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by Marc Schulman
In the week before the recent US Presidential election, when I feared President Donald J. Trump would be re-elected, I reached out to several Trump supporters in the United States to attempt to comprehend why they so enthusiastically advocated for him. Many people here in Israel favor Trump, as he has done several things that, at least in the short-term, are perceived to benefit Israel.
However, for Americans who are not tied to Israel, understanding the reasons they support Trump remained a mystery to me. I believe Trump will go down as the worst President in US history. While I personally could not fathom why so many people still embrace Trump, that was a conundrum I felt I had to strive to grasp.
What became painfully clear to me was that the Trump supporters I knew live in a totally different media universe than I do. They regard all of the sources I rely upon to receive credible information as "fake news." Trump supporters largely take in their information either through social media or through media publications like Breitbart and the Daily Caller, whose connection to accurate reporting is often coincidental.
I tried to coax those with whom I spoke to open their eyes to the mainstream media, noting that even though my columns are in the opinion section at Newsweek.com, my editor regularly requests sources for the facts I put forward. (A standard policy among most of what President Trump calls "fake news"). But my efforts seemed of no avail.
My concern has only heightened in the weeks following the election. Many of the aforementioned people seem persuaded, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that President Trump won the election. One friend even bet me $20 that Trump had won — on Monday after the networks had called for the election for President-elect Biden. Since then, as the Trump team has lost 32 legal battles in which they raised spurious allegations of irregularities, their claims and contentions of why Trump actually won became increasingly less believable. The campaigns surrogates put forward a theory of a conspiracy so vast that it's hard to comprehend, and they did so without providing absolutely any proof. And yet, according to recent polls, the majority of Republicans continue to believe Trump rightfully won.
The willingness of Americans to believe conspiracy theories is nothing new. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote, in an article titled, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics".
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this, I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
Hofstadter went on to give examples, such as Senator McCarthy in 1951, who claimed there was a vast Communist conspiracy in the US … or further back, in 1895, the Populist party which asserted there was a conspiracy going back to the end of Civil War between gold gamblers in the US and Europe … or the 1855 declaration by a Texas newspaper that the Pope and the Monarch of Europe were conspiring to take away the liberties of Americans.
Of course, back then, conspiracy theories and "fake news" could not be spread as they are today via internet sites, instantly to millions — not to mention posts on Facebook or Twitter that reach additional millions in a flash. The extent of the false statements issued in the last few weeks is simply staggering. David Brooks argued last week on the PBS NewsHour: "It's not that people necessarily believe the lies, they just don't believe anything." Unfortunately, this is only partially true, since many people seem to actually believe the lies. Even worse, according to an MIT study false news travels faster on the internet than true news.
The problem of "fake news" is not limited to the United States, although it is most acute there. Last week, Israel's Institute For National Security Studies (INSS) held a two-day virtual conference on "National Security, Fake News, and Strategic Communications in the Digital Era". Leading off the conference, Michael Rich, President of Rand Company, warned "'Truth Decay' in the United States has grown more serious and more pervasive over the last two decades." Brigadier General (ret.) Itai Brun, who moderated the session, stated in response to Rich commented, "We see the same trends in Israel."
Dr. Tehila Shwartz-Altshuler, head of the Democracy in the Information Age Project at The Israel Democracy Institute said, "Israel's mainstream media is not as careful as American media." Among a series of examples, Shwartz-Altshuler pointed to Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent manipulation of the press; taking an article announcing Israel's credit rating would remain unchanged, and having a picture of himself inserted under the headline; a photo that was not part of the original article.
I asked journalist Yael Lavie, who teaches "Media Ethics in the Digital Age" at that Interdisciplinary School in Herzliya, for examples of the Israeli press being careless in ways that counted. She referred me to a story from 2017, when Israeli police demolished an illegal Bedouin village. During the events and the protests, the police shot and killed an innocent Bedouin educator. The initial, unfounded claim was that he was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and planned to ram the police with his car intentionally. The media initially went with that story, falsely framing the incident in Israeli minds.
The most substantial parallel between Israel and the US is Prime Minister Netanyahu's constant parroting of his friend in the White House, using the term "fake news" to characterize every story related to his alleged corruption. Though Netanyahu has been indicted and is about to stand trial, his supporters will almost all refer to the charges against him as "fake news".
Israel has Yisrael Hayom, a daily newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, one of Netanyahu and Trump's biggest supporters. Yisrael Hayom fills the role played by the news division of Fox News, i.e., always trying to slant the news so that it looks favorably upon Netanyahu. But Israel does not have its own Breitbart or Newsmax, where the line between news and fantasy hardly exists. Breitbart-style news tends to be limited to WhatsApp and Facebook, both heavily used in Israel.
Despite regular references to Israel, the extraordinary events going on in the United States remained at the forefront of every discussion at this year's INSS conference.
Prof Yochai Benkler, Prof. at Harvard Law School, took issue with the general idea that disinformation is part of the prevailing political dialogue in the United States. Benkler stated:
"The United States is suffering an asymmetric polarization. It is coming from a specific market dynamic since the 1980s in which one part of the nation is operating in a propaganda information loop."
Benkler was referring to the right in the United States. The 1980s marks the rise of Fox News and the beginning of the right-wing echo chamber; an echo chamber that has brought the United States to where it is today.
When the history of the last few weeks is written, future historians will ask what collective madness came over the American public that led to a situation in which two weeks after all the significant news networks called the elections for President-elect Biden, 50% of Republicans still believed Trump won.
I wish I could say that it is just a temporary passing aberration, but I fear it is not. In the week before the election, every Trump supporter I spoke to was confident Trump would win. With the President and his supporters' claims that "the only reason he lost was some vast conspiracy, in which the election was stolen from him," no doubt a large percentage of his voters will continue to believe that baseless narrative even after President Biden is sworn in.
A new conspiracy will have been born — and America will be further divided, not over real policy issues like the environment, minimum wage, or tax policy, but over a fantasy that never existed — over an election that was lost fair and square at the ballot box, by a President who could not admit defeat, and would rather undermine American democratic norms than do so.
Trump is but a manifestation of a bigger problem. Senator Patrick Moynihan famously stated: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts." Unfortunately, more and more Americans, as well as people throughout the world, (including here in Israel), cannot agree on too many basics facts.
The traditional arbiters of fact have been denigrated and seem irrelevant to too many people. The irony is that at a time when fact-based scientific research is on the verge of one of its greatest triumphs, i.e., the development of a vaccine that will save tens of millions from the ravages of COVID-19, in record time — too many people have decided to ignore facts. As noted historian John Meachem stated last week, "We have managed as a country to consign reason to the sidelines — we don't think, we feel. 'I don't feel like wearing a mask, so I don't.'"
It is incumbent on all of us, whatever our field of endeavor, to promote what had been the very basis of the enlightenment — the belief in proven facts, the acceptance of a common narrative, and the understanding that not everything is relative. I fear it may be too late. I can only hope that it is not.
The Real Risks of Fake News
Fake news is nothing new&mdashwe have long been exposed to propaganda, tabloid news, and satirical reporting. But now, with the dependence on the internet, promotion of trending stories on social media, and new methods of monetizing content, we have found different ways to relay information without using traditional media outlets. A single story posted on a personal or biased website can go viral and lead to additional content that gets distorted just like the results of a game of telephone. The original authors may be fully aware that the story is a lie, but with no throttling or inspection of content, the story can take on a life of its own, go viral, and spread misinformation while also leaving a tarnished impression of legitimate media. With tabloid news, most people recognize that Bigfoot was not in their backyard. Fake news, however, can seem so believable that people have a hard time determining the truth. Whether the article is real or fake news, and if it should be shared, can be difficult to determine without researching the story personally.
Regardless of how far the story spreads or your belief in its contents, fake news stories present significant risk to people, industries and governments. According to Buzzfeed, the top five political news stories on Facebook in 2016 ranged from fabricated news of Obama signing an executive order banning the pledge of allegiance in schools to baseless claims of FBI agents committing suicide after leaks of Hillary Clinton&rsquos emails. For the former, more than two million people shared, commented or had reactions to the fake news and countless others discussed or propagated the fake news via other communication methods. Whatever your political opinions, the proliferation of these stories had a significant impact, casting doubt or concern and spurring conspiracy theories based on misguided content. Thus, honest questions remain. Did the residual risk impact the election results, who originated the fake news, was there a motive, and how many people still believe these stories were real? Most people believe that fake news can influence people&mdashor is that perception fake news as well?
