Politifact and Facebook have now spent six weeks chasing the phantom of “fake news” and found the problem inherent in the human species.
People, by and large, are prone to believe what they want to believe, or as Politifact put it in a story Friday: “Perhaps the most insidious component of these kinds of hoaxes is that quite often, they simply sound plausible, especially to people who want to believe them.”
Wanting to believe is a human trait that charlatans and con men have exploited forever. The snake oil salesman of the late 19th century made their fortunes selling people magic potions that would cure any ill.
Some of those potions probably even worked to some extent because the placebo effect is not be underestimated. That which you truly believe might make you better even if it treats nothing.
Why the placebo effect works nobody really knows, but it does work. Given this, one could argue there is potential positive to snake oil. Whether the same can be said for fakes news is hard to say, although it did seem to make a lot of people feel better during the last election cycle.
If you got into any serious Facebook discussions about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the lead up to the presidential election, someone invariably latched onto some fake news or false news and used it to justify their support for one candidate or the other.
The tubes delivered designer snake oil with the click of just a few computer keys. Anyone could find the elixir to support her or his world view, and discussions, debates and arguments are so much more fun when you can find a source – real or fake – that backs your opinion.
The old days of encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers and magazines were so limiting.
And traditional media, accustomed to their old role as the unassailable mediator of facts, are compquite predictably in a huff.
What the hell is fake news?
Let’s be honest here for a minute. Part of what is going on in this debate about fake news is business. Traditional media don’t like you clicking on the websites of alternative media – fake, false or real. It’s competition. Internet media of all sorts is in a click war.
Yes, there are journalists legitimately concerned about honesty and the consequences for democracy of so much lying. But honesty is a moving target. Remember Iraq?
The New York Times, the standard-bearer for traditional media, led the fake news reports on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The reporting, as Franklin Foer would later observe in a “New York” magazine story, “helped the New York Times keep up with the competition….”
The Times and reporter Judith Miller argue they were duped, but the reality is more that they – being perfectly human – believed what they wanted to believe.
“The (Bush) administration knew the exclusive would be too juicy for Miller to pass up,” as noted Paul Waldman at CNN. “Her credulous account, passing all the administration’s false claims on as a ‘scoop,’ appeared on the Times front page on September 8.”
The Times and Miller didn’t make up the news as did young people in Macedonia. All the Times and Miller did was put the Times’ stamp of approval (no small thing) on the fake news and disseminate it.
It is this sort of thing that complicates any discussion of “fake news.”
“In the short time we’ve been devoted to fact-checking ‘fake news,’ the phrase has been overused and misappropriated to the point that it’s become pretty much meaningless,” writes Politifacts’ Joshua Gillan.
“Political operatives and various media outlets have used the phrase to vilify any source, fact or opinion they find contentious.”
The administration of new President Donald Trump has now defined the traditional media as an opposition party and launched a full-scale attack on its credibility.
“I’m not talking about everybody,” Trump told David Brody at CBN on Friday, “but a big portion of the media, the dishonesty, total deceit and deception.”
Trump is right with that observation about dishonesty, deceit and deception. And he is also totally wrong.
Most reporters try to be honest, but they often suffer from the same problem as the consumers of fake news. They believe what they want to believe. There isn’t a lot of critical thinking going on in the journalism business these days.
And that makes any discussion of fake news difficult.
Gillan never exactly spells out what Facebook and Politifact consider “fake news,” but his story does provide a hint.
“Working with Facebook,” he writes, “we’ve been fact-checking news stories that have been flagged by readers as potentially fake or deliberately misleading.”
How does one separate deliberately misleading from accidentally misleading or foolishly misleading, which would define too much of what one reads in the supposedly legitimate news every day.
Misleading is everywhere
KTVA.com in Anchorage, the website of KTVA-TV News, Thursday ran a story suggesting health care is a human right. “Health care is a human right” is actually what the headline said. The story promoted the view that modifying or dumping the federal Affordable Care Act would deprive people of this human right.
Modern medicine is a wonderful, albeit costly, benefit of life in the 21st Century, and there is no doubt governments should be trying to help their citizens maintain access to it. A healthy and productive work force is a benefit to any society.
But health care is not a human right.
Human rights are the freedoms governments can take away. They are not government handouts no matter the expectations of the citizenry. The economic realities of the world are that governments can’t do everything for everyone, and the biological realities of the world are that governments can’t stop nature.
We’re all going to die some day. Human rights doctrine isn’t about government keeping us alive as long as possible, it is about stopping government from killing us when we are healthy or locking us up on a whim.
