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10 Ways to Combat Fake News

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Fake News = Fake Democracy. What’s more, it’s old news.

In ancient Greece, propaganda and counterpropaganda were standard and acknowledged as such. The word “propaganda” seems to enter into common use in Europe because of the Roman Catholic church’s missionary activities: in 1622, Pope Gregory XV created the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to spread Catholicism and regulate church affairs in “pagan” countries; then, a College of Propaganda was established by Pope Urban VIII to train priests for the missions. But by any name, fake news already had been around in 1513 when, in The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli advised his ruler, “[I]t is necessary to know well how to disguise . . . and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. . . . [T]herefore it is unnecessary for a Prince to have all the good qualities I have elsewhere enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.” More recently, we’ve had fake news in the form of disinformation, agitprop, hype, advertising, and spin. Whatever it’s called, it’s propaganda.

But if the concept is not new, factors of quantity, volume, and accessibility are. The Internet makes it possible for everyone to have a voice, although as Aaron Sorkin aptly noted, “Everyone deserves a voice. Not everyone deserves a microphone.” In fact, this “democratization of information,” as I call it, has proliferated to a point impossible for the Framers of the Constitution to have foreseen. They themselves were wary of direct democracy, ultimately rejecting it as being vulnerable to a demagogue and mob rule. This is the why we have a representative democracy in a republic, not a direct democracy. But tell that to social media, where everyone seems to think they can have their 15 minutes of fame eternally and simultaneously.

In the 1920s, as radio became popular, the United States decided to turn broadcasting over to private industry—as opposed to creating government-funded news sources like the British Broadcasting Company. US public broadcasting, like National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), has always had to scramble for survival funding from the government while resisting government censorship, and primarily rely on its listeners and viewers for financial support. It’s important to remember that state media—like Russia’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily—is very different from public media, like the BBC, or PBS and NPR. Most developed democracies with press freedom have a great deal more public media then we have in the United States. Even so, early commercial radio and then television were subject to regulations, mandated to report in a nonpartisan manner, and to serve “community standards and the public good”—or else the stations and networks would fail to get renewal of their licenses to use the public airwaves.

In the 1980s, broadcasting was deregulated by—aha!—Mourning-in-America’s own Ronald Reagan, responding to private media-owners’ market-driven desires, and by the time cable television arrived and then the Internet transformed everything, the territory of news was beginning to have a wild west look to it. Broadcasters began to silo audiences into separate groupings who wanted and got news that would fit their existing preferences and prejudices. But a public consensus did remain that people were at best gullible and at worst stunningly stupid if they took seriously “reality” TV or such publications as The National Inquirer, blaring headlines like THREE HEADED WOMAN SAYS SHE LOVES FELLATIO and EXTRA-TERRESTRIALS NOW RUN ALL MAJOR U.S. UNIVERSITIES.

Well, it’s The National Enquirer that seems to be having the last laugh. We are suffering from not a democratization of news but a libertarian view that anything goes. So far as the market is concerned, sensationalism—for which read violence and sex—is what sells. That’s been true for mainstream media, too—”If it bleeds, it leads”—but within limits. Those limits seemed to vanish during this past election, with network news chiefs openly bragging about the ad money rolling in as a reward for their reportedly having voluntarily ceded up to $2 billion of free, live airtime to Trump’s speeches—with insufficient or late reporting on his incitations to hate crimes and his blatant fabrications. The journalists themselves did try. But the suits in the corner offices stopped them.

Meanwhile, back online, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg expresses concern over fake news propagating on Facebook, while at the same time claiming it “extremely unlikely [such] hoaxes changed the outcome of this election.” Yet he boasts about Facebook’s enormously influential role in the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, his own employees and executives have been questioning their responsibility in influencing the electorate, according to The New York Times. This pressure, internal as well as external, has resulted in Zuckerberg now announcing a new policy that will take aim at the revenue sources on fake news sites. Google took a related approach, announcing that it would ban websites peddling fake news from using its online advertising service. But neither of them are restricting or banning the posting of fake news, you understand.

This is far too little, way too late. A Pew Research Center study reported that nearly half of American adults rely on Facebook as a news source. That should mean responsibility, not an “Anything goes” approach to hate propaganda and fake news content while pretending to act out of reverence for the First Amendment.

The actual First Amendment to the Constitution reads in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Notice the specification that Congress shall make no law prohibiting or abridging—which permits Facebook and Google complete freedom to crack down hard on not merely the ads for but the content itself of fake news and hate speech.

As usual, women have been the canaries in the mine regarding this—waging a now five-year protest/negotiations/battle with Facebook over their claimed helplessness in taking down such sites as “Rape Dungeon” (with graphics of women bound and tortured) all the while erasing sites depicting women nursing babies at the (shockingly bare!) breast. I’ll say it again: If they come for us at night and you do nothing, they will come for you in the morning.

The Karl Roves of the world knew damned well that to be effective, lies must reinforce each other, and be continuous and numerous in quantity, to wit: creating the fiction of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. These days, Trump advisor and neo-Nazi sympathizer Steve Bannon is open about his strategy. He notes that the key elements are dissimulation and “darkness”: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” The aim is to unsettle the readers’ or viewers’ or listeners’ perception of the world, so no one knows what the real story is.

Germany, having experienced what such tactics led to, now has laws against Holocaust denial, and against online hate speech and violations of privacy. Germany has successfully challenged Facebook and other social media more than once. In a leap of convenient nonlogic, Facebook tried to equate Germany’s approach with China’s, which is censorship, mainly of criticism against the government. Fighting Germany’s restrictions yet bowing to China’s becomes more “logical” when one remembers that Zuckerberg badly wants in to the massive Chinese market.