The information technology world deals with new and urgent risks every day. Fake news on vulnerabilities, exploits and breaches is rare so far, but the ramifications could be mind-boggling and resource-intensive if threats are taken out of context and without perspective.
Take for example the Jan. 17 announcement from the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) to disable Samba version 1, a networking protocol that facilitates file and print services. Experienced information technology and security professionals reviewing the details of US-CERT&rsquos recommendation recognize that it calls for the use of internet firewalls and edge devices including servers. This has been a standard recommendation for decades. Unfortunately, some interpreted the statement as a call to disable certain ports on all devices, spawning a rash of fake news on the topic.
One could dismiss this response as simple ignorance about the details of the bulletin, but when vendors receive inquires about fake news and hype articles that leave out critical information about the flaw, IT professionals then must dedicate the time and resources to communicate how bad an idea this is for devices within the perimeter. If readers only have the distorted version of the story, they could disable critical features and applications. The risk of this fake news is real: changes adopted based on misinformation could cause a massive outage.
The Wall Street Journal took a different perspective on the risks of fake news after interviewing crisis management executives at various organizations. They found that, while you cannot stop fake news from happening, you can be prepared to respond and minimize the risk and damage regardless of the content. This preparation is key. Just like having a disaster recovery plan for your home or business, including flashlights, food and a radio, have a plan for responding to a fake news threat.
You must combat negative press regardless of its validity. This includes having the ability to craft a response, make sure key individuals are prepared to speak to legitimate media, and communicating a consistent message without repeating or acknowledging the content of the fake news.
Therefore, if we consider the earlier examples of fake news, we would probably respond with &ldquoall children have the right to say the pledge of allegiance,&rdquo and &ldquoorganizations should verify security and hardening guidelines for device protection.&rdquo Such responses do not manage fake news with a negative spin but rather affirm the status quo and core values behind the discrepancy. This is a more effective neutralization than trying to add negative terminology to the original story, such as &ldquoFBI agents did not commit suicide.&rdquo
Unfortunately, such misinformation tactics are likely here to stay, and there may be significant repercussions if the fake news incites a riot, causes financial loss for a business, or affects government operations and elections. As the public adapts, it is important for enterprises addressing fake news to be mindful of the impact of any negative responses. The word &ldquofake&rdquo is already a negative term. By using more negative words in a response, it could reinforce the incorrect message, leading to the further misinterpretation of the facts and even more unnecessary risk.
The dangers of fake news
It is nothing new. News has always been a commodity vulnerable to manipulation in various guises: forgeries, manufactured facts strange to real facts, outright and cooked up falsehood dressed up as truth, etc. In the 20th century yellow journalism was the curse of the news media. In the eighties we had a virulent new form of yellow journalism in Nigeria. We called it junk journalism.
If we thought that the modern information gathering and disseminating system in this age of the greatest enlightenment in human history had rid the world of yellow and junk journalism, I am sorry to say we were wrong. The challenges of keeping journalism safe from the various viruses, including the professional equivalent of AIDS, remain with us, making the job of editors and reporters much harder, not simpler. I offer my commiserations.
The American presidential election of 2016 threw up this unsettling fact. It opened the eyes of all professional journalists and, indeed, the general public, to the ultimate form of vicious information manipulation that ill serves both the journalism profession and the public.
Fake news is not just bad journalism, if journalism it is, it is also the worst weapon in the hands of those who think less of the good of the society but more of their political, social interests. It is, of course, the continuation of the war between good and evil. The war never ends.
Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopaedia, defines fake news as &ldquoa type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or on online social media.&rdquo It goes on to underline this important fact, to wit, &ldquoFake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated or patently false headlines that grab attention.&rdquo
I think we are fairly familiar with this. Fake news flourished in this country post the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. A stiff opposition arose to the military decision. Various groups, the most notable of which was NADECO, sprang up in the country to fight for the de-annulment of the election. Much of the struggle was fought on the pages of newspapers and magazines. The war was vicious. And like in all wars, truth bled from constant bludgeoning. It turned the colour of our journalism lurid. All being fair in war as in love, the opposition groups indulged in what we regarded then as manufactured news to paint both the Babangida and the Abacha administrations in unsightly colours. Pieces of information stretched credulity. But they were intended to serve a purpose. That mattered more than telling the truth.
Fake news is actually an improved form of yellow journalism with a less colourful name. Yellow journalism at its height, was seen by the mainstream media and much of the society in the Western world as an irritating indulgence by men whose capacity for harm was moderated by their inability to really influence political, social and economic decisions where they mattered. Individuals and institutions were brought to ridicule but yellow journalism was fun read too. That made its sting less painful for those stung by it. But it was bad journalism all the same and its purveyors had no qualms dragging it into the mud.
Fake news, on the other hand, is meant to hurt and it hurts. It is meant to destroy and it destroys. All nations have woken up to the dangers of fake news and are responding to it with legislations intended to cripple it. Its role in the 2016 American presidential election is still being debated. But many people no longer doubt that fake news made it possible for Donald Trump, the man whose democratic rival in the presidential election, Mrs Hillary Clinton, described as the &ldquoleast qualified and the least prepared to be president&rdquo of God&rsquos own country, to win. It shows the reach and the capacity of fake news. It shows its evil too. It shows that if the American electorate could so easily and so comprehensively be influenced by fake news, no country in the world is safe. And that is worrisome.
Fake news worries every country today, not least because Russia clearly is the chief faker of fake news. President Putin is fighting the cold war by another means. He is undermining Western democracy. I am sure Western leaders are still scratching their heads, wondering how this former KGB boss perfected his art, making them all look stupid. If fake news could influence the American voters that many of us regard as among the most sophisticated and the most politically aware in the world, spare a thought for what fake news could do and is probably doing to elections in third world countries. The danger is frightfully present and bone-chilling.
I draw attention to fake news for one good reason. 2017 is about to slide off our radar 2018 looms in the near horizon. Indeed, by the time you are reading this, 2017 would have virtually run its allotted time. The significance of that is that the new year is the year the 2019 general elections actually begin. The editors and the reporters of the Daily Trust titles need to prepare for the possible avalanche of fake news in the electoral process. Information will be manufactured and given out as facts. And because of the ambition of editors and reporters to scoop other editors and reporters, they fall for the exclusive without knowing the news is fake.
Fake news comes from all sorts of places and organisations. The social media and on-line newspapers and magazines are the richest sources of fake news. They peddle fake news because it attracts healthy advertisement revenue for the publishers, hence the sensational headlines that are not often related to the stories they purport to tell. Fake news gets by through deceit because it is a sophisticated form of propaganda.
How do you identify fake news? Mainstream journalists and other information professionals are working hard to help editors and reporters identify fake news and prevent it from getting into their publications. It is no mean task given the variety of the sources of fake news. What would save a news medium from being used as a purveyor of fake news is a strict regime of fact checking by editors and reporters. The seven types of fake news identified by Claire Wardle of First Draft News are intended to help readers, not editors and reporters. When you pass off fake news as authentic news, do not ignore the fact that the eyes of big brothers and big sisters are keenly watching to see if your story falls into one or more of these identifiers offered by Wardle:
1. Satire or parody (&ldquono intention to cause harm but has potential to fool).
2. False connection (&ldquowhen headlines, visuals or captions don&rsquot support the content).
3. Misleading content (&ldquomisleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual).
4. False content (&ldquowhen genuine content is shared with false contextual information&rdquo).
5. Impostor content (&ldquowhen genuine sources are impersonated&rdquo with false, made-up sources).
6. Manipulated content (&ldquowhen genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive,&rdquo as with a &lsquodoctored&rsquo photo).
7. Fabricated content (&ldquonew content is 100 per cent false, designed to deceive and do harm&rdquo).
The Fake-News Fallacy
Old fights about radio have lessons for new fights about the Internet.
On the evening of October 30, 1938, a seventy-six-year-old millworker in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, named Bill Dock heard something terrifying on the radio. Aliens had landed just down the road, a newscaster announced, and were rampaging through the countryside. Dock grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and went out into the night, prepared to face down the invaders. But, after investigating, as a newspaper later reported, he “didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting.” In fact, he’d been duped by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Structured as a breaking-news report that detailed the invasion in real time, the broadcast adhered faithfully to the conventions of news radio, complete with elaborate sound effects and impersonations of government officials, with only a few brief warnings through the program that it was fiction.
The next day, newspapers were full of stories like Dock’s. “Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123rd Street police station,” ready to evacuate, according to the Times. Two people suffered heart attacks from shock, the Washington Post reported. One caller from Pittsburgh claimed that he had barely prevented his wife from taking her own life by swallowing poison. The panic was the biggest story for weeks a photograph of Bill Dock and his shotgun, taken the next day, by a Daily News reporter, went “the 1930s equivalent of viral,” A. Brad Schwartz writes in his recent history, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.”
