Commentary

Tell me a lie

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1990-048-29A,_Adolf_Hitler

Adolph Hitler, one of the masters of fake news/Wikimedia Commons

Commentary

The time has come to accept that many people want fake news even if they don’t admit it. The time has to come recognize many people need fake news even if they don’t know it.

 

These are the reasons fake news propagates faster than real news and spreads through the web like a contagious disease, according to the latest research.

Researchers Soroush Vosoughi and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have concluded  “the degree of novelty and the emotional reactions” are what sell fake news and help speed it through the inter-webs like a virus.

“Lies spread faster than truth,” Vosoughi and colleagues headlined the paper they published in  Science  earlier this month. After crunching 126,000 rumors that were Tweeted and reTweeted and spread among approximately 3 million people, they concluded fake news spread from 1,000 people to 100,000 or more “whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people.”

Anyone who thinks anything with this sort of emotional appeal is going to be simply eliminated is delusional. Sorry Mark Zuckerberg.

But then again, the well-known founder of Facebook is as much the problem as the solution. No matter how much he champions accuracy, he has been known to spin his own fake news for the same reason others often do:

They believe. They want what they are saying to be true. So they try to make it so.

Facts, sadly, don’t always fit neatly with what any of us want to believe. In Zuckerbergs’ case, he wanted to make a pitch for a “basic income,” an idea worth some serious conversation given a new wave of automation on the horizon threatening to put more and more people out of work.

So on vacation in Alaska, Zuckerberg ginned up the idea the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is kind of, sort of a basic income. It’s not. Nobody is living on a once-a-year payment of $1,000 to $2,000. The PFD is better described as a reward for sticking it out each year in the cold, dark, hostile north, even if it was originally conceived more as a way to keep money out of the hands of politicians to slow the growth of state government.

That didn’t work very well. Nor, for that matter, did Zuckerberg’s fake news. It didn’t spread. He should have gone big:

“Here’s how different Alaska’s social safety net programs are….Alaska has a form of basic income called the Permanent Fund Dividend that pays people $50,000 per year to live in the 49th state.”

Now, that’s a pitch that could go viral.

The big lie

That people often favor fictions over facts shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

People have been making shit up and spreading it since time immemorial, and some of the fake news of its time rose to incredible heights.

Mythology is a mountain of fake news. There was no Cyclops or Hydra or Medusa in Greece. They were creatures created to explain things the Greeks could not explain.

Volcanic mountain Etna erupted because the Cyclops were hard at work underground. People disappeared in the swamps because the Hydra got them. If people ventured across the Mediterranean Sea to Africa and failed to return, it was because Medusa turned them to stone. 

You want fake news? These are fake news story of Biblical proportions.

Today we might just think of them as alternate ways (alt-news) of explaining how the world works. The scientific method – a logical problem-solving scheme for sorting out how things work –  didn’t evolve until somewhere between the 10th to 14th centuries.

Many more centuries passed before it began to challenge the centuries of historically accumulated conventional and religious wisdom, some of which continue to this day.

Fake fake, fake

“And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years; and he died,” Genesis, 5:27 proclaims.

Nobody lived 969 years. Nine hundred and sixty-nine months, maybe. That would be over 80 years. Maybe “years” is a big Biblical typo . Whatever it is, even the Catholic Church now takes these references to unfathomable lifespans as figurative, not literal. 

And yet there are those who still take them literally. Why?

Because they want to believe. Because they need to believe. Because there is a fundamental human yearning to believe that sometimes overpowers fact.

“S’il n’existait pas Dieu il faudrait l’inventer (If God did not exist he would have to be invented),”  Voltaire, the French philosopher and writer, observed almost 250 years ago.

Today, a lot of the old Gods are gone, but more than a few remain: the Judeo-Christian God, the Islamic God, and the many Gods of Hinduism and the Chinese Folk Religion. Most of the people on the planet today believe in some sort of God because there is a human need as old as the Greeks (and probably the cave man) to explain what we don’t know.

