BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
When a gunman bursts into a Washington DC pizza shop spurred on by rumors of an underground pedophile ring operated by the Clinton family, we have to admit there is a problem with the news. The back channels of the internet found on websites like 4Chan and Reddit have been the birthplace of public myth and speculation for as long as they’ve existed. They spawned the witch-hunt that misidentified the Boston Marathon bomber and have been home to threads like, “Hillary has BRAIN DAMAGE and I can prove it”.
In response to what appears to be an epidemic of misinformation, many are attempting to separate fake news from genuine journalism. Among these fake news hunters is Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communications at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. She created a guide for her students which was picked up on Facebook as quickly as fake news and became the internet’s definitive list of shady sources.
To accompany her list, she included some helpful tips for identifying fake news such as, avoiding websites with strange URLs and the absence of an author.
Zimdars, who denied a request to be interviewed, is addressing a real problem in new media which has made it possible for teens from a small town in Macedonia to launch a click-bait empire during the presidential campaign. With Google AdSense money to be made, others have followed in their footsteps.
In a recent article for the Daily Beast, Marco Chacon reveals his fake news website, RealTrueNews.org, which he claims to have operated for the past six months.
“I was partially aghast, but also partially gratified. It was bullshit, but it was consumed as absolute truth,” he said of an article on Clinton’s health that went viral after she collapsed to the ground during a 9/11 ceremony.
But some of the web’s fake news pushers aren’t just simple scumbags looking for a click and a buck. Research conducted by foreign policy experts, Clint Watts, Andrew Weisburd and JM Berger, suggests that Russia may have been spreading fake news stories in order to fool the American public into supporting its policies.
Their findings have inspired an independent group of volunteer researchers called PropOrNot to seek out Russian propaganda across the internet. Through thousands of manual searches and the identification of what they call “technical tells”, they have discovered over 200 websites and social media accounts that have reached at least 15 million Americans.
The group is also encouraging something they call the YYYcampaignYYY which comes with its own browser extension and is described as an effort to crowd-source their hunt for misinformation by encouraging users to mark content which meets their criteria with YYY.
At a time when conspiracy-driven news is inspiring real world violence these lists can be extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic.
Among Zimdars’ tips for identifying fake news is the suggestion that, “Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.” But casting such a wide net also has the potential to flag reputable websites like The Daily Beast and UPROXX.
In fact, many fake news hunters – including PropOrNot and Zimdars – admit that their lists and practices are not conclusive. The website of one popular web extension, B.S. Detector, states that the list they provide, “was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web,” and that they are still a work in progress. So as these websites work out the kinks, generally trustworthy sources could get caught up in the confusion.
Several days after the 2016 election, the New York Times published a letter to its readers saying, “we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism.” The letter suggests that the Times recognizes their coverage was not entirely objective and accurate.
But publications like the New York Times can afford to make mistakes and fall back on a reputation they’ve built over decades – emerging sources don’t have that luxury.
“I don’t think the issue has to do with fake news as much as it has to do with limited resources,” writer Alana Cook said in response to her former employer being flagged on Zimdars’ fake news list. “We had daily meetings and we had to answer to [our news editor] every single day, I never saw anything where people were dishonest. Far from it.”
But while some lists like Zimdars’ separate deliberate deception from missteps in reporting, the criteria for PropOrNot does not take a website’s intent into account.
“[B]ecause we focus on behavior, not motivation,” a report provided to The Plaid Zebra explains, “we are less interested in why any particular outlet echoes or spreads Russian propaganda, than on whether they do.”
PropOrNot maintains that their website does not encourage anti-Russian ideas, but such a broad approach still has the potential to instill a Cold War mentality among those they encourage to help in their search.
As a result, their list includes websites directly associated with the Russian government like RT, as well as conspiracy driven websites like Info Wars, and sources that have proven to be independent in the past like WikiLeaks.
In this case, the inclusion of WikiLeaks is not entirely unjustified, since nearly every intelligence agency in the US has suggested that the most recent leaks originated from Russian hackers. The leaks are also responsible for the infamous #Pizzagate in which certain e-mails were used to connect the Clintons to a child smuggling ring in the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t even have a basement.
But despite the origin of the hacks, some leaked e-mails exposed corrupt behavior on the part of Democrats like CNN’s Donna Brazile who never denied sending multiple debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the Primaries.
Given the complexity of these issues, identifying fake and real news is not as easy as making a naughty or nice list. As part of her original guide, Zimdars admits that The Huffington Post and Fox News could also be added as questionable sources for their selective coverage and clickbait headlines.