Here in the United States, we’re unused to this, although one would hope we might have learned from others’ mistakes. For example, it was (and still is) the frequency, rapidity, and sheer volume of Trump’s lies during the campaign and since the election that stupefies mainstream news organizations. No sooner would you begin to investigate and challenge yesterday’s absurd statement than today would bring another one, and tomorrow would deliver two more. Like an avalanche, the sheer volume creates a mass. Planted rumors become fake news stories, which then accumulate, but which can even be individually missed or forgotten because the accumulation itself is the message. Then, when fake facts and fake news seem to be everywhere, all news begins to be untrustable.

Which is the point.

To have a functioning framework of democracy you need a shared frame of reference, which itself depends on a baseline of generally agreed on facts. From that basis you can proceed to discussion, reasoned argument, and ultimately a consensus necessary for the democratic process, as opposed to that of a dictatorial state. But when you lack that shared frame of reference—in a sense, that commonly recognized reality—then there’s no common ground. And that’s where we have landed.

So The Oxford English Dictionary chose as the 2016 word of the year “post-truth.” So the Troll-Elect can tweet any of the droppings from the diarrhea of his insane mind merely by prefacing them with, “Some people are saying . . .” to not take responsibility for his own lies. Then those lies get picked up and circulated in the echo chamber, and soon enough lots of “some people” are saying it.

What to do? Serious journalists are finally now engaging the battle, after months of pleading from women, men of color, and other disadvantaged groups about false equivalency—which is really equal time for lies—and unbalanced coverage. Such coverage, while perhaps not openly sexist or racist, is the equivalent of Pontius Pilot washing his hands. As Christiane Amanpour perfectly put it: “A journalist’s job is not to be ‘neutral.’ A journalist’s job is to tell the truth.”

Journalists must do better. They must refuse to normalize a situation where those in power don’t give press conferences but circumvent questions by punting to robotic spokespersons and by sending one-way tweets to address and inflame their followers and keep the rest of us in the dark. The relentless follow-up question has to become daily practice. Coverage cannot continue to be wildly, unacceptably unbalanced: When the Troll-Elect “lies his ass off,” according to a union leader, trumpeting that he saved 1100 Indiana jobs in the Carrier factory, whose owner got a $7 million tax break in return for what turned out to be whoops 730 jobs (temporarily, until they can be automated), while 1300 other jobs there do move to Mexico, we get BIG press coverage, bread and circuses. But in November, 178,000 jobs were created by the Obama administration, and unemployment fell: no headlines, only a mention in the newspaper business section. When Trump or Pence evade a question about corruption or about election interference from Russia by scoffing, “The American people don’t care about that. The American people want us to make our country great again,” journalists must respond forcefully with the facts and figures demonstrating that the American people do care. And in fact we do.

Meanwhile, here are ten things each of us can do, quietly, in her his own way.

1. Pressure needs to be mounted and sustained, continuously and relentlessly, on broadcast media, which gets easily distracted by shiny ratings. Write to special offenders CBS’s Les Moonves (@LeslieMoonves) and NBC’s Jeff Zucker (on Facebook); complain, note that you are planning to boycott their advertisers. Also check out their postal addresses and customer service numbers (on their websites)—and USE ’em.

2. Boycotts are truly effective. Pinching corporate media (and its sponsors) in the pocketbook always gets their attention in ways nothing else does.

3. In general, email campaigns, using social media to get factual information out—even when it feels as if it’s falling on deaf ears beneath the cacophony of junk—all of it helps.

4. It also helps to become that tiresome person who consistently—and as pleasantly as possible—corrects friends and colleagues who use such terms as “alt right,” by reminding them that this is a self-invented and self-propagated phrase to make more acceptable what is really a neo-Nazi supremacy movement: white-supremacy and male-supremacy. Call it what it is.

5. Mass complaints to Facebook, Twitter, Google, or other social media, if in sufficient numbers, do have an effect, do make these giant corporations nervous.

6. If you happen to own any stock in Facebook, Twitter, or any media company on or offline, write the president and board chair and tell them that as a stockholder you’re outraged. Also, get yourself to the next stockholders’ meeting and raise hell.

7. Remind acquaintances (online and off) that they should never tweet, re-tweet, or share stories from unknown sources. Treat such stories as if they contained an information virus deadlier than malware—because they do.

8. Use, rely upon, support, and tell other people about free, vital fact-checking organizations like FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, Snopes.com. Some of these you can subscribe to on RSS feed so you have swift corrections of the daily lies flying around.

9. Cite your sources in what you post or tweet—and make sure those sources are reliable; urge others to do the same.

10. Subscribe to responsible newspapers and newsmagazines (and such subs make wonderful gifts!)

The current Trump-inspired and Putin-executed assault on journalism and our free press is likely the most dangerous aspect of this incoming regime, which is already posing so many other threats to our people and our Republic. All other rights and issues under attack depend for their survival on the public being able to learn what’s happening.

Alexander Hamilton put it clearly in 1735, when he was the lawyer defending Peter Zenger, publisher of The New York-Weekly Journal. Zenger had been jailed on the charge of seditious libel brought by William Cosby, the authoritarian British colonial governor of New York. The New York-Weekly Journal had been exposing the governor’s corruption and “shady machinations.” In his address to the jury, Hamilton pled that the right to speak and write truth was, “the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man [sic] who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men [sic] who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power, in these parts of the world at least, by speaking and writing truth.”

Peter Zenger walked free.

Speaking and writing truth. There it is.

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