Apparently, not everything on the internet is true
By Sarah Sidlow
Breaking news: maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you read online.
Still here? Great! Read on—we won’t lie to you.
According to Pew Research Center, 62 percent of adults get news on social media. Two-thirds of Facebook users get news from the site. On Twitter, the number is closer to 60 percent, and on Reddit, it’s something like seven in 10. So, it stands to reason that if the news on social media isn’t really accurate, a majority of adults are picking up that inaccurate information, and possibly acting on it.
So, it’s a really good thing that no one would think to post inaccurate or inflammatory information about political matters in the United States, especially during a presidential election. Oh, wait…
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder and CEO, has come under fire since the election because of the ’Book’s dissemination of fake news, which some believe helped Donald Trump get elected.
Reminder: this year, Facebook users learned that the pope endorsed Donald Trump (wrong), that the Amish vote guaranteed Trump a mathematical victory (wrong), that President Obama signed Executive Order 14302, making it illegal to perform the national anthem at sporting events (wrong), and that a Democratic operative was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton (wrong).
Stories like these survive on Facebook because of the site’s algorithm, which prioritizes “engagement” (click, like, share). Science tells us that a reliable way to get readers to engage is by making up outlandish B.S. about politicians they already don’t like.
Since the accusations, Facebook has pledged to do a better job curating articles and weeding out the garbage, but Zuckerberg maintains the idea that Facebook swayed the election is “a pretty crazy idea.”
But then, there’s Paul Horner, a 38-year-old fake-news author and a mainstay in the land of bogus info, who believes his malarkey might really have made a difference in the course of presidential history.
“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time,” Horner told the Washington Post. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
And Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg told NPR that the small margin by which Trump claimed the presidency miiight be explained by this phenomenon.
“A few tens of thousands of votes in a few states ended up making the difference,” he said. “If you believe that the kind of information that crashes through all of our social media accounts affects how we think and potentially how we vote, I think you would conclude that this kind of stuff does matter.”
But there are others who argue that fake news really isn’t a big problem. It exists, sure, but so do cartoons that depict a talking sea sponge with a knack for flipping burgers (wrong, probably).
To many, the message is this: it’s up to the reader to check the facts, to sift through the misinformation (or the opinion-as-fact), and to share news with discretion.
Hopefully, they argue, if you can be deemed capable of doing other adult things like driving, working, and, ahem, voting, then you can be expected to weed the real news from fake, agenda-driven information. (And you can teach your kids how to do it, too!)
Author’s note: Research for this article comes from information sourced solely from the internet. Believe at your own peril.
Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate forum Question of the Week: Is fake new really a problem?
Not all rings true
By Tim Walker
When I was 8-years-old in Mrs. McKnight’s third-grade class at Barboursville Elementary School, I really enjoyed checking books out from the library. One day I brought home a book about our solar system—9 planets then, 8 now—and while reading it on the couch, I came across an illustration that astonished me.
It showed a typical American street, with houses, trees, and children playing, and above it all, high in the sky, was a series of Saturn-like rings, which encircled the Earth.
I sat there, rapt. “Dad,” I said as I walked over to my father, seated in his easy chair. “Look at this. This book says that one day the moon will break apart. And there will be rings around the Earth.” To his credit, my father, who would have been 27 at the time, took the book from his spellbound son and studied the page. After a long minute, he handed it back to me, and said six words I can still hear to this day:
“Son… don’t believe everything you read.”
Today, at 51, I still enjoy checking books out from the local library, and I remember to question everything I read, to try and ascertain whether given information is real or fake—to be a skeptic. My father, on the other hand, lives in Arizona now and turned 70 this week, and he voted for Donald Trump, for God’s sake.
“Fake News.” “The Post-Truth Era.” Misinformation. Is this really a problem? Does a bear shit in the woods? I may be in the minority here, but I believe that ignorance is definitely a problem, especially as ignorant people are allowed to vote, thereby imposing the end result of their ignorance upon the rest of us. I believe that misinformation, obfuscation, and lies, damn lies, are bad for our society and make it harder for us to exist as a country in peace and harmony. I believe that when you go through your social media account and blindly share any news story without at least attempting to check on its veracity, it is irresponsible—especially when those “news” stories come from websites with names like Red State Watcher, Supreme Patriot, and World News Daily. (In all honesty, the people who frequent those websites could use a good dose of Reason.com.)
As an advocate of free speech in these United States, I do not believe we should censor or somehow “tag” the websites that knowingly disseminate false information. I don’t believe that the state has any business telling you—or, by extension, me—what we can write, or say, or Tweet, or post on Facebook. You may believe that JFK was shot by the Mafia, or the CIA, or by Marilyn Monroe. You may believe that Donald Trump is a great man, a friend to the friendless, kind to animals and small children. You may believe that someday the moon will break apart and form Saturn-like rings around the Earth. Good for you. As an American, you should feel free to say it—keeping in mind that I have the right to say, loudly, that you and your harebrained beliefs are stuffed full of wild blueberry muffins.