This early fake-news panic lives on in legend, but Schwartz is the latest of a number of researchers to argue that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As Schwartz tells it, there was no mass hysteria, only small pockets of concern that quickly burned out. He casts doubt on whether Dock had even heard the broadcast. Schwartz argues that newspapers exaggerated the panic to better control the upstart medium of radio, which was becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the thirties. Newspapers wanted to show that radio was irresponsible and needed guidance from its older, more respectable siblings in the print media, such “guidance” mostly taking the form of lucrative licensing deals and increased ownership of local radio stations. Columnists and editorialists weighed in. Soon, the Columbia education professor and broadcaster Lyman Bryson declared that unrestrained radio was “one of the most dangerous elements in modern culture.”
The argument turned on the role of the Federal Communications Commission, the regulators charged with insuring that the radio system served the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Unlike today’s F.C.C., which is known mainly as a referee for media mergers, the F.C.C. of the thirties was deeply concerned with the particulars of what broadcasters put in listeners’ ears—it had recently issued a reprimand after a racy Mae West sketch that so alarmed NBC it banned West from its stations. To some, the lesson of the panic was that the F.C.C. needed to take an even more active role to protect people from malicious tricksters like Welles. “Programs of that kind are an excellent indication of the inadequacy of our present control over a marvellous facility,” the Iowa senator Clyde Herring, a Democrat, declared. He announced a bill that would require broadcasters to submit shows to the F.C.C. for review before airing. Yet Schwartz says that the people calling for a government crackdown were far outnumbered by those who warned against one. “Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize,” the renowned columnist Dorothy Thompson wrote.
Thompson was concerned with a threat far greater than rogue thespians. Everywhere you looked in the thirties, authoritarian leaders were being swept to power with the help of radio. The Nazi Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda deployed a force called the Funkwarte, or Radio Guard, that went block by block to insure that citizens tuned in to Hitler’s major broadcast speeches, as Tim Wu details in his new book, “The Attention Merchants.” Meanwhile, homegrown radio demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin and the charismatic Huey Long made some people wonder about a radio-aided Fascist takeover in America. For Thompson, Welles had made an “admirable demonstration” about the power of radio. It showed the danger of handing control of the airwaves over to the state. “No political body must ever, under any circumstances, obtain a monopoly of radio,” she wrote. “The greatest organizers of mass hysterias and the mass delusions today are states using the radio to excite terrors, incite hatreds, inflame masses.”
Donald Trump’s victory has been a demonstration, for many people, of how the Internet can be used to achieve those very ends. Trump used Twitter less as a communication device than as a weapon of information warfare, rallying his supporters and attacking opponents with hundred-and-forty-character barrages. “I wouldn’t be here without Twitter,” he declared on Fox News in March. Yet the Internet didn’t just give him a megaphone. It also helped him peddle his lies through a profusion of unreliable media sources that undermined the old providers of established fact. Throughout the campaign, fake-news stories, conspiracy theories, and other forms of propaganda were reported to be flooding social networks. The stories were overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and the spread of whoppers like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”—hardly more believable than a Martian invasion—seemed to suggest that huge numbers of Trump supporters were being duped by online lies. This was not the first campaign to be marred by misinformation, of course. But the sheer outlandishness of the claims being made, and believed, suggested to many that the Internet had brought about a fundamental devaluing of the truth. Many pundits argued that the “hyper-democratizing” force of the Internet had helped usher in a “post-truth” world, where people based their opinions not on facts or reason but on passion and prejudice.
Yet, even among this information anarchy, there remains an authority of sorts. Facebook and Google now define the experience of the Internet for most people, and in many ways they play the role of regulators. In the weeks after the election, they faced enormous criticism for their failure to halt the spread of fake news and misinformation on their services. The problem was not simply that people had been able to spread lies but that the digital platforms were set up in ways that made them especially potent. The “share” button sends lies flying around the Web faster than fact checkers can debunk them. The supposedly neutral platforms use personalized algorithms to feed us information based on precise data models of our preferences, trapping us in “filter bubbles” that cripple critical thinking and increase polarization. The threat of fake news was compounded by this sense that the role of the press had been ceded to an arcane algorithmic system created by private companies that care only about the bottom line.
Not so very long ago, it was thought that the tension between commercial pressure and the public interest would be one of the many things made obsolete by the Internet. In the mid-aughts, during the height of the Web 2.0 boom, the pundit Henry Jenkins declared that the Internet was creating a “participatory culture” where the top-down hegemony of greedy media corporations would be replaced by a horizontal network of amateur “prosumers” engaged in a wonderfully democratic exchange of information in cyberspace—an epistemic agora that would allow the whole globe to come together on a level playing field. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest attained their paradoxical gatekeeper status by positioning themselves as neutral platforms that unlocked the Internet’s democratic potential by empowering users. It was on a private platform, Twitter, where pro-democracy protesters organized, and on another private platform, Google, where the knowledge of a million public libraries could be accessed for free. These companies would develop into what the tech guru Jeff Jarvis termed “radically public companies,” which operate more like public utilities than like businesses.
But there has been a growing sense among mostly liberal-minded observers that the platforms’ championing of openness is at odds with the public interest. The image of Arab Spring activists using Twitter to challenge repressive dictators has been replaced, in the public imagination, by that of ISIS propagandists luring vulnerable Western teen-agers to Syria via YouTube videos and Facebook chats. The openness that was said to bring about a democratic revolution instead seems to have torn a hole in the social fabric. Today, online misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda are seen as the front line of a reactionary populist upsurge threatening liberal democracy. Once held back by democratic institutions, the bad stuff is now sluicing through a digital breach with the help of irresponsible tech companies. Stanching the torrent of fake news has become a trial by which the digital giants can prove their commitment to democracy. The effort has reignited a debate over the role of mass communication that goes back to the early days of radio.
The debate around radio at the time of “The War of the Worlds” was informed by a similar fall from utopian hopes to dystopian fears. Although radio can seem like an unremarkable medium—audio wallpaper pasted over the most boring parts of your day—the historian David Goodman’s book “Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s” makes it clear that the birth of the technology brought about a communications revolution comparable to that of the Internet. For the first time, radio allowed a mass audience to experience the same thing simultaneously from the comfort of their homes. Early radio pioneers imagined that this unprecedented blurring of public and private space might become a sort of ethereal forum that would uplift the nation, from the urban slum dweller to the remote Montana rancher. John Dewey called radio “the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen.” Populist reformers demanded that radio be treated as a common carrier and give airtime to anyone who paid a fee. Were this to have come about, it would have been very much like the early online-bulletin-board systems where strangers could come together and leave a message for any passing online wanderer. Instead, in the regulatory struggles of the twenties and thirties, the commercial networks won out.
Corporate networks were supported by advertising, and what many progressives had envisaged as the ideal democratic forum began to seem more like Times Square, cluttered with ads for soap and coffee. Rather than elevating public opinion, advertisers pioneered techniques of manipulating it. Who else might be able to exploit such techniques? Many saw a link between the domestic on-air advertising boom and the rise of Fascist dictators like Hitler abroad. Tim Wu cites the leftist critic Max Lerner, who lamented that “the most damning blow the dictatorships have struck at democracy has been the compliment they have paid us in taking over and perfecting our prized techniques of persuasion and our underlying contempt for the credulity of the masses.”
Amid such concerns, broadcasters were under intense pressure to show that they were not turning listeners into a zombified mass ripe for the Fascist picking. What they developed in response is, in Goodman’s phrase, a “civic paradigm”: radio would create active, rational, tolerant listeners—in other words, the ideal citizens of a democratic society. Classical-music-appreciation shows were developed with an eye toward uplift. Inspired by progressive educators, radio networks hosted “forum” programs, in which citizens from all walks of life were invited to discuss the matters of the day, with the aim of inspiring tolerance and political engagement. One such program, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” featured in its first episode a Communist, a Fascist, a Socialist, and a democrat.