“Too many news organizations focus on short-term stories — horse-race election coverage, the daily twists of the stock market.” She writes.
The need to beat the competition to the punch has forced even the biggest names in news to makes some serious mistakes during the 2016 campaign.
The most hilarious of these mistakes are the subject of a new Netflix mockumentary called Undecided: The Movie. Trolling nearly every presidential candidate a group called The Good Liars, Jason Selvig and Davram Stiefler were responsible for some of the most outrageous stories of the campaign.
“We were surprised that we kept getting into rallies over and over again.” Selvig says, “For a few we would do something that ended up being newsworthy and a couple hours later we would be in another rally and no one caught on.”
Posing as undecided voters, the duo made headlines by attempting to exorcise daemons out of Ted Cruz, accusing Marco Rubio of stealing Davram’s girlfriend, and interrupting a Jeb Bush rally to demand the money they were ‘promised’ as seat fillers.
“Did we influence how people voted there in Iowa after we did the seat filling thing with Jeb? No I don’t think so.” Selvig claims, pointing out that Bush’s overall polls were unaffected by the incident, “Trump pretty much destroyed [Bush] in the summer and in my opinion he couldn’t recover after he high-fived Trump in one of the first Republican debates.”
And while Jeb may have been a train-wreck all on his own, The Good Liars were surprised to find that journalists were just as eager to report questionable stories as audiences were to consume them.
“[T]he media helped us out tremendously.” Says Selvig, “One fear we had was that the media would turn on us and a big name might say “Okay guys, this is a serious election quit fucking around” and we would be dead in the water before we even finished the movie. In retrospect that was never going to happen because they never even said that to Donald Trump.”
Whether they meant to or not, Jason and Davram have exposed one of the most glaring issues in the news industry – a quick-to-judge brand of journalism that leaves reporters vulnerable to mistakes and overstatement.
“When we did our video where I pitched [Fox News reporter] Jesse Watters’ racist segment ideas a couple of bigger left-leaning sites had headlines that said something like “Comedian completely DESTROYS Jesse Watters in EPIC way,” Selvig remembers. “I really liked what we did, but I don’t know if I DESTROYED him. At a certain point it all sounds like hyperbole and not substance.”
Confronting the Problem
With daily comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler and Huffington Post predicting a 98 percent chance of a Clinton victory, it’s difficult to deny that bias played a large part in coverage of the campaign. But bias in itself is not necessarily bad, or even new to journalism. In the earliest days of American reporting newspapers were made up of personal letters and firsthand accounts of major events that were far from objective. It’s when that bias is taken at face value that truthful reporting begins to suffer and lies become easier to tell.
“Often, with history education, we have students who want to say it’s biased, it’s not good, rather than thinking of what is it good for?” says Joel Breakstone, Director of Stanford University’s History Education Group. “We all have a point of view, we just need to take that into account as we think about and try to understand a particular source.”
Breakstone has developed an educational program called Reading Like a Historian that has more than 3.5 million downloads and teaches students to think critically about the information they consume.
“In the current moment, more than anything, I think there is a need for education for individuals to even be asking these questions.” He says of a new media world in which nearly 40 percent of adults receive their news from social media, while nearly 60 percent of stories that are shared go unread.
In their most recent study, Breakstone and his colleagues found that even those who have grown up with social media have a hard time identifying fake news.
“When we were developing tasks we had rejected some ideas because we thought they would be too easy and that was often not the case.” He recalls, “We were shocked how poorly students consistently did across the board.”
The results of these carefully crafted tests showed that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish a well disguised advertisement from a real article.
These ads, often labeled as sponsored content, are another aspect of the online news world that can blur the lines between real and fake news. With very little to distinguish these types of ads from regular news stories, many readers are understandably fooled by a deliberate attempt at deception.
As a result, a sponsored post from an oil company about climate change was deemed to be more trustworthy by nearly 70 percent of high school students than a post about climate change from the science section of the same website.
“At the core I don’t think a lot of people believe they’re sharing things that are fake.” Says Breakstone, understanding that education in skepticism requires a delicate balance. “We certainly don’t want to create a nation of complete cynics who believe nothing is true.”
Understanding any story completely may require hours or even years of research. It’s something that Breakstone admits can be, “unrealistic to expect that students are going do exhaustive, dissertation level, investigations of websites.” But even if people don’t read what they share, he believes that a simple Google search – questioning information in the first place – is a step in the right direction.