« Why We Continue to Make Dumb Decisions | Main | The Meaning of the Midterm Election Results »

How to Combat Fake News

Today I read the New York Times’ investigative report about Facebook and its lackluster efforts to combat fake news and hate messages on its website. I also watched a three-part video listed on the NYT opinion page titled, The Worldwide War on Truth. I was troubled by both. 

Facebook’s efforts to discover and combat fake news and divisive disinformation planted by Russia and various political entities are a picture of self-protection for its brand and attempts to manage the problem as much through securing political influence and mounting campaigns to tarnish its competitors as they are of any real effort to deal with the problem.  The video, prepared by senior NYT staff, is primarily an attack on Russia as the prime source of disinformation, arguing that the formerly Soviet Union and now Russian Active Measures campaign is so powerful that it's nearly impossible to combat it. Vladimir Putin is seen as its present mastermind. In the United States, Barack Obama’s naiveté about Russian disinformation efforts and Donald Trump’s’ own efforts to use disinformation to promote his agenda are the ultimate villains.

I grew up during the height of the Cold War and I remember the Junior Scholastic magazine weekly column called “The Big Lie” (a title used in the NYT video, by the way), which purported to expose Communist manipulation of the truth. Even as a 7thgrader, I thought the stories were heavy handed and often substituted equal stretches of the truth as the method of combating Soviet lies. Films, TV programs, and novels of the time portrayed the Soviets as super powerful, super intelligent and super devious opponents who were almost impossible to defeat except by maintaining constant suspicion about everything, including left-leaning politicians, Hollywood screenwriters, and anti-war activists as being either complicit or duped Communist sympathizers.

We are at a difficult time in our nation when people cannot agree on the facts about major social and political events. We don’t have conversational exchanges about differing opinions so much as we have mutual accusations. The lead stories on CNN are buried or ignored on FOX News and vice versa. When people of different political persuasions try to talk with one another, their views of the world and what transpires in it are totally different. We don't just disagree with each other, we don’t believe one another.

There are bad actors who use disinformation to sow distrust and to erode national cohesion. Russia is one of those, and politicians who base their message on anger, hate and suspicion are others who are also to blame. But the response of pointing fingers at offenders and blaming our discord as a country on a few evil characters who are fiendishly manipulating opinion for their benefit is both futile and misses the point.

Every time one of us “shares” a story we know is questionable, but love because it agrees with our opinion, or we repeat a questionable, often bizarre, conspiracy theory, or we “like” expressions of hate or anger toward those we blame for our problems, we are contributing to the fractures that divide our country. Every time we ignore counter evidence to our beliefs or choose to only read or watch those we agree with, we are deepening those divides. Every time we excuse our friends' use of  the very behaviors we condemn in our opponents we are widening our divisions.

We need to be vigilant about fake news and find ways of combating or preventing it that still preserve our freedom of speech and of the press. But ultimately, fake news won’t gain traction if our people stop being complicit in accepting, sharing and even promoting it.  We’re not “dupes” and the Russians aren’t “masterminds” who can play us without our knowing it. Most of us know when we are going along with stories and opinions that result in greater division and present only one side of the truth.  It can be fun and affirming to be part of a team and to mount warfare against an enemy. Our present day ethos seems to be that in culture and political wars as well as military ones, it’s winning that counts and not how you play the game. Nothing is bad if it works to defeat our opponents. 

As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The real antidote to the spread of fake news and the spread of divisive disinformation is to look at our own complicity and strive for greater integrity and intellectual honesty. Looking outward and making blame our primary weapon is to miss the point, which is that the real culprit is inside each of us.

Reader Comments (1)

Outstanding. Thank you.

The control of the formation of our opinions through schools, arts and other institutions and the promulgation of those ideas through media has been insidiously controlled for all my lifetime. I always remember waking up one day after the cold war to a live feed from Russia and realizing the Russians were extraordinarily similoar to Ameicans, spookily similar, not at all like the government propoganda I had been fed.

The changes brought about by the web and social media have been enormously democratizing which is one reason we see push back from the elites-- through their media particularly as the NYT editorials and anti-Facebook/Twitter campaigns illustrate'

Cassey's call for citizens to use care in the messages they promote is admirable. Every bit of training we can gain in how to create democratic enabled citizens, which requires free information flows, mutual respect and caring... is important if we are to secure true democracy...and that may be the only thing that can save the world.

Remember the majority of the people know the climate is warming and they know the rich are taking more and more of the pie everyday. Without democracy the people count for nothing...that's why it is important to preserve the peoples media (web) as our freedom tool.

November 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>