News You Can’t Use
Fake News has become a social media scourge, and perhaps a threat to all of us. Four alumni journalists muse on what’s driving the phenomenon and how it might be stopped.
If there is any doubt about the primacy of fake news—stories masquerading as news that are wholly invented or intentionally highly misleading—consider that the phenomenon is now regarded as a threat to the planet’s health and safety.
In its “2017 Doomsday Clock Statement,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its clock another 30 seconds closer to midnight. We’re now only 2.5 minutes from the apocalypse, the scientists warned, because, in addition to the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, “new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways.”
President Trump, frequently found to be trafficking in untruths, blasts long-established mainstream media (CNN, The New York Times) for being fake news. But if you think Mr. Trump and his supporters are the only ones generating and disseminating fake news, you’d be wrong. In early February, The Atlantic observed that many progressives had recently shared “online stories that look like real journalism but are full of fables and falsehoods.” Among the stories cited were several that appeared on the website Medium suggesting the existence of a Trump conspiracy even grander and more nefarious than his opponents had imagined. (Among them: “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and “The Immigration Ban is a Headfake, and We’re Falling For It.” )
Sometimes the eyebrow-raisers are over the top (“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”). Nonetheless, in the three months leading up to Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the race for the White House, false stories about Trump and Clinton were shared 38 million times on Facebook, a study by Stanford and New York University researchers found.
And then there was “Pizzagate.” A month after the election, a North Carolina man walked into a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., and began firing an assault rifle. The man told police he had come to “self-investigate” an election-related online conspiracy theory—which had gained traction as a fake news item—that Clinton and her campaign chairman ran a child sex ring from the back rooms of the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was injured in the shooting. Atomic scientists aren’t the only ones worried about the phenomenon. Among registered voters surveyed in a Fox News poll a few days before Trump’s inauguration, 61 percent were “very” worried that fake news was hurting the country and another 23 percent were “somewhat” concerned. And yet, a day after that poll was published, The New York Times described efforts to curb fake news by Facebook and Google, where so much of it is spread, as “small” and “a drop in the bucket.”
To discern why fake news is so popular, how much the campaign—and mainstream media—played a role in its rise, and what, if anything, should be done to combat it, we consulted four Haverford alumni journalists: Katherine Greifeld ’15, a reporter for Bloomberg in New York; Roy Gutman ’66, a freelance correspondent in the Middle East and former McClatchy Newspapers reporter, who won a Pulitzer in 1993 for his coverage of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Max McClellan ’88, a producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes; and Erica Phillips ’04, a Wall Street Journal reporter in Los Angeles. ‘
THE FAKE NEWS BOOM
In a long take-out published in December (“Where fake news came from—and why some readers believe it.”), the Los Angeles Times heard from experts who said people believe fake news because it’s titillating or because it confirms something they already believe. “BOOM! Wikileaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons To ISIS,” a fake news story carried by a number of sites, would be one example of that.
“I think I think it’s easy to get drawn in by the provocative headline,” said 60 Minutes’ McClellan. “And I think that’s what a lot of the fake news sites and news articles prey upon is your natural curiosity—something that seems completely counterintuitive, like the notion of the Pope supporting Trump. It’s like, what? Really? Let me see what that is.”
“There’s the emotional aspect of it,” said the Wall Street Journal’s Phillips. “You see something and you immediately want to say something about it, you want your friends to know. That immediate need to communicate how you feel about something just makes for social media feeds that are full of uninformed and emotionally driven sharing, [combined with] less scrutiny, and less thoughtful critical checking of this material.”
Fake news, of course, is nothing new. Sensational stories, and highly opinionated and gossipy reports, were a common feature of newspapers in the late 18th into the 19th century. Many had no qualms about simply making things up. In 1835, for example, one paper ran a series about the discovery of life on the moon that proved to be a huge seller. But the proliferation of fake news in our own era has more serious consequences than a silly story about the moon. And the reach of fake news has been extended and accelerated by the power of social media. What’s driving the rise, according to the Los Angeles Times, is “new technology colliding with a widespread mistrust of big institutions.”
A BuzzFeed analysis found that prior to the final push of the presidential campaign, the top election content from major news outlets such as The New York Times and NBC News outperformed fake election news on Facebook. But in the final three months before election day, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook—such as: “FBI agent suspected in Hillary Clinton email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide”—generated more shares, comments, and reactions than the top stories from major news outlets.
“That’s how you get people storming into pizza parlors with assault rifles,” said Bloomburg’s Greifeld. “That wouldn’t have happened without social media and these platforms.”
