Quotable: Ethan Zuckerman on three varieties of “fake news”

Sunday, January 29th 2017

What can we do about news so toxic that it moves people to take up arms to investigate conspiracies? Unfortunately, the simple answers are inadequate, and some are downright counterproductive. Instead, any successful approach to fake news demands that we treat these three different diseases with different techniques.


Headline:     Fake news is a red herring


Subhead:      Fake news, propaganda and "disinformatzya" are changing the media landscape - in the US, Russia and Turkey and across the world. The question is how to combat them.


Author:         Ethan Zuckerman (director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and associate professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab)


Source:         Deutsche Welle


Date:             January 21, 2017


Link:  http://www.dw.com/en/fake-news-is-a-red-herring/a-37269377


Key Quotes:


Different types of fake news


  • It's tempting to say that Trump is using "fake news" to mean "news I don't like", but the reality is more complicated. "Fake news," in this usage, means "real issues that don't deserve as much attention as they're receiving." This form of fake news was likely an important factor in the 2016 campaign. There's a compelling argument that the release of Clinton and Podesta's emails by Russian hackers - and the media firestorm that ensued - were key to the outcome of the US election. While media outlets overfocused on the non-scandal of the emails, this wasn't "fake news" so much as it was "false balance," with newspapers playing up a Clinton "scandal" to counterbalance an endless sequence of Trump scandals.


  • There's another type of "fake news" that surfaces during virtually every political campaign: propaganda. Propaganda is weaponized speech that mixes truthful, deceptive and false speech, and is designed explicitly to strengthen one side and weaken the other.


  • Propaganda has been around for a long time, preceding the era of mass media. . . . . tools such as Twitter and Facebook may make propaganda harder to detect and debunk. Many citizens are skeptical of claims made by politicians and parties, but are less apt to question news shared by their friends. On a medium like Facebook which gives primacy to information shared by friends, political propaganda spreads rapidly, reaching a reader from all sides, and can be difficult to distinguish from fact-based news.


  • A third category of "fake news," relatively new to the scene in most countries, is disinformatzya. This is news that's not trying to persuade you that Trump is good and Hillary bad (or vice versa). Instead, it's trying to pollute the news ecosystem, to make it difficult or impossible to trust anything.


  • One of the best known forms of disinformatya is "shitposting," the technique of flooding online fora with abusive content, not to persuade readers, but to frustrate anyone trying to have a reasonable discussion of politics on the internet.


  • What can we do about news so toxic that it moves people to take up arms to investigate conspiracies? Unfortunately, the simple answers are inadequate, and some are downright counterproductive. Instead, any successful approach to fake news demands that we treat these three different diseases with different techniques.


  • Unbalanced news is a pre-digital problem that's become worse in the digital age. News organizations would overfocuse election coverage on the horse race and underfocus on policy issues well before the internet. Add in an explosion of ad-driven news sites and the ability to choose what we pay attention to and you've got a recipe for echo chambers. Mix in algorithmic filtering, where social media platforms try to deliver us the information we most want to see, you've got filter bubbles. Scholarship on echo chambers and filter bubbles suggests that people who are informationally isolated become more partisan and less able to compromise, suggesting a rough road ahead for deliberative democracy.


  • Solving the problem of sensationalistic, click-driven journalism likely requires a new business model for news that focuses on its civic importance above profitability.


  • In many European nations, public broadcasters provide at least a partial solution to this problem - in the US, a strong cultural suspicion of government involvement with news complicates this solution.


  • A more promising path may be to address issues of filtering and curation. Getting Facebook to acknowledge that it's a publisher, not a neutral platform for sharing content, and that its algorithmic decisions have an impact would be a first step towards letting users choose how ideologically isolated or exposed they want to be.


  • Building public interest news aggregators that show us multiple points of view is a promising direction as well. Unbalanced news is a problem that's always been with us, dealt with historically by shaping and adhering to journalistic standards - it's now an open question whether social media platforms will take on that responsibility.


Fighting propaganda and disinformatzya


  • Fighting propaganda, particularly fact-free propaganda, is a tougher challenge. Many people find it infuriating to see Trump repeatedly claim that he won a landslide victory in the Electoral College when his win was one of the narrowest in history.


  • Unfortunately, conventional fact checking does not counter propaganda very well - counter a claim and people remember the original claim, not the debunking of it. Even with debunking, the original claim remains on the internet, where motivated reasoning helps us select the claims that are consonant with our values, not with truth. 


  • There are two answers most often proposed for this problem and both are bad. While it seems logical to ask platforms such as Facebook to filter out fake news, it's dangerous to give them the power to decide what speech is and is not acceptable.



  • By teaching students to read news critically and search for stories from multiple sources, we may have turned them away from largely credible resources and towards whatever Google search results best fit their preconceptions of the world. 


  • Surprisingly, our best bets for fighting propaganda may come from a return to the past. Stanford historian Fred Turner wrote a brilliant book, "The Democratic Surround," on how US intellectuals had tried to fight fascist propaganda in the 1940s through reinforcing democratic and pluralistic values.


  • Rather than emphasizing critical reading or debate, the thinkers Turner documents designed massive museum installations intended to force Americans to wrestle with the plurality and diversity of their nation and the world.


  • While exhibits such as "The Family of Man" might be an impossibly dated way to combat fake news, the idea of forcing people to confront a wider world than the one they're used to wrestling with goes precisely to the root of the problems that enable fake news.


  • Even scarier than unbalanced news and propaganda is disinformatzya, for the simple reason that no one is really sure how it works.


  • Understanding whether a phenomenon like Pizzagate is simply a strange moment in a strange election, or a masterful piece of disinformatzya designed to reduce confidence in media and other institutions, is a topic that demands both aggressive reporting and scholarly study. At this point, the task of understanding this breed of fake news has barely registered on the radar of journalists or scholars.


Fake news is a satisfying bogeyman


  • Fake news is a satisfying bogeyman for people of all political persuasions, as it suggests that people disagree with us because they've been spoon-fed the wrong set of facts. If only we could get people to read the truth and see reality as we see it, we could have consensus and move forward! 


  • The truly disturbing truth is that fake news isn't the cause of our contemporary political dysfunction. More troublingly, we live in a world where people disagree deeply and fundamentally about how to understand it, even when we share the same set of facts. Solving the problems of fake news make that world slightly easier to navigate, but they don't scratch the surface of the deeper problems of finding common ground with people with whom we disagree.


Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

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