The Conspiracy Culture and Fake News

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by Lyle Harris, Sr.

At a rally in Florida, President Trump ranted about immigrants and said, “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

So the Swedes were wondering what happened. And where? The local news was about nothing more than some road problems.

Sweden, with 200,000 refugees, has had no terror attacks since the country began an open-door policy for migrants four years ago. British historian Simon Schama commented, “The real Swedish message: 200,000 refugees, no terrorist attacks.” How Trump created the story is unclear. Yet, he, the President of the United States, told a big lie.

Trust in news organizations and in government has been declining for years and it’s not just because of Trump’s attack on the press and organizations, although he has successfully tapped into it. We have today a decline of community involvement — national and local — that is impairing the future of our country. Bill Bishop, writing in The Washington Post, carefully spells out that we now live in a “conspiracy culture” that millions of people believe is ruled by collusion and machination. He argues in part that Trump has successfully made people think that the “corrupt” media produces fake news.
And once it’s out there, fake news — as pernicious as it is — is sent from website to website for the naïve to believe.

Scott Goodstein, quoted in “Democracy, Disrupted” by Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times, emphasizes that social media has allowed hate speech and fake news to be repeated widely by “partisan hacks.” He writes that because the internet has no governing body, we will see a continuation of lies and gutter talk that destroys credible information — and democracy. In addition, David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, asks a key question: “Following Donald Trump’s election, on a campaign that relied on outright lies and stubborn denials of the truth, does anyone believe that the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ is functioning?”

“Yellow Journalism” Anew
In “The Upshot” in the Times, Amanda Taub, a former human rights lawyer and writer, quotes sources that show our political differences flow into our non-political discussions with friends and become similar to “racism and sexism.” This kind of partisanship leads to bias on what we read and trust, much of which is fake news. Taub says people of all political holdings “are generally quite bad at figuring out what news stories to believe. … Rather than evaluate a story directly, people look to see if someone credible believes it, and rely on that person’s judgment to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.”

Fake news is called “clickbait,” meaning “news” that makes readers seek it out because of its exaggerated and sensational claims — yellow journalism, in the old meaning — that satisfies their curiosity. If fake news attracts readers, as identified by the number of hits, the site developer makes money by building advertising, because advertisers then assume the reader will forward the site, increasing the number persons who will see the ad. Fake news has created a problem in schools, as well as in the general public. How will the reader know real news from the fraudulent story?

In a positive step for schools, Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown, writing in the Times about how teachers can help students evaluate sources and learn what is fake news and what is real news, commented that “invented stories created in a fake news factory—or by a 23-year-old in need of cash—go viral, while articles from traditional sources like the Times are called ‘fake news’ by those who see them as hostile to their agenda.” For example, following Trump’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he tweeted: “Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with … Merkel.”

Schulten and Brown recommend that teachers ask their students these questions: What does the phrase “fake news” mean? When have you or someone you know fallen for or shared fake or inaccurate news of some kind? Why does it matter if we can’t tell real news from fake news? Their comments are lengthy and provide one of the best commentaries about how anyone — not just students — can examine news for credibility or falsity.

Facts Bear Checking
Factual news is gathered from information based on credible sources, such as persons in science, higher education, and those who are non-partisan experts and qualified to make comments on a specific subject. Facts also come from “common knowledge,” such as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

For the reader, Politifact, for one, is especially valuable for determining the credibility of news items. Politifact, which has won the Pulitzer Prize, uses a “Truth-O-Meter” and rates statements as “True” for completely accurate statements and “Pants on Fire” for false and ridiculous claims. is operated by the Tampa Bay Times. Reporters and editors from the newspaper and affiliated media check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups.

Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, makes this argument: “There are also excellent reasons to believe that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile, the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.”

One answer on how to handle fake news is doing well in Kiev, Ukraine. A newscast called “Stop Fake” begins with a statement that says everything it broadcasts is a lie, from start to finish. The journalism department at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy gathers news from around the country. The group discusses the stories and an editor asks if they can disprove it. If it’s a lie, then they use it. The whole purpose is to set the record straight, which helps debunk fake news.

Why do people rely on fake news? Some reasons are that the information supports their prejudices and preferences, that it is easy to get and requires no work to test for truth, and that they might not know, or even care, whether the information is false or true. Michiko Kakutani in a New York Times review of Tom Nichols’ book, “The Death of Expertise,” comments that the internet has given people “the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read.” And what is available is “an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda. …”

A number of professional journalism groups have ethics policies. They include the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many others. Michael Schudson, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, listed some keys to journalistic quality. They include digging into the story and getting it right; using well accepted databases and credible sources; a willingness to retract, apologize and correct errors quickly; and presenting various points of view on controversial issues.

Following is a list of credible sources that are easily accessible. If they are not available online unless you sign in, you can find newspapers and magazines at a public library:

New York Times, Slate, Salon, Seattle Times, Washington Post, Politico, NPR, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, New York Review of Books, Columbia Journalism Review, New Yorker, The Guardian, AP, Bloomberg News, Mother Jones, Atlantic, Harper’s, ProPublica and Investigation Northwest.

For listings of questionable news sources, Claim Sources is good:

And, of course, we’ll always have “Saturday Night Live!”

Lyle Harris Sr, a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University