The internet and the rise of social networking did not create this love of misinformation or unfounded, bizarre beliefs—witness the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has bred conspiracy theories and outright lies the way fertile soil might breed poisonous mushrooms. The internet just makes things worse because it allows millions of people to globally share fake stories, the most viral of which seem to have not even the slightest resemblance to the truth.
Just this week, our country paused to remember the fourth anniversary of the horrible shootings that Adam Lanza was responsible for at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. If you want to see the end result of this love for fake news, of this ignorance and the myriad ways in which it attempts to twist reality, do a little research on that story and the many “theories” that now clog the internet—Adam Lanza never existed, they say; and parents of slain children were shown laughing about the incident on the news the following day; and the children who were “supposedly” shot were actually singing at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show. (I swear to you I am not making this up). Spend an hour reading some of these cockamamie conspiracy theories, and I promise you this: you’ll want to take a shower afterwards.
Lies. Misinformation. Manipulation. “Fake news.” It’s all the same to me, and it’s a Bad Thing.
This morning, before I wrote this, I opened up Facebook and checked my father’s page. Among the many birthday wishes, he shared a few news stories over the past week, along with a meme or two. One of the news stories—and I use that term loosely—carries a link to a website called SupremePatriot.com and bears the headline “New Evidence PROVES Obama’s Birth Certificate was FORGED! IT’S CONCLUSIVE!” Another is a link from the website RedStateWatcher.com, which says, “Robert Kennedy Jr. States That Trump ‘could be the greatest president in history.’”
Dad—don’t believe everything you read.
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach him at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.
By Ben Tomkins
Fake news is only a problem if we all agree to pat each other on the back and agree to lie to ourselves about human nature not being the problem. As a matter of fact, belief in fake news and human self-delusion about our failings and frailties are birthed from the same absurd idea that things that are not so can be made so if we all simply agree upon it.
We are silly creatures in that way. Is it possible that the reason a developer will only give you $400k for your house instead of $500k is because it’s worth $325k on the open market and they’re not paying more than $75k for you to go? Absolutely not. The reason they won’t give you the extra $100k you “need” to pay off the bad debt amassed by living beyond your means, buying a nicer house than the one they’re already overpaying for, is because they are scamming you. Somehow. By only paying you upwards of 25 percent over market value instead of the ethical amount that aligns with the will of a universe that obviously keeps you in its thoughts. Besides, your real estate agent agrees with you, and why would they and their 3 percent commission riding on the extra $100k lie to you?
I think it’s fair to say that most people want to know the true state of the world, and in the course of that little project, it would be jolly nice if the true state of the world turned out to be the same as the world as we would like it to be. Enter fake news: you want to believe the shooting of a Russian ambassador was a hoax? Lovely. We’ve all seen the video, but where’s the blood? Your zero experience with shooting victims doesn’t help you determine if there should be a pool of blood, but your desire to believe you alone are a next-level thinker who understands the machinations of the planet’s governing bodies gives you absolute knowledge that there should be one.
To be fair, fake news may have had an impact on our election, but in reality, it is just the latest incarnation of election year lies told for political gain. The only difference today is that narrative in the media makes it much harder to determine the comparative likelihood of a fake news story.
The current advertising/funding model for media makes the pursuance of narrative in media a necessary business model. Printed newspapers (such as this fine publication) have a tremendous advantage when it comes to printing stories that are factually true and still getting their funding. In this edition of the Dayton City Paper, you may find stories written by people with whom you agree and disagree. However, because advertisers pay for space, once a customer has picked up a newspaper, the advertisers are getting what they paid for regardless of whether or not the truth of today’s news is boring. Therefore, people who may not like the facts about, say, an election are still buying a paper that prints them.
The internet has changed everything. Rather than delivering information in one large packet, the advertising model for news websites requires people to keep coming back, again and again. Website hits are what matter, and therefore, the news on a website has to feed the impulses that bring people back. This has resulted in lowering factual standards. Instead of trying to print the truth, online media seeks only to print what is “not untrue” as long as it fits into the overarching narrative they are feeding the public.
Fake news takes advantage of that. In a world of media narrative, news stories are just bit players in an ongoing reality Netflix drama. If you subscribe to CNN’s narrative about Trump, the “not untrue” stories of Donald’s tiny hands and small manhood fit well into our favorite show called Donald Trump Sucks at Everything. This becomes worthwhile news because it fills out the plot on a boring day and keeps people coming back to CNN’s site for the advertisers.
However, on that same boring day, if a fake news site puts out a story saying they have pictures of Trump’s actual manhood, most of us are going to click on that website at least once. Presto. Now, they have numbers to show advertisers despite everyone leaving there annoyed.
The bottom line is we know a fake news story when we see one, and it is pure human wish-thinking that indulges it. You cannot keep going back to websites that print lies to get your news, much less post their stuff on Facebook. In the internet age, it is the responsibility of the democrat to police themselves.
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.