Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How Fake News Confirms Biases and Amplifies Division

Sophisticated tools are being used to promote false or misleading stories, messages and narratives. And when people repeatedly exposed to lies are confronted with the truth, too many double down and believe the lie even more.


Story & Video by Greg Guma  

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“I think there is a broken relationship with reality,” Salman Rushdie said recently. In his latest novel, The Golden House, one subplot involves the presidential campaign of a comic book villain. He calls this character The Joker, an apt nickname for the man responsible for the break.

Two years after turning national politics into surrealistic satire, Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news” has gone global, becoming a meme and a weapon. So powerful is the idea as propaganda that politicians and state media in at least 15 countries exploit it to challenge real news and stifle dissent. It has been one of the main rallying cries to justify crackdowns in Russia, China, Venezuela and Turkey, among other places.

Since the election, Trump and his enablers have continued to employ the term in a stream of misleading counter-attacks that cast critical press outlets as purveyors of "fake news." Hard as it is to believe, the targets are mainly what used to be called corporate or mainstream media.

In 1984, 50 companies owned most of the country’s major media. Today there are just six big players: Comcast, Murdoch’s New Corp & Fox, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, and CBS. Nevertheless, Fox News and an insurgent media alliance of “Alt-Right” platforms, think tanks and national press outlets have successfully coalesced to hijack the national debate, elect a president, and since then to smear government officials and legislators who dare to dissent.

Before Trump, fake news was easier to define. It meant both pseudo-news — from Daily Show satire to trivial gossip — and presenting falsehoods as if they are true. But now the phrase can serve an effective dismissal directed against any news a leader doesn’t like. In Syria, for instance, President Bashar Al-Assad has used it to discount allegations of torture in one of his military prisons. "We are living in a fake news era," he explained. 

Actually, political use of false stories goes back hundreds of years. In a recent message, the Pope — who defines fake news as the “spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media" — suggested that the first "fake news" story dates back to the Book of Genesis, when a "crafty serpent" lied to a woman. Equating sin’s early “history” with fakery is clever, but not that enlightening.

Historically, one of the first people to practice it in the US was Benjamin Franklin, who printed a phony newspaper to mislead the British and create sympathy for his new country during negotiations. Even Honest Abe Lincoln worked with newspapers that sought to shape the news through speculation and partisan attacks.

Throughout the 19th century, publishing lies about political opponents was a common tactic, culminating in the Hearst-led propaganda camaign before and during the Spanish-American War. By the 1920s warnings were being issued about radio, and in 1927, the League of Nations passed a resolution opposing “obviously inaccurate, highly exaggerated, and deliberately distorted news.” In the 1930s, an International Federation of Journalists set up a tribunal to handle information that promoted hatred and violence. Too little, too late, some might argue. But democracy survived and recovered.

The difference is that more sophisticated techniques are used today to peddle false or misleading stories, messages and narratives. Unfortunately, when people exposed to lies are confronted with the truth, some double down and believe the lie even more. Two reasons are that 1) repetition works, even when the lie is part of a story that debunks it, and 2) people tend to believe what they want to believe, a concept known as confirmation bias, or wishful thinking, the influence of desire on beliefs. 

Unfortunately, this can also lead people to stop looking for answers. And it suggests that we don’t always see things objectively. Rather, we tend to pick out what makes us feel good or confirms what we already believe.

In a recent study of Facebook that analyzed posts between 2010 and 2014, scholars found that people mainly shared information that confirmed their prejudices, with little attention to facts or truthfulness. The result, said the report, is the “proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust and paranoia.” 

The authors specifically studied trolling — the creation of provocative, often false information with the hope of spreading it widely and sparking an overreaction. “Many mechanisms cause false information to gain acceptance,” the report notes, “which in turn generate false beliefs that, once adopted by an individual, are highly resistant to correction.”

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During the last election, the claim that Hillary Clinton was a pedophile appeared in a Facebook post, spread to Twitter, then went viral with the help of platforms like Breitbart and Info-Wars. But it was initially unclear whether “Pizzagate” represented mass hysteria or the work of connected interests with real resources and hidden motives. It took almost a year for researchers to expose the digital trail.

In the end, it appears to have involved a variety of participants — online activists, Russian bots, foreign agents, domestic operatives, and ordinary people who were taken in. Many of the online promoters were associated with the Trump campaign; others had connections with Russia. Working together, though sometimes unwittingly, they were amplified in a new "post-truth" information ecosystem, a place where false claims are defended as indisputable facts. The difference, says Samuel Woolley, an expert in “computational propaganda,” is that this phony story was "retweeted and picked up by some of the most powerful faces of American politics."

At this point, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether a tsunami of hoaxes and rumors on Facebook and other social media helped to swing the election. It does look more likely. Evidence began to emerge right after the vote. Journalist Jay Rosen made a solid case that fake anti-Clinton stories helped give hesitant Trump voters more reason to vote for him or against her. And the Daily Beast's Gideon Resnick explained that "automated networks of social media bots spread erroneous information," mostly to Trump's benefit. 

Basically, what we experienced was a successful disinformation or perception management operation, a form of “hybrid warfare,” including but not limited to the weaponizing of hacked documents. During the campaign President Obama became obsessed with Velez, a Macedonian town that experienced a “digital gold rush” when a group of young people there published more than 100 pro-Trump web sites, attracting a massive Facebook following. 

Afterward, he framed the issue this way: "If we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems." 

The new media ecosystem "means everything is true and nothing is true," Obama explained in an interview with David Remnick. "An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers' payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation."

On the other hand, most Americans are better informed and less impressionable than we may think. In the popular imagination, society is divided into two segments of roughly equal size: the liberal and right-wing “bubbles.” In reality, there has never been much proof that this is true. The “echo chamber” runs deep and hot, but it is narrow and confining. While many of us are exposed to fake news, far fewer are taken in. Most people still get their news from a variety of sources. Routinely exposed to opinions they don’t share, they do not live in an echo chamber.

So look on the bright side. The two “bubbles” are exaggerated, a distorted construct. Despite hybrid warfare, perception management and the painful struggle over what is or isn’t fake, most of us still share a fact-based view of reality. On the other hand, polarization is increasing around the world, right along with faster communication. 

The situation is reminiscent of an experiment by psychologists in 1970. Students were divided into two groups —  high and low prejudice — based on their initial answers to a questionnaire. Each group was told to discuss controversial issues, then answer the questions again. 

“The surveys revealed a striking pattern,” notes Elizabeth Kolbert. “Simply by talking to one another, the bigoted students had become more bigoted and the tolerant more tolerant.” This is how societies break down and extremism spreads. Instead, we need to think outside the bubbles and echo chambers, and relearn how to disagree without escalating every conflict into an apocalyptic showdown.  

Despite presidential lies and the eruption of fake news, fair, fact-based reporting survives. In fact, being bullied and called fake may have provided some needed energy and focus. After years of declining public trust, both establishment and independent journalists are gaining credibility again, and demonstrating why the truth still matters and a free press is more essential than ever.

This article is adapted from Greg Guma’s upcoming lecture on “Journalism in the Era of Fake News” at the UVM Alumni House in Burlington on March 15, 2018, 5:30 p.m., sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. 

To register, call 802-656-2085 or visit OLLI at: 
https://learn.uvm.edu/osher-life-long-learning/

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