Listening to the radio, then, would be a “civic practice” that could create a more democratic society by exposing people to diversity. But only if they listened correctly. There was great concern about distracted and gullible listeners being susceptible to propagandists. A group of progressive journalists and thinkers known as “propaganda critics” set about educating radio listeners. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, co-founded by the social psychologist Clyde R. Miller, with funding from the department-store magnate Edward Filene, was at the forefront of the movement. In newsletters, books, and lectures, the institute’s members urged listeners to attend to their own biases while analyzing broadcast voices for signs of manipulation. Listening to the radio critically became the duty of every responsible citizen. Goodman, who is generally sympathetic to the proponents of the civic paradigm, is alert to the off notes here of snobbery and disdain: much of the progressive concern about listeners’ abilities stemmed from the belief that Americans were, basically, dim-witted—an idea that gained currency after intelligence tests on soldiers during the First World War supposedly revealed discouraging news about the capacities of the average American. In the wake of “The War of the Worlds” panic, commentators didn’t hesitate to rail against “idiotic” and “stupid” listeners. Welles and his crew, Dorothy Thompson declared, “have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.”
Today, when we speak about people’s relationship to the Internet, we tend to adopt the nonjudgmental language of computer science. Fake news was described as a “virus” spreading among users who have been “exposed” to online misinformation. The proposed solutions to the fake-news problem typically resemble antivirus programs: their aim is to identify and quarantine all the dangerous nonfacts throughout the Web before they can infect their prospective hosts. One venture capitalist, writing on the tech blog Venture Beat, imagined deploying artificial intelligence as a “media cop,” protecting users from malicious content. “Imagine a world where every article could be assessed based on its level of sound discourse,” he wrote. The vision here was of the news consumers of the future turning the discourse setting on their browser up to eleven and soaking in pure fact. It’s possible, though, that this approach comes with its own form of myopia. Neil Postman, writing a couple of decades ago, warned of a growing tendency to view people as computers, and a corresponding devaluation of the “singular human capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions.” A person does not process information the way a computer does, flipping a switch of “true” or “false.” One rarely cited Pew statistic shows that only four per cent of American Internet users trust social media “a lot,” which suggests a greater resilience against online misinformation than overheated editorials might lead us to expect. Most people seem to understand that their social-media streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment. You might see this as a problem, but turning to Big Data-driven algorithms to fix it will only further entrench our reliance on code to tell us what is important about the world—which is what led to the problem in the first place. Plus, it doesn’t sound very fun.
The various efforts to fact-check and label and blacklist and sort all the world’s information bring to mind a quote, which appears in David Goodman’s book, from John Grierson, a documentary filmmaker: “Men don’t live by bread alone, nor by fact alone.” In the nineteen-forties, Grierson was on an F.C.C. panel that had been convened to determine how best to encourage a democratic radio, and he was frustrated by a draft report that reflected his fellow-panelists’ obsession with filling the airwaves with rationality and fact. Grierson said, “Much of this entertainment is the folk stuff . . . of our technological time the patterns of observation, of humor, of fancy, which make a technological society a human society.”
In recent times, Donald Trump supporters are the ones who have most effectively applied Grierson’s insight to the digital age. Young Trump enthusiasts turned Internet trolling into a potent political tool, deploying the “folk stuff” of the Web—memes, slang, the nihilistic humor of a certain subculture of Web-native gamer—to give a subversive, cyberpunk sheen to a movement that might otherwise look like a stale reactionary blend of white nationalism and anti-feminism. As crusaders against fake news push technology companies to “defend the truth,” they face a backlash from a conservative movement, retooled for the digital age, which sees claims for objectivity as a smoke screen for bias.
One sign of this development came last summer, in the scandal over Facebook’s “Trending” sidebar, in which curators chose stories to feature on the user’s home page. When the tech Web site Gizmodo reported the claim of an anonymous employee that the curators were systematically suppressing conservative news stories, the right-wing blogosphere exploded. Breitbart, the far-right torchbearer, uncovered the social-media accounts of some of the employees—liberal recent college graduates—that seemed to confirm the suspicion of pervasive anti-right bias. Eventually, Facebook fired the team and retooled the feature, calling in high-profile conservatives for a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. Although Facebook denied that there was any systematic suppression of conservative views, the outcry was enough to reverse a tiny first step it had taken toward introducing human judgment into the algorithmic machine.
For conservatives, the rise of online gatekeepers may be a blessing in disguise. Throwing the charge of “liberal media bias” against powerful institutions has always provided an energizing force for the conservative movement, as the historian Nicole Hemmer shows in her new book, “Messengers of the Right.” Instead of focussing on ideas, Hemmer focusses on the galvanizing struggle over the means of distributing those ideas. The first modern conservatives were members of the America First movement, who found their isolationist views marginalized in the lead-up to the Second World War and vowed to fight back by forming the first conservative media outlets. A “vague claim of exclusion” sharpened into a “powerful and effective ideological arrow in the conservative quiver,” Hemmer argues, through battles that conservative radio broadcasters had with the F.C.C. in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Their main obstacle was the F.C.C.’s Fairness Doctrine, which sought to protect public discourse by requiring controversial opinions to be balanced by opposing viewpoints. Since attacks on the mid-century liberal consensus were inherently controversial, conservatives found themselves constantly in regulators’ sights. In 1961, a watershed moment occurred with the leak of a memo from labor leaders to the Kennedy Administration which suggested using the Fairness Doctrine to suppress right-wing viewpoints. To many conservatives, the memo proved the existence of the vast conspiracy they had long suspected. A fund-raising letter for a prominent conservative radio show railed against the doctrine, calling it “the most dastardly collateral attack on freedom of speech in the history of the country.” Thus was born the character of the persecuted truthteller standing up to a tyrannical government—a trope on which a billion-dollar conservative-media juggernaut has been built.
Today, Facebook and Google have taken the place of the F.C.C. in the conservative imagination. Conservative bloggers highlight the support that Jack Dorsey, the C.E.O. of Twitter, has expressed for Black Lives Matter, and the frequent visits that Google’s Eric Schmidt made to the Obama White House. When Facebook announced that it was partnering with a group of fact checkers from the nonprofit Poynter Institute to flag false news stories, conservatives saw another effort to censor them under the guise of objectivity. Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative media-watchdog group Media Research Center, cited the fact that Poynter received funding from the liberal financier George Soros. “Just like George Soros and company underwrote the Fairness Doctrine several years ago,” he said, “this is about going after conservative talk on the Internet and banning it by somehow projecting it as being false.”
One lesson you get from Hemmer’s research is that the conservative skepticism of gatekeepers is not without a historical basis. The Fairness Doctrine really was used by liberal groups to silence conservatives, typically by flooding stations with complaints and requests for airtime to respond. This created a chilling effect, with stations often choosing to avoid controversial material. The technical fixes implemented by Google and Facebook in the rush to fight fake news seem equally open to abuse, dependent, as they are, on user-generated reports.
Yet today, with a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine dedicated to publicizing any hint of liberal bias, conservatives aren’t the ones who have the most to fear. As Facebook has become an increasingly important venue for activists documenting police abuse, many of them have complained that overzealous censors routinely block their posts. A recent report by the investigative nonprofit ProPublica shows how anti-racist activism can often fall afoul of Facebook rules against offensive material, while a post by the Louisiana representative Clay Higgins calling for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims was deemed acceptable. In 2016, a group of civil-rights activists wrote Facebook to demand that steps be taken to insure that the platform could be used by marginalized people and social movements organizing for change. There was no high-profile meeting with Zuckerberg, only a form letter outlining Facebook’s moderation practices. The wishful story about how the Internet was creating a hyper-democratic “participatory culture” obscures the ways in which it is biased in favor of power.
The online tumult of the 2016 election fed into a growing suspicion of Silicon Valley’s dominance over the public sphere. Across the political spectrum, people have become less trusting of the Big Tech companies that govern most online political expression. Calls for civic responsibility on the part of Silicon Valley companies have replaced the hope that technological innovation alone might bring about a democratic revolution. Despite the focus on algorithms, A.I., filter bubbles, and Big Data, these questions are political as much as technical. Regulation has become an increasingly popular notion the Democratic senator Cory Booker has called for greater antitrust scrutiny of Google and Facebook, while Stephen Bannon reportedly wants to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities. In the nineteen-thirties, such threats encouraged commercial broadcasters to adopt the civic paradigm. In that prewar era, advocates of democratic radio were united by a progressive vision of pluralism and rationality today, the question of how to fashion a democratic social media is one more front in our highly divisive culture wars.
Still, Silicon Valley isn’t taking any chances. In the wake of the recent, deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a slew of tech companies banned the neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer, essentially blacklisting it from the Web. Responding so directly to appeals to decency and justice that followed the tragedy, these companies positioned themselves less as neutral platforms than as custodians of the public interest.
