Fake News and Its Threat to Democracy

Posted by on Nov 16, 2016 in The Flack | No Comments

My first social media post of the day happened on Facebook and involved Twitter. It cited USA Today’s story on Twitter’s audacious decision to ban from its platform hundreds of offensive “alt right” accounts.

My morning gripe had less to do with Twitter’s sudden cleanse of hate-spreaders on its platform and more about the absence of a substantive comment backing up a decision that would certainly play havoc among the First Amendment set. Someone commented that the less said the better, i.e., actions speak louder than words. Does Twitter even a a PR chief at the moment?

In June, in a piece I penned titled “Trump: The Art of the Lie,” I decried the mass manipulation of the news media by nation-states like Russia and China, and the potential threat to the U.S. posed by the purposeful creation and spread of disinformation. When a government like Turkey, Russia, Iran or China shutters (or murders) the journalism professional, or worse, activates legions of propagandists

to spread falsehoods on social media, civilization itself suffers.

One of the big post-elections memes — of many — revolves around how false news flourishes on Facebook and Twitter where some 44% of Americans now gets their news and information. What’s worse, the fake news that aligns with the reader’s own POV spreads faster and resonates louder than factual, well-sourced reporting.

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

In the hangover following November 8, we find ourself very worried about a U.S. President-elect who eludes the White House press corps, ends media access, and appoints as his chief strategist and potential national security consigliere, respectively — two publishers presiding over dubious journalistic enterprises. The former no doubt will be tasked to ratchet up a Trump-controlled disinformation apparatus, taking a page from Russia and China.

I was pleased to see the significant surge in subs to The New York Times and the Washington Post, two of the remaining journalistic enterprises who can still check truth to power even as Mr. Trump tries to marginalize them.

In a piece on BackChannel today, Jessi Hempel caught up with Brooke Binkowski, founder and truth-seeking evangelist behind Snopes. Ms. Binkowski doesn’t lay the blame for the proliferation of false news at the feed of Facebook, but rather on news orgs whose diminished reporting resources have compromised the quality of their product.

“It’s not social media that’s the problem,” she says emphatically. “People are looking for somebody to pick on. The alt-rights have been empowered and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But they also have always been around.”

Hempel writes:

“The problem, Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer. The reasons are familiar: as the business of news has grown tougher, many outlets have been stripped of the resources they need for journalists to do their jobs correctly.”

More specifically, Binkowski says:

“When you’re on your fifth story of the day and there’s no editor because the editor’s been fired and there’s no fact checker so you have to Google it yourself and you don’t have access to any academic journals or anything like that, you will screw stories up.”

Faulty journalism is one thing, but the purposeful dissemination of false information for one’s own aggrandizement is an entirely and even more pernicious problem. Facebook mostly, and Twitter to a lesser degree must end the use of their channels to spread false or malicious news. Certainly the Framers did not envision an era when such a phenomenon could undermine the very foundation on which our nation was built.

On the surface, such a move will appear to many free speech zealots (and a few anarchists) as flying in the face of the First Amendment. In reality, a firm stance from these American-born media channels is what will prevent our nation devolving into Russia and China where quasi-government trolls have grabbed the reins that control the veracity of information to gain or retain power. An informed citizenry is a hallmark of democracy.

Finally, this headline late today from HuffPost:

Barack Obama: Fake News On Facebook Hurts Democracy

Especially when the President-elect himself is the Chief Fabricator:

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