The Russians are not to blame for this country’s fake news problem. It’s the damn old folks.
“On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group,” researchers from Princeton and New York University reported in a January study published at Science Advances.
One of those who got caught out this week was 68-year-old Howard Weaver – a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, the former Vice President for News for The McClatchy Company, and the former editor of the Anchorage Daily News. Weaver on Tuesday posted a wholly fake “Fox News Alert” in which President Donald Trump appeared to suggest he would be in office for the next 10 to 20 years and Democrats needed to accept “the fact that I am in charge, this is my country, and I will do as I please.”
One of the first people to comment on the post was an Anchorage reporter young enough to be Weaver’s son who noted the “news alert” was a fake. Weaver’s post had at that time been shared once. Despite the first warning that the post was fake, people went on sharing the post for hours.
Many expressed their disgust with what Trump had said (though he didn’t say it) even after a number of people added to the first warning that the post was fake. Most of the people ignoring those warnings likely posted without reading the other comments, as is too often the case on Facebook.
They reacted to the original post believing what they wanted to believe. Welcome to the world of social media.
It’s easy for many to get caught up in the idea Trump would say anything as Weaver got caught up in that idea.
By Wednesday, the former editor did realized he’d made a mistake, admitted to it, and offered a very public mea culpa on his Facebook page.
Weaver is to be commended for the correction. But it is unknown how many of the people who shared the fake post of Tuesday carrying the imprimatur of an esteemed American journalist shared the second post.
But even if they all did, which is doubtful, there is a problem bigger than this post and bigger than Weaver. A lot of old journalists – people once thought of as moral leaders in the global struggle that has long been waged between news and propaganda – seem to want to ignore the fact that behaviors matter.
Behaviors especially matter when they involve people who’ve spent their lives advocating for facts and accuracy, people who understand the importance of checking information before publishing it, and people who are role models for younger journalists.
Weaver’s rush to publish was little but a display of his contempt for Trump, and the country is in trouble when journalists start allowing these sorts of emotions to overpower what have been and should be the rules of journalistic engagement.
Sadly, too, when someone of Weaver’s status does this, it reflects not just on him but on all journalists. To supporters of Trump this behavior sends the message that journalists will do almost anything to get this president.
That many, probably most, journalists are disgusted by Trump is understandable.
The late conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer was attacking Trump for his falsehoods within days after his Republican primary nomination. Krauthammer described Trump as a “conspiracy theorist (from Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth to Ted Cruz’s father’s involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald), fabulist (from his own invented opposition to the Iraq War and the Libya intervention to the ‘thousands and thousands’ of New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11), (and) admirer of strongmen (from Vladimir Putin to the butchers of Tiananmen).
“His outrageous provocations have been brilliantly sequenced so that the shock of the new extinguishes the memory of the last. Though perhaps not his most recent — his gratuitous attack on a ‘Mexican’ federal judge (born and bred in Indiana) for inherent bias because of his ethnicity. Textbook racism, averred Speaker Paul Ryan. Even Trump acolyte and possible running mate Newt Gingrich called it inexcusable.”
And Trump’s funhouse-mirror view of facts should concern journalists of all stripes. Journalists long prided themselves on the shared belief that honesty mattered. This was the Golden Rule of Journalism.
About the worst that could be said of anyone was that he or she was a liar. But because lying is such a well established human trait – researchers have found people lie with alarming regularity and without much thought – all information was also to be treated with inherent skepticism.
It wasn’t to be simply passed along; it was to be verified before it was passed along. What a reader learned from Jane Journalist was to supposed to have more value than what that same person heard from Joe Sixpack at the bar because what the journalist told you wasn’t just talk. The journalist had some grasp of the issue under discussion, and the journalist had checked the information enough to find reasons to believe it true.
The journalist wasn’t just passing along a rumor.
It was this fundamental idea that gave journalism value. Sadly, the value has been leeching away for years now.
Agendas upon agenda
This is not to pick on Weaver, an old journalist who made a rookie mistake. Weaver is a well-intentioned, old-school liberal. Thirty years ago, his political leanings wouldn’t have bothered a mention in the context of what he did on Facebook, either.
Thirty years ago, right and left still talked to each other. Even 20 years ago, Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal from Massachusetts, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, the conservative from Utah, were the best of friends. Today?
Today the country is split by a partisan divide that only seems to grow daily with a goodly number of retired journalists and some active journalists seemingly always at work to widen it.
Sometimes with bad intentions. Sometimes with good intentions.
Weaver didn’t post fake news on his Facebook page because he wanted to be in the fake news business. He posted it because he believed it was true. He posted it because it appealed to his confirmation bias.
He posted it because he despises Trump and because this is how things work in the social media world.
As one of Weaver’s Facebook friends posted below the admission the post was fake, “the fact that we could easily believe it to be true sums up this administration very well.”
Facts just don’t matter the way they used to matter.
What one “believes” has for many Americans become the first and often foremost definition of factual. In this world, even those things that can be shown to be factually wrong are OK if it’s possible they could have been true.
Too much truth has shifted from an objective standard to a subjective standard.
Consider it the Trump standard. The President doesn’t lie some of his defenders will tell you; he’s just telling his truth. And even if it can be shown facts don’t support the story Trump tells, it’s still his truth.
“…Trump’s supporters are increasingly rationalizing those falsehoods,” writes University of Michigan Public Policy Professor Brendan Nyhan, who has spent considerable time studying this phenomenon. “Belief in the importance of presidential candidates being honest has declined from 71 percent among Republicans in 2007 to just 49 percent today, threatening the previously uncontested norm that the president should be expected to say things that are true, or at least not obviously false.”
The problem isn’t helped by unprecedented declines in media trust fueled, in part, by the media getting things wrong or sometimes resorting to its own subjective truths.
Subjective truth is like love. You are so overwhelmed by it that it cannot be ignored, but you can’t explain it let alone document it.
Objective truth is like gravity. You trip; you fall; your face hits the pavement.
Subjective truth is driven by emotion. Objective truth is vested in evidence and reason.
Trump lives in a bubble of subjective truth from which he fires off angry Tweets at those who he believes have wronged him. Increasingly he seems to have driven some in or of the media into similar bubbles.
Maybe it’s not their fault. Dr. Robert Lustig might have put his finger on the problem a year ago.
“Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) is ostensibly a mental condition in which persons have been driven effectively ‘insane’ due to their dislike of Donald Trump to the point at which they abandon all logic and reason,” he wrote at MedPage Today.
“Many have remarked that Trump operates out of his ‘lizard brain’. Rather, I would argue that Trump has turned our brains reptilian. The two emotions that belie this effect — greed and fear — are the same two emotions that govern Wall Street’s behavior.”
The emeritus professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California San Francisco, Lustig went on at length about dopamine-fueled highs and lows, and cortisol confusion sparked by Trump’s erratic behavior before concluding that the President “can alter human behavior in predictable, if socially undesirable, ways.
“In other words, many of us have now become Trump. The more dopamine and cortisol, the more we lose our ability to discern truth from post-truth, the more irritable we become, and the more we abandon our cognitive control and with little regard for the consequences.”
That appears to define pretty well what happened to Weaver. That’s sad; the sadder thing is that the fallout comes down on all journalists. And the saddest thing is that this illness appears to reach far beyond politicians and journalists and into the heart of social media.