Zuckerberg recently posted a fifty-seven-hundred-word manifesto announcing a new mission for Facebook that goes beyond the neutral-seeming mandate to “make the world more open and connected.” Henceforth, Facebook would seek to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” The manifesto was so heavy on themes of civic responsibility that many took it as a blueprint for a future political campaign. Speculation has only grown since Zuckerberg embarked on a fifty-state tour this summer to meet American Facebook users, posting photos of himself with livestock and unhealthy local delicacies. Those who think that Zuckerberg is preparing for a Presidential bid, however, should consider the emerging vectors of power in the digital era: for the man who runs Facebook, the White House might well look like a step down. ♦
‘Fake News’ And The Quiet Danger Of Your Filter Bubble
Picture this: you’re on your daily commute. There’s not much to do you find yourself scrolling through your favorite news app, or maybe your Facebook or Twitter feed, looking for a quick bite of information to keep you up with the times. You’ve done this a hundred times before, so your phone knows what you want to see one of your Facebook friends shares a shocking article, so you click. You read. So-and-so has done something terrible, or maybe they’ve done something incredible — it doesn’t really matter, so long as you like what you see. You share, your friends read, and the Facebook algorithm takes note. It’s easy to forget that your news isn’t the news, that the article you just shared might not be true, that you saw it for a reason — not necessarily because it’s breaking news.
If you’ve turned on the news or opened a tabloid in the past few years, you’ve likely come face-to-face with one of the decade’s biggest buzzwords: ‘fake news’. In the US, it’s quickly become clear that any news can be labeled ‘fake news,’ and few — if any — major media outlets have been spared the affront. In a 2018 article, CNN Business noted President Donald Trump’s near-daily use of the term, tallying in at over 400 “fakes” in just one year. It’s a notably high number, and begs the question: What is fake news? Does it mean anything, or it just an arbitrary insult? More importantly, what part do we, as consumers, play in the term’s evolution?
It may all come down to filter bubbles. Coined in 2011 by writer and activist Eli Pariser, the term refers to our individualized internet ‘bubbles,’ spheres of content chosen to fit our preconceived notions of the world around us. Filter bubbles push you toward like-minded individuals and palatable content, essentially separating you from information and people with whom you might disagree. From a purely psychological standpoint, that doesn’t sound so bad sure, you’re not expanding your perspective, but there’s nothing really wrong with associating only with content you like. It may not be so simple, though.
Existing in an intellectual echo chamber can be damaging – perhaps even dangerous. It’s an issue of confirmation bias your media consumption, when impacted by such algorithms, serves not only to confirm your beliefs, but to intensify them. This can be an unintentional gateway to political extremism look at one Pizzagate “documentary” on YouTube and suddenly ten more conspiracies are being pushed your way. Then there’s the issue of real fake news — which can become nearly impossible to identify in a filter bubble — and fake fake news, a callout that can falsely derail a piece of truth. All this considered, it’s easy to understand the public distrust of the media. That’s part of the problem.
Here’s the truth: most news is not fake. Major news networks and publications follow a journalistic code of ethics, and journalists who fail to abide by it are usually immediately — and publicly — removed from their positions. It’s one of the first things students are taught in journalism school, and is probably the most important and fundamental foundation on which ethical journalists base their work. That said, there is also fake news – usually from fraudulent and unverified “news” sources, which can be intermixed with the content being pushed your way. The issues of filter bubbles and fake news are not mutually exclusive, but both can be avoided to a reasonable extent with a little effort.
First, realize that your opinion of a news article has nothing to do with its validity. ‘Fake news’ is often used to insult news which is disliked this definition only reinforces political divides. If you’re unsure about the legitimacy of a story, look it up. If the same story is being broadcast on other major, verified platforms, you’re probably good to go. If it’s nowhere to be seen — or only printed in tabloids or unverified websites — it’s time to do more digging. This process is key in ‘popping’ your filter bubble the more time you spend interacting with content that doesn’t necessarily fit your world view, the more your algorithm will push new and different content your way. Sometimes it can be easy to forget, but there’s a whole world of information at our fingertips. The key in reaching it is looking beyond the safety of our ‘sphere’ — watching a different broadcast, reading from a different app — and letting the algorithm work for us instead of against us.
Can Fake News Lead to War? What the Gulf Crisis Tells Us
On February 17, 1898, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst adorned the front pages of their respective newspapers – The New York World and The New York Journal – with the same sensationalist illustration depicting the explosion of USS Maine – a cruiser sent to Havana in the wake of what would become the Spanish-American War. At a time when other, more respected newspapers exercised restraint (given the unverified reasons for the cruiser’s explosion), Hearst and Pulitzer pressed on and published a fabricated telegram, which implied sabotage. While the U.S. Navy’s investigation found that the explosion was set off by an external trigger, a Spanish investigation asserted the opposite, claiming the explosion was a result of something that happened aboard the ship. Historians of journalism still debate the extent to which “yellow journalism” had influenced the investigation. No matter the cause, war broke out with the U.S. blockade of Cuba in April 1898. The American victory in the war was solidified by the Paris Treaty of 1899, which granted the United States control over Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and transformed it into a world power. The war was a turning point and had lasting effects on U.S. foreign policy over the next half century, initiating a period of external involvement driven by expanding economic and territorial interests.
As we can see from this historical episode, fake news might seem like a “new” issue, but it most certainly is not. Every communications and information revolution in history came with its own challenges in information consumption and new ways of framing, misleading, and confusing opinion. The invention of the quill pen brought bureaucratic and diplomatic writing and led to wars of official authentication (the seal). The invention of the printing press led to a war of spies and naval information brokers across the Mediterranean in the 16th century. The typewriter and telegram birthed the cryptography wars of the early 20 th century.
So it goes with mass use of social media.
Fake news belongs to the same habitus of modern digital spoilers and is often discussed in tandem with trolls and bots. Most of the existing studies focus on this mischievous trio’s effects on elections and computational propaganda. Yet, we are still pretty much in the dark the extent to which fake news, trolls, and bots can draw countries into war or escalate a diplomatic crisis. Can countries with good relations be pitted against each other through computational propaganda? Or is it more effective to use these methods to escalate existing tensions between already hostile governments? The recent crisis over Qatar gives us some clues.
The crisis began on May 23, when a number of statements attributed to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, began surfacing on the Qatar News Agency – the country’s main state-run outlet. The statements were on highly inflammatory issues – namely Iran and Hamas. Once they were read in Riyadh and elsewhere in the region, members of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council were incensed. Although Qatari officials disowned these statements, reporting a hack of state media networks, Saudi and Emirati state-owned networks ignored the reports and pressed for a full-on condemnation of the statements. Later, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi declared their protest and took a range of measure from closing their airspace and land access to Qatar Airlines, accusing Doha of “supporting terrorism,” and, most recently, declaring a list of 59 people and 12 groups affiliated with Qatar as “terrorists.”
On June 7, the FBI reported that Russian hackers were behind the hacking of the Qatar News Agency and that the statements attributed to the Qatari emir were planted by these hackers. Russia denied these reports. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seemed to be unfazed by the possibility of a hack. According to Krishnadev Calamur of The Atlantic, this is for two reasons. First, the purportedly planted statements are viewed by many as the true positions of the Qatari government and have been for a long time. Second, the long build-up of tensions between Qatar and the other Gulf Arab states would have eventually exploded one way or another (indeed, they have before). Regardless, the situation continues to escalate and has even led to the Turkish government to offer its physical military support by passing a fast-tracked parliamentary bill to deploy more troops in Qatar.
This mess provides a good case study in exploring the effects of fake news and bot use during an international diplomatic crisis as well as the extent to which these digital spoilers affect crisis diplomacy.
Battle of Hashtags: Geographic Contestation of Digital Crises
Marc Owen Jones presented a good case on bot activity before and during the Gulf crisis, arguing that 20 percent of Twitter accounts that posted anti-Qatar hashtags were bots. He put forth a well-sourced case that the preparations behind the anti-Qatar digital propaganda started in mid-April, earlier than the alleged hack of the Qatar News Agency. Bot research has grown increasingly relevant in the last couple of years due to the enormous capacity of these tools to disseminate fake information on social media platforms. Fake news works by creating shock and feeding the existing belief system and emotional reality map of its intended audience. This is because sheer impossibility of immediately responding to its misleading claims in the heat of a crisis makes fake news problematic. To that end, fabricated stories don’t aim to have a lasting effect, but exploit a small window of collective attention. Although social media outlets and independent websites introduced algorithmic and self-check verification tools, propogandists adapt to the changing circumstances, improving in sophistication and thereby avoiding detection continuously.