Thomas Jefferson did as good a job as anyone in defining human rights in the Declaration of Independence in 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Those are all things the U.S. colonists believed King George III was denying them. One cannot help but wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought of a country where people think their human rights are being denied because the government fails to give them things.
Put Bill Walker on trial?
Have the human rights of Alaskans been violated by Gov. Bill Walker denying them half of their Permanent Fund Dividend last year? Should he be pulled before the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague and charged with abusing this human rights of all Alaskans?
There are those in Alaska who would no doubt answer those questions with a resounding “yes.” And there is nothing wrong with their believing the PFD or government-guaranteed health care are human rights. This a democracy. People are entitled to believe what they want to believe.
What is wrong is journalists going along with them and failing to put their protests in context so as to avoid what Trump called “truthful hyperbole” in his book “The Art of the Deal.”
This would be truthful hyperbole as reported by KTVA:
“If it weren’t for my husband being in the oil field I wouldn’t have health insurance at all. Period,” said Karyn Griffin, a Soldotna resident, as she choked back tears. “I have three kids; they wouldn’t have health insurance.”
Not to pick on Griffin, but what is she crying about? She has health insurance subsidized by her husband’s employer. And she’s not the problem here anyway. KTVA reporter Liz Raines is the problem. She exploited a distraught Griffin for effect.
The tears added a nice emotional touch to a story that was an appeal to an agenda. Who knows if Raines agrees with the agenda or not. It really doesn’t matter. Whether she agrees with it or not her story is misleading and deceptive.
The Affordable Care Act is not some panacea. It is plagued with problems. People with a spouse with company health insurance, like Griffin, are lucky. The rest of Americans….
“…For many middle class Americans – a single person earning more than $47,520 or a family of four with an income of $97,200 – the pricey premiums and deductibles mean health care coverage remains out of reach,” CNN reported in August.
“‘The middle class are getting squeezed,’ said Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. ‘They aren’t getting subsidies and these deductibles are hard to afford.”
The average household income in Anchorage, according to the U.S. Census, is $99, 630. The average Anchorage household lacking a member with company health insurance isn’t helped by the Affordable Care Act. It’s hurt by the Affordable Care Act.
The average Soldotna household income is $83,221, according to the Census. So if Griffin’s husband lost his oil patch insurance but he and his wife managed to find other jobs that maintained their income, the family could get some help from the government in the form of an Affordable Care Act subsidy.
How much is hard to say. Health Insurance.org says the “benchmark” premium for Alaska is $719 per month ($8,628 per year) for a bare-bones plan with a big deductible. A family of five would pay more.
“Alaska’s sky-high premiums are an excellent example of what can happen in a sparsely populated state,” the website says. “And the small population in Alaska means the risk pools are subject to volatility based on claims from just a few insureds – that’s exactly what happened in Alaska in 2014, and the 2016 rates are based primarily on 2014 claims data.
Because of the risk, ACA rates went up 27 to 37 percent in Alaska in 2016.
“The vast majority of Alaskans who buy individual plans on healthcare.gov receive subsidies, and that will cushion the impact of the new rates,” according to Alaska Public.org. “But thousands of residents pay full price.”
The lowest, full-cost ACA plan for a family of five this year? $2,257 a month ($27,000 per year) with a deductible of $10,500 per year. That’s simply not affordable for most middle-class families. It should be enough to make one cry. The system is flawed, badly flawed.
The same must be said for any journalism about the Affordable Care Act that simplifies it into some sort of “human rights” issue. It’s not. It’s a big, complicated economics issue.
But journalists are free to report what they want just as everyone is free believe what they want. You even have the right to dig up fake news stories to support your beliefs. And, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees people the right to make things up.
For these reasons, fakes news has always been with us and will always be with us. It’s senseless fretting over it. The answer to fake news is better reporting of real news by real journalists everywhere. Sadly, that isn’t happening, and this is doing far more than Trump and his cronies to undermine media credibility.
Go read the comments on the KTVA story about the ACA being a “human right.” There is a long list of commenters recognizing the term is misused. Everyone of them read that story and lost another sliver of faith in traditional media.
This is a problem with which all journalists should be concerned.
What exactly the consequences in the long run are hard to predict, but the less people believe traditional media the more palatable fake news becomes. If all news is untrustworthy, and if the traditional media is misleading and deceptive as Trump charges, those making things up can’t be that much worse, can they?
Especially if you agree with what they’ve made up. It’s hard to disagree with someone telling you what you want to hear no matter right or wrong.