The Pizzagate episode was evidence of how the election campaign stirred emotions that were sometimes inflamed by fake news. “Obviously, there’s a real partisan divide in this country, so it’s fertile ground for this kind of phenomenon to take root,” said McClellan. “Because we are in such a fiercely partisan atmosphere, people might be interested in seeking out news that confirms their position rather than being rigorous about making sure that it’s completely factual.
“This election was being fought by two folks who really had two very different worldviews and two sides that were deeply committed to their candidates,” he added. “Never before in our history has such a massive world of information been out there at our fingertips, but it’s equally true that never before in history has such a massive world of bad information been out there.”
Trump, particularly during the campaign, has certainly been a factor. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website, has given Trump its Pants on Fire rating (awarded for a statement that is false and ridiculous) more than 60 times. Two of his Pants on Fire claims from the campaign: When Clinton “ran the State Department, $6 billion was missing,” and the number of illegal immigrants “could be 30 million.”
“People’s passions were so inflamed, and some of the things that came out during this presidential campaign were so ridiculous that it wasn’t as much of a stretch to believe some of the fake news stories that came out,” said Greifeld.
Politicians “often stretch, conceal, or exaggerate facts and mislead the public in order to get elected,” Gutman observed. “But in more than four decades as a journalist, I’ve never seen an American election where one candidate and his team built their campaign on outright untruths.”
It’s easy to blame the politicians, of course, but do mainstream media outlets—based on what they did or didn’t do—bear some responsibility for the rise of fake news? A post-election column in Wired magazine argued that “more than the usual amount of tribalism online” and low citizen trust in traditional media “formed the perfect petri dish in which a plague of misinformation could fester and bloom.”
“I have to think that journalism shares some of the responsibility,” Greifeld said. “There were a lot of news organizations that became very political during the campaign. It wasn’t difficult to see which candidate they supported. That really disappointed me. I’m not sure how that contributed to the rise of fake news; I have to think it did in some way.
“It definitely turned away some readers,” added Greifeld.“Traditionally reputable sources came with full-throated support of Hillary Clinton, and that’s not something I love to see any news organization do. I’m very proud to work at a news organization that didn’t do that. I don’t think that’s helping anyone, and I think that isolates potential readers. Certain news organizations really lost their credibility in the eyes of a lot of people.”
McClellan agreed that a perception of partiality was a problem, saying: “There is no question that the view of journalism today is that it is, by and large, not unbiased. When there is that perception that the news is not being delivered straight, that helps contribute to this opening that fake news has wedged itself into.”
Gutman pointed out that journalists sometimes have to repeat lies or claims that can’t be disproved immediately, citing a dossier passed to the FBI that made unverified claims about Trump, including lurid details of a trip he made to Moscow in 2013. Gutman said nearly every story he read on the dossier was careful to highlight the questions surrounding the sources of that story.
The rise of fake news, said Phillips, led her to re-examine her approach to her work as some questioned the credibility of the Wall Street Journal. “It was kind of unmooring. It’s like, Were we not doing our jobs? How do you go about bringing information when there’s actually a very strong resistance to the facts?” she said. “I work for a publication that’s pretty well respected. I always thought we had a lot of people’s trust, and I know how hard our reporters work and how ironclad our stuff is. And having your eyes opened to the fact that there could be people in this country that would not believe a word on the pages of my paper, [that] was really surprising.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
So, what should be done to combat fake news?
“Journalists are self-appointed watchdogs of government, and our job description is to ferret out the facts from the rhetoric and inform the public of what the real news is,” said Gutman. “The public should insist that journalists live up to their job description.”
Such efforts are under way. But it won’t be easy.
Six weeks after starting a new venture with Facebook to find and disprove fake news in Facebook feeds, PolitiFact reported in January: “Here’s what we’ve learned so far. Fake news is like a nasty weed. It grows quickly and is hard to kill.” But there are steps readers can take, our alumni journalists agree. A few tips from Scientific American:
1. If a headline catches your eye, check the source before you decide whether the article is worth reading. Have you heard of the site before? Has it published trustworthy results in the past?
2. Look for clearly false information elsewhere in the article. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to trust a particular “fact” in an article, it doesn’t bode well if there is clear misinformation quoted somewhere else.
3. If you’re still not sure about a source, look around to see if anyone else is carrying the story. Can you find it elsewhere at a source you trust?
“It’s a new reality; it’s a new normal,” McClellan said of fake news. But it’s also, he contended, a potential boon for traditional media.
“If we do our jobs right and solidify ourselves as go-to sources for the thoroughly vetted, credible information that’s out there, then we traditional mainstream media have the chance to become more indispensable than ever.”