We hear over and over that democracies may be more vulnerable to fake news, and that election periods in particular leave these countries exposed. We similarly hear that digital technologies are making democratic politics ”impossible” and even endanger democracy itself. While these concerns are not without grounding, these findings seem to reflect the simple fact that there is a disproportionate concentration of research on the effects of bots and fake news on Western democracies. We still have insufficient evidence to test whether bots and fake news have a more or less destructive impact on authoritarian systems or whether digital technologies are making authoritarianism more or less ”impossible.”
The Qatar crisis gives us an insight into how things can get far worse when fake news proliferates during crises that primarily involve authoritarian systems. Although countering digital propaganda is hard enough in open and free political systems, things get far harder in authoritarian settings. These systems limit tools and actors that might engage in checking facts, challenging narratives, and disseminating alternative frames. Although democracies do suffer from strategic surges in fake news, their ability to verify, adapt, and respond to them is superior. Information-seeking behavior is strongly embedded in social structures and grassroots politics. Authoritarian systems don’t have this asset. They heavily censor and restrict information and discourage civil society from engaging in politically relevant information-seeking behavior.
To make matters worse, political systems that are structured around single individuals tend to be overly emotional by design. An inflated sense of national pride combined with a cult of leadership offer rich soil for exaggerated emotional responses to external crises. The Qatar crisis shows us that the combination of these factors renders authoritarian states far more vulnerable to the effects of fake news proliferated through bots. It also demonstrates that when faced with a crisis, authoritarian states are more likely to make hasty decisions that end up escalating the situation into a game of chicken. The danger becomes exponentially worse as the proportion of authoritarian countries involved in a particular crisis increases. If the majority of the parties to a conflict are authoritarian, it becomes too easy for external state or non-state digital actors to push them into a continuous escalation through fake news. Without an infrastructure (cyber, democratic, or civil society-wise) to counter fake news in real-time, the danger of an armed conflict increases exponentially in diplomatic crises that feature authoritarian governments.
Geospatial time-frequency analysis of hashtags is a useful tool to measure crisis mobilization and escalation dynamics during digital crises. They are also good microcosms of fake news dissemination through bots. It is possible to explain bot-driven fake news dissemination in a crisis through a tandem monitoring of bot-driven hashtag proliferation on Twitter. Through focusing on the geographic and temporal diffusion of the most popular hashtags, analysts can often infer the origin point of digital spoilers and model the approximate network through which they spread. To measure the contested digital geography of the Gulf crisis, I have selected two of the most popular hashtags used between June 2 and 7: قطع_العلاقات_مع_قطر# – Cut Relations with Qatar (54,508, including variants), الشعب_الخليجي_يرفض_مقاطعه_قطر# – People of the Gulf are Refusing to Boycott (Qatar) (11,356, including variants) and used MapD engine to create time-frequency analysis. Variants imply hashtags that contained typos or shorter versions of longer hashtags.
Cumulative geographic distribution of both pro- and anti-Qatar hashtags. June 2 to 7
To measure geographic diffusion of these hashtags and their smaller variants, I have used MapD to generate a time-frequency event map of two of the most popular hashtags (without mapping variants) used through the crisis.
Time-frequency distribution of الشعب_الخليجي_يرفض_مقاطعه_قطر# – People of the Gulf are Refusing to Boycott (Qatar)
Time-frequency distribution of قطع_العلاقات_مع_قطر# – Cut Relations with Qatar
It appears that the bulk of the initial wave advocating for cutting off relations with Qatar originated in Kuwait and spread fast, suggesting heavy bot usage. The counter hashtag was protective of Qatar and increased gradually, without the kind of significant peak its rival hashtag experienced. Anti-Qatar hashtags seem to be more organized and suggest advance preparation. Similar trends can be observed in Google searches, with peak spikes in both anti-Qatar hashtags spreading faster and remaining longer in circulation, compared to the sporadic small increases in the pro-Qatar hashtag and its rapid decline.
Google Trends Data of قطع_العلاقات_مع_قطر# – Cut Relations with Qatar Google Trends Data for – الشعب_الخليجي_يرفض_مقاطعه_قطر# – People of the Gulf are Refusing to Boycott (Qatar)
Regional interest diffusion over the Qatar crisis is identical in both hashtags, although the anti-Qatar hashtag (and other variants) spread much faster and at a higher rate. The scattered nature of these hashtags indicate randomized geolocation – a frequently recurring feature of bot accounts. The Qatari response seems to be less reliant on bots, but also demonstrates a lack of preparedness for the type of concerted challenge introduced by the anti-Qatar front.
Is it possible to know who’s behind the combined bot activity, hacks and fake news dissemination? Attribution is very hard especially with the most sophisticated of hacks. Hackers can easily add Russian or Chinese keyboard signatures or characters in the code to suggest these countries were behind such activity. Even if bots or fake news can be traced back to one geo-signature, that location may reflect VPN use or a number of masking tools.
What we can tell from the hashtag geospatial study is that the anti-Qatar digital traffic suggests advance preparation and a well-conducted centralized effort. A very large number of tweets contain the same hashtag قطع_العلاقات_مع_قطر# whereas the Qatari response is weak and sporadic, with tweets containing clustered versions of الشعب_الخليجي_يرفض_مقاطعه_قطر#, suggesting more organic proliferation. This reinforces Jones’ findings that this is indeed a crisis driven by bots and fake news with advance preparation and has little to do with whether the Qatari leader really said the statements attributed to him. Just like in the lead-up to what became the Spanish-American War, the intention to escalate was already there and the resultant information spoilers may or may not have had an effect on the decision to escalate.
The Origins of Digital Diplomatic Crises
At the time of writing this sentence, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Media Network began reporting successive cyber-attacks on all its systems, websites, and media platforms. As with most cyber-attacks, this too will be hard to attribute, which adds fuel to international crises during escalation phases. The eventual attribution will also be unlikely to change much with regard to short-term political outcomes, as bot-transmitted fake news is used to seize the initiative and trigger emotional responses over a small window of opportunity. From this perspective, fake news in diplomatic crises brings some of the scholarship back from the Cold War, specifically on nuclear escalation, time constraints on decisions, cognitive bias, and prospect theory variants. This is especially the case with crises that include authoritarian states as their restrictive and centralizing nature render them the perfect victims for bot-driven fake news. When the fake news involved directly addresses authoritarian leaders or their families, escalations become especially likely.
Greater vulnerability of authoritarian regimes to fake-news during crises provides two alternatives to their leaders in digital diplomatic crises. Either these leaders will put self-restraint mechanisms in place, which will prevent them from taking drastic measures under digital crises, or they will adapt to the new realities of political communication and allow social verification structures to take root within civil society. While verification and fact-checking can be troublesome for authoritarian states, which themselves often appeal to the emotional response mechanisms of their citizens, they are nonetheless becoming security valves of national security in the cyber realm.
Diversionary politics of the digital space is now a structural aspect of world politics. Bots, trolls, and fake news will continue to be used by state and non-state actors alike to manipulate and distract attention economies everywhere in the world. Propaganda and psy-ops are old tricks, but the rapid changes in their methods continue to baffle less cyber-savvy countries and force them into making mistakes. Countries will paradoxically have to open up, rather than close down in the face of these tricks, both in order to bring in more technological expertise into the ranks of the government and also to harness the tools of civil society. These tools are often painfully frustrating for authoritarian governments, but nonetheless offer fast and reliable verification mechanisms that government organs can’t provide in times of high-stakes escalation.
The Qatar crisis has shown how dangerous fake news can be, not least in the context of the Gulf. Given that a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Straits of Hormouz fake news and bots in the Qatar crisis are, in fact, global problems. With the onset of this diplomatic crisis, other countries too have to predict and plan for fake news diffusion during conflicts and diplomatic escalations and learn to operate in a system where uncertainty, confusion, and diversion become the main metric of political communication.
Fighting disinformation: The dangers of fake news in the age of mass information
DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A group of Duke professors held a virtual roundtable Wednesday morning to discuss the danger of misinformation.
"I think there's no doubt that misinformation is becoming part of warfare of political polarization," said Sunshine Hillygus, the co-director of the Polarization Lab at Duke.
That polarization is found even in the response to COVID-19, where heated debates are found online over the efficacy of masks and potential treatment options.
Last week, US officials accused Russian intelligence officers of spreading disinformation about the pandemic through English-language websites.
"What's changed in the digital age is that the outliers, the fringe, has a megaphone they've never had before," said Bill Adair, a Duke professor and the creator of Politifact.
Another concern: the contraction of local news, which has created a vacuum for disinformation.
"In some communities, we've actually seen some outlets adopt the name of a defunct news organization," said Phil Napoli, a professor of Public Policy at Duke.