“What happens when we die?”

Well, if you’re a Christian, you go to heaven. If you’re a Muslim, you move on to the afterlife. If you’re a Viking, you go Valhalla. If you’re a Lakota Sioux, you go to a spirit world in the sky. 

Is any of this possible? Of course. Anything is possible after death. There is no way to document what actually happens.

None of which diminishes the human need to know. So humans create answers.

Comfort

Over time, they come to covet their creations. Some of their beliefs are good. Some are bad. No matter which they are, they need nurturing and reinforcement.

Fake news caters to such needs. Fake news helps unite people around their beliefs. Fake news helps reinforce the tribe.

And because of this all sorts of people – be they on the left or right, white or of-color, old or young, short or tall, etc., etc., etc. – are susceptible to fake news of some sort or another at some time.

When former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the failed Republican candidate for vice-president, started ranting about “death panels” in the new federal health insurance plan in 2009, people who feared bigger government (and there are legitimate reasons to fear bigger government) believed because they wanted to believe.

When U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from Los Angeles, accused the U.S. government of masterminding a plot to destroy inner-city black America by spreading crack cocaine, people who fear the spread of drugs believed because they wanted to believe.

When the mainstream media, or what Palin used to call the “lamestream,” now claims Russians hacked (hacked: to gain entry into a computer system to alter information) the 2016 election, people who dislike Donald Trump believe it because they want to believe.

The Russians might, indeed, have participated in American democracy in all the bad, old-fashioned ways propagandists have long participated, but there is no evidence they hacked anything.

Americans voted Trump into office. It wasn’t computerized tampering.

Some of these Americans were disgruntled. Some were angry. Some might simply have thought Trump the lesser of two bad choices, a means of selection all too common in the American voting both.

And some might have been misled by “fake news,” Russian or otherwise. But if they were misled, it was because they wanted to be misled, because they wanted to believe.

Let’s not kid ourselves. American voters knew when they went to the polls they were voting for an often outrageous Twitterfreak. And now an often outrageous Twitterfreak inhabits the White House.

That he can Tweet at will, as Sarah Palin once posted at length on Facebook, is the curse of these times and the blessing. Communication has never been more open than it is today, and most of the news that gets shared among friends (Zuckerberg claims “99 percent”)  is more fact than fiction.

Aliens next door

On top of that, much fake news is so obviously fake that people of normal intelligence or above – which includes most Americans – ought to be able to recognize the cons.

It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes or Columbo or even Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS to figure out that Democrat Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wasn’t running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop.

She was barely in D.C. enough to have time to run to the bathroom let alone run a sex ring.

And it wasn’t any different with the report of thousands of Trump supporters at a Manhattan rally chanting “we hate Muslims. We hate blacks. We want our great country back.”

Like a 10-year-old tape recording emerges of Access Hollywood host Billy Bush and Trump privately disparaging women as sex objects, and somehow no one among the thousands at a racist rally – one of the kinds of rallies that tend to attract people proud of their racism – uses their phone to record the event?

The above-mentioned Clinton and Trump delusions were included in PoliticFacts “2016 Lie of the Year,” which fingered fake news as some new worry.

“For those who care about accuracy and evidence, it’s time to recognize that something really has gone off course,” the website intoned.

Right. Like information hasn’t been off course regularly almost since forever. Just in the lifetimes of some reading this:

The up-is-down, down-is-up bastardization of information did not miss the U.S. either. There was plenty of U.S.-government-backed “fake news” coming out of South Vietnam in the 1960s.

There’s a movie out about this now. It’s called “The Post.” It’s about how the U.S. government engaged in “fake news” from Asia for a decade as part of the war on Communism.

Why? Because the U.S. government didn’t want to admit it was losing the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, and because the U.S. public didn’t want to hear America was fighting a losing war.

American public opposition to the war, according to Gallup polls, didn’t reach a majority until 1968 – the year Richard M. Nixon was elected president. The media had only just begun to shift in its reporting on the war.

