does. So, I ask now, what will it take for the truth to matter again?

–Katharine Fraser