Napoli pointed to research which states the number of hyper-partisan or misinformation websites has doubled over the past six months.
"Today's news consumer has to do a lot more detective work in order to assure one's self you're being informed by legitimate news and information sources," said Napoli.
"There's more information than ever but people still want journalists to make sense of it for them. They still want us to hold power accountable. They just want to make sure we're not biased in doing it," added Adair.
Often, these stories are shared on social media sites that don't produce material but provide a platform for it.
"We're just in a moment of incredibly fractured politics and it's not clear to me that social media platforms can take more aggressive approaches on content without significantly alienating one side of the aisle or the other. As we saw at the tech CEO hearing last week, it was difficult to get through a hearing without conservatives talking almost exclusively about conservative bias and on the left people raising concerns about misinformation," said Matt Perault, the director at the Center on Science & Technology Policy at Duke. Prior to joining Duke, Perault served as a director of public policy at Facebook.
In extreme cases, some social media sites have chosen to remove content. More often, they focus on context Facebook provides information on the source of shared articles while Twitter flags tweets that violate their policy.
5 Facts About Fake News That You Didn’t Know
False, misleading, and biased reporting, a.k.a. “fake news” or “viral news” has detrimental effects, so how can readers defend themselves from it? Here are some important facts about fake news that will illustrate the danger of this type of media and how to stay protected against it and give the next generation the tools they need to do the same.
Misinformation can be weaponized to influence politics, economics, and social well-being, from potentially affecting elections and referendums to inciting prejudice, confusion, and violence. Deceptive content often appears to be coming from objective news sources, challenging us to work harder to stay informed and discern fact from fiction. However, research shows that today’s web users are not informed enough to take on this task successfully. Information literacy and media literacy must become a greater educational priority. In 2019, we encounter a sea of digital content every day and it is essential that we learn how to process it.
Here are five key facts about fake news you probably didn’t know. 1. Fake news examples are not new
Misinformation has been around in many different forms since the advent of print news 500 years ago, even before verified, objective journalism became a standard. According to Politico , fake news has always leaned “sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices.” Pamphlets about witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries led to witch-hunts and murder. War propaganda was created to incite anger and fear toward the opponent, inspiring support for the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the World Wars.
Fake news examples have also come in the form of hoaxes, such as Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio broadcast about an alien invasion that led many listeners to panic. It has also been wielded to make a profit. You’ve seen it in grocery store aisles for years–outrageous tabloid headlines propagating dubious celebrity rumors, conspiracy theories, and urban legends. Fake news is not new. But now it’s digital.
2. A fake news website can spread fake news faster than real news
The internet and social media have enabled misinformation to evolve and reach the masses faster and more insidiously than ever before, from deceptive click-bait–sensationalized headlines aimed to generate site traffic and make money through ad sales–to the larger implications of cyber propaganda–meant to manipulate public opinion on a national and even global scale. In a six-week period around the time of the 2016 presidential election, research suggests that as many as 25% of Americans visited a fake news website .
An analysis of Facebook news around this same election found that the top 20 fake news stories generated more engagement than the top 20 credible news stories (from major news outlets). A similar study of content shared on Twitter found that, “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” People are perhaps more inclined to share fake content because of the novelty and strong emotional reactions it elicits.
3. Social media proficiency does not correlate with digital literacy
It may be tempting to assume that tech-savvy adolescents of the digital age would know how to navigate internet content better than anyone, but this is not the case. A Stanford History Education Group study of Gen Z’s ability to evaluate information uncovered an alarming lack of knowledge. Researchers studied nearly 8,000 middle school, high school, and college students, testing them in several areas, including distinguishing between a news article and an opinion column, identifying sponsored ads, verifying claims, determining whether a website is trustworthy, and judging when a social media post is a useful source of information. “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media and fake news channels, they are easily duped.”
4. Schools are incorporating digital literacy into curricula
Evaluating content extends beyond news pieces. So much of today’s academic and professional research and information-consumption takes place online and it is vital that kids and adults are capable of conducting reliable and ethical research and thinking critically about the deluge of content they come across. They should be taught how to distinguish reliable sources, data, and photos from falsities, bias, and satire give proper attribution by citing sources and avoiding plagiarism, and understand primary and secondary sources. Civic online reasoning is a critical skill in the modern culture of information-gathering. Fortunately, lawmakers have started to recognize this in the last few years. Though much work remains to be done, several states have proposed legislation requiring schools to incorporate instruction on digital citizenship , including internet safety, media literacy, and information literacy.
5. Businesses are developing countermeasures against misinformation
As education standards evolve around this issue, so too are social media platforms and search engines. On social media sites, newsfeed content visibility is largely based on engagement, with no consideration of content accuracy or objectivity. One of the major facts about fake news is that fake news sites often game the system by buying bots to comment on, like, and repost their content, artificially boosting its popularity.
Twitter and Facebook have ramped up their efforts to suspend bots and suspicious accounts and have created tools to enable users to report fake news. Facebook invests in building up local news through its Journalism Project Community Network . Google gives money to fact-checking organizations and media literacy companies, made changes to its algorithm and autocomplete tools, and established the Google News Initiative to help credible stories rank higher and demote fake news and other low-quality content. Google and Facebook have also taken steps to prevent fake news sites from earning ad revenue .
From educators to legislators to business executives and parents, everyone has a role to play in protecting the integrity of online content and preparing young people to engage online safely and successfully.
The Age-Old Problem of “Fake News”
In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note.
Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.
The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.
While Chinese monks were block printing the Diamond Sutra as early as 868 A.D. and German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of movable metal type in the mid-1400s, it took until the Enlightenment for the free press as we know it today to be born.
Condorcet’s 1795 text expanded upon the belief that a press free from censorship would circulate an open debate of ideas, with rationality and truth winning out. Adams’ marginal response reminds us that when something like truth is up for debate, the door is open for bad-faith actors (the partisan press in his view) to promulgate falsehoods—something that a reader today might call “fake news.”
Historian Katlyn Carter drew attention to Adams’ private note at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting during a panel concerning Early America and fake news.
“A lot of things we talk about today we talk about as unprecedented,” says Carter. “It’s important to look back and see how these same concerns and issues have been raised at many points throughout history.”
Going back as early as the 1640s, partisan tones in broadsides and pamphlets published in England and colonial America were “setting precedents for what would become common practice in [the] 18th-century,” writes historian David A. Copeland in The Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy.
Fake news, as it turns out, is no recent phenomenon. But what we’re talking about when we talk about fake news requires some clarification. In a 2017 paper published in the journal Digital Journalism, researchers at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University came up with six distinct definitions of fake news after examining 34 academic articles that studied the term between 2003 and 2017 in the context of the United States, as well as Australia, China and Italy.
Most of them you’ve probably seen examples of on your social media feeds. There’s news satire, which applies to how programs like The Daily Show use humor to contextualize and mock real-world events. There’s news parody, like The Onion, which differs from satire in that platforms create made-up stories for comedic purposes. Propaganda created by the state to influence public perceptions is another form of fake news. So are manipulations of real photos or videos to create a false narrative (such as the animated gif of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez tearing up the Constitution, when in reality she was tearing up a gun-target poster).
Content generated by advertising or public relations teams that appear as though it has been generated by news outlets also falls under the umbrella. Lastly, there’s news fabrication, the definition of fake news which swirled prominently around the 2016 U.S. presidential election in reference to pieces with no factual grounding that attempted to pass as legitimate news items. (The Pope endorsing Donald Trump was one of the more prominent examples.)
“The difficulty in distinguishing fabricated fake news occurs when partisan organizations publish these stories, providing some semblance of objectivity and balanced reporting,” the researchers note.
But “fake news” has arguably evolved faster than academia can keep pace. As the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers lamented last February, the most recent definition of “fake news” is one that’s been hijacked and repurposed by politicians, most notably President Donald Trump, to dismiss good-faith reporting that they disagree with. As Borchers points out, the framing, not the facts, are often the bone of contention for these stories. “[These politicians have] sought to redefine [fake news] as, basically, any reporting they don't like,” wrote Borchers in the piece.
Though social media has dramatically changed the reach and impact of fake news as a whole, historians such as Carter want to remind Americans that concerns about truth and the role of the press have been playing out since its earliest broadside days.
Earlier echoes of John Adams’ frustrations can be found in laments by figures like Thomas Hutchinson, a British loyalist politician in a sea of American revolutionaries, who cried that the freedom of the press had been interpreted as the freedom to “print every Thing that is Libelous and Slanderous.”
Hutchinson’s bête noire was Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams, whose “journalism” infamously did not concern itself with facts. “It might well have been the best fiction written in the English language for the entire period between Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens," writes media historian Eric Burns in his book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. (Burns borrows the title from the term George Washington used to refer to the media figures of the day. In a 1796 letter to Alexander Hamilton, Washington cites as a reason for leaving public office "a disinclination to be longer buffitted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”)
Hutchinson, for his part, wailed that Samuel Adams’ writing in Boston Gazette particularly slandered his name. He believed that “seven eights of the People” in New England, “read none but this infamous paper and so are never undeceived.” Among other epithets, the Gazette called Hutchinson a “smooth and subtle tyrant,” as historian Bernard Bailyn notes in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, whose purpose was to lead colonists “gently into slavery.”
In 1765, arsonists burned Hutchinson’s house to the ground over the Stamp Act though the loyalist was not even in favor of the hated tax. “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” writes Burns about those behind the fire, the scene sharing eerie parallels to the 2016 shooting of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop provoked by insidious fake news reports.
For colonists aspiring for independence in this Enlightenment era, fake news reports were particularly troubling. Achieving success and establishing legitimacy depended on public opinion, which in turn relied on the spread of information through newspapers. (At that time, of course, public opinion referred generally to the accumulation of white, male landholders’ views.)
James Madison, the architect of Constitution, perhaps best understood the power that public opinion wielded. In 1791, the same year his Bill of Rights were ratified, Madison wrote that public opinion “sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.”
Because of that, historian Colleen A. Sheehan, author of James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, says that for Madison “the circulation of newspapers throughout the country was a critical piece of how he imagined free government working in the U.S.”
And those newspapers were always partisan. “This is just how the practical reality of it worked,” says Sheehan.
Take the National Gazette. Madison and Thomas Jefferson had pushed for Philip Freneau, a classmate from Madison’s Princeton days, to establish the paper in 1791 to give the burgeoning Democratic-Republicans an alternative platform to the Federalist paper of record, the Gazette of the United-States.
As Sheehan explains, the National Gazette became “the arm” to the newly formed party, the first opposition party in the U.S., which formally came into existence in in the spring of 1792.
This emergence of oppositional political parties punctuated Adams’ single term in office from 1797-1801. And while Adams, too, saw the free press as an essential vehicle for the spread of democracy, that didn’t stop him from feeling frustration toward the way he was portrayed in it.
The attacks against him were vicious and personal. The Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser), which went on to become the most influential Democratic-Republican paper in the 1790s, called the president “old, querulous, bald blind, crippled, toothless Adams.”
(For the record, Adams, too, had played a part in the partisan press. Mass communications scholar Timothy E. Cook wrote in his book, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution that back in 1769, Adams recorded in a diary entry about joining Samuel Adams and others “preparing for the next day’s newspaper,—a curious employment, cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, &c., working the political engine!”)
The year 1798, when Adams was likely studying the French philosopher’s work, was an especially rough one for his administration, which was reeling from the XYZ Affair, which set off an undeclared quasi-war between the U.S. and France. The Democratic-Republican press flayed Adams and his Federalist-dominated Congress for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law that summer. The four overtly partisan acts, which curtailed speech critical of the Federalist government and restricted the rights of foreign residents in the country (who conveniently were more likely to vote Democratic-Republican), offer a window into how what today would be called “fake news” was viewed differently by the two political parties.
“There was a deep sense of danger and peril at the time,” says Terri Halperin, author of The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Federalists, Adams among them, were concerned that immigrants with radical politics from France, Ireland, as well as England and Scotland, working in the printing business would spread seeds of discord that would upset the stability of the union.
“[The French] didn’t just attack and invade countries, they also tried to start a collapse from within by befriending and tricking others who would separate the people from their government,” says Halperin. “That’s where the danger from the newspapers come from.”
The influential Federalist paper Porcupine's Gazette, edited by William Cobbett, urged the government to "regenerate" the press. "Unless opposition newspapers were dealt with immediately," Cobbett wrote, according to historian James Morton Smith, "a set of villainous Republican editors, 'most unquestionably in the pay of France,' would continue to distribute their corroding poison throughout the Union.”
The Federalists wanted to prevent attacks they believed were destabilizing the uncertain position of the young republic while still protecting the essential First Amendment right to a free press it’s why they gave juries the power to decide whether printed material was truthful or inflammatory and seditious in the Sedition Act.
Halperin adds that Adams likely felt the vitriolic criticism being waged against him was unfair, and his private note in the Condorcet tract reflects that. But the Democratic-Republicans press, which could now be sent to jail for voicing its dissent, pointed out (often colorfully) that finding a differentiation between political opinion and fact was impossible. To them, the critiques of Adams were wholly valid and his party’s intrusions on the Constitution dangerous on its own.
Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was the first to be charged under the Sedition Act. During his trial, Halperin says, he argued that the Sedition Act was “unconstitutional and void” that the allegedly seditious letter he wrote against John Adams in Spooner’s Vermont Journal was written before the act was passed. He also pointed out that he had “no malicious” intent in his writing and that his content was truthful. Calling his witness, presiding judge William Paterson, to the stand, he asked him if he had ever “dine[d] with the President, and observed his ridiculous pomp and parade?” Paterson denied it, but chose not to answer when Lyon pushed him to compare the pomp surrounding Adams’ arrangements to that of the area where the trial was occurring.
The jury sided against Lyons, who was sentenced to four months in jail and a fine. Behind bars, he remained vocal about the injustices of the Sedition Act and became the first congressman to run and win reelection in prison.
“The truth as a defense that may seem nice,” says Halperin, “but no one is ever going to be able to do it because really what you’re doing is prosecuting opinion.”
Whether it's “fake news” fabrications like those promulgated by the Sons of Liberty or “fake news” stories that in reality break down to a difference of opinion, the tradeoffs of having a free independent press has been part of American politics since the beginning.
“I think Madison was probably the best on that one when he basically said you have to tolerate some sedition in order to have free communication. You can’t root out all,” says Halperin.
Writing anonymously in the National Gazette in 1791, Madison speaks to the power of the literati, which he classified as people who are writing things in newspapers and influencing public opinion. There, says Sheehan, he articulates the importance of a free press, partisan though it may be, writing:
“They are the cultivators of the human mind—the manufacturers of useful knowledge—the agents of the commerce of ideas—the censors of public manners—the teachers of the arts of life and the means of happiness.”
About Jackie Mansky
Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.
The danger of fake news and rumour on social media
That's probably true. But 8 people were lynched, I don't know if that was all in Dhaka.
And if one merely shouted, I have no idea if others might have responded who might have tried to save her, such as the police.
Suppose a false rumour starts up on social media - JeffreyE's investment company is about to fold due to fraud.
Hearing this, investors start pulling funds out of JeffreyE's company and it collapses overnight. JeffreyE is ruined, and all his employees are out of a job.
Social media being what it is, it can be difficult, if not impossible to trace the source of this rumour.
Who is responsible? Who is liable?
I have said nothing - absolutely nothing - in this thread about current events or politics. Not once! And your reluctance to easily support your point demonstrates this.
You have made 2 accusations without supporting evidence or any attempt to even clarify these accusations.
Social media adds freedom to the information. Conventional media are seeing their market and influence collapse. This is the only reason why the whole so-called"fake news" thing is happening it is the only reason why it is believed to be a problem, the only reason why the word even exists. If someone is spreading fake news, it is the traditional media.
With freedom, comes responsibility. I don't want to give back not a tiny fraction of my freedom for my safety and security some others may not be of the same opinion but this is mine.
If there are criminal consequences from what is spread on the Internet, there are already laws in place to punish them in the majority of countries. Incitement to murder is not a different offence if it is done through the Internet or in person. The law enforcement agencies, with appropriate investigation, can, in general identify who is responsible like they have always done.
Do NOT make this into a "old media spreads fake news!" argument. I have already warned one poster about this. That is NOT the point of this thread. You want to discuss that, start another thread.
This thread is about the very real damage that fake news and rumours, such as that linked to in the OP, if you bothered to read it, do, where people are hurt and killed.
With freedom, comes responsibility. I don't want to give back not a tiny fraction of my freedom for my safety and security some others may not be of the same opinion but this is mine.
If there are criminal consequences from what is spread on the Internet, there are already laws in place to punish them in the majority of countries. Incitement to murder is not a different offence if it is done through the Internet or in person. The law enforcement agencies, with appropriate investigation, can, in general identify who is responsible like they have always done.
Suppose a rumour circulates on the internet that you are a paedophile. You find your house attacked, graffiti painted on your door, stuff thrown at your windows. Your family live in fear.