From 1960 along until about 1967, Alan Rohn writes in a history of the media in Vietnam, “in almost all the nightly news programs of major television networks, such as CBS and NBC, the war was labeled as a ‘good guys shooting Reds’ story. The US involvement in Vietnam was generally supported by the media.”

We in the media, despite our protestations of holiness among the fake-news debacle of these days, were right in there pitching fake news in another time, and we still are at times pitching various versions of less than honest news.

We leave things out. We decide there are things that shouldn’t be said. We get cowardly around power and even the status quo.

No, the old media isn’t as bad as Trump would have his followers believe with the claim that everything with which he happens to disagree is fake news. Neither is the fake-news problem as grim as the old media, and some of the new, would like you to believe with their suggestion that the majority of Americans are such nitwits they could be easily duped by news that fails the most basic of sniff tests.

Even if that were the case, what would the mainstream media suggest Americans do? Add more government regulation, which seems to be the mainstream answer to most other problems in the country because finding a wrong that needs to be righted by more government is the easy road to a Pulitzer Prize.

It would only seem logical that if more government regulation is the solution to every other social problem, it would be the answer to fake-news problem. Just think how much more accurate the media would be if the Trump administration had more oversight authority.

Only Libertarians would favor the alternative:  that old, American quagmire of competing versions of truths and untruths that the citizenry is left to sort out. It would be so much neater and easier if only there was a higher power to roll the truth downhill to the masses who will just have to shoulder the burden of sorting the true from the false until that happens.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story denied any Russian hacking of the 2016 election. That claim was edited to more accurately reflect that no evidence has ever been found to indicate they hacked the election.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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21 replies »

    • once again, Thomas; thank you for such a wonderfully substantive comment. and once again, you might want to consider how it reflects on your fellow commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet. name calling reflects more on the people doing it than on the subject of the attack. but i appreciate your reading. hopefully you’re learning something in the process.

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  1. Defining hacked only as “to gain entry into a computer system to alter information” is wrong in so many ways. Although they did “gain entry” to the DNC email. And even though the actions might better be described as a campaign of (mis)information to influence the election, I think it can be described as hacking the election (whether or not you belive it made any difference is another matter, it was at least an attempt to hack). Even if you wanted to require “gaining entry” as hacking, they did create facebook accounts, which is a sort of entry. Heck, I’m gaining entry and altering information even now by posting this comment.

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  2. Great article, Craig. I remember the Gulf of Tonkin story paraded as an attack on the US. More than likely, propaganda pushed by LBJ to get us deeper into the Vietnam quagmire. It is up to the journalism community to police itself if it is to be salvaged. Keep up the great work.

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  3. Yes Craig, the thought of “how much more accurate the media would be if the Trump administration had more oversight authority” is certainly something that we all should chew on.
    And your (lead off) picture reminds me of Gilbert Gottfried’s take on Don Trump over a year ago: he is “Hitler without the warmth.”

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    • i had not heard that line, Bill. it’s funny. but Trump is not Hitler because the system would not allow him to be even if he wanted to be. and Trump is nowhere near as focused and manipulative as Hitler. Hitler ran the Third Reich with an iron fist. Trump’s idea of management appears to be chaos. in that sense, the Trump Administration might be one of the most democratic administrations in U.S. history. nobody really seems to be in charge of any sort of cohesive agenda, and there’s no telling what the President might do from day to day.

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      • I agree that Hitler outclasses Trump in general but I also suspect that Don Trump is probably the leader in focus and manipulation, when it comes to money. Remember here that “The Donald” has probably never read a book in his life-pretty hard to stand up to Adolf with those credentials.
        And I believe Don is doing his darndest in that “warmth” category.

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  4. Worth the read!!
    Good take..
    People essentially, are stupid as a race. and do not seek “truth” as the only answer..
    I thought mit also did a study showing humans only utilize 10% if their mental capacity ?
    Hence your article is written.
    Max

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