Fake news is a cancer for society

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Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson

Tabloid journalism has been around for decades.

The man who sneezed so hard it blew his wife’s hair off her head, NASA capturing photos of ghosts in space, the dolphin that grew human arms, the shocking photos of Abraham Lincoln not being a vampire slayer, as Hollywood might have you believe, but that “he” was in fact a she — all over-the-top fake.

But for that readership demographic it’s all accepted with full acknowledgement that it’s just mindless entertainment, not news. Nobody really believes it.

Not so with the fake content of social media and the myriad of websites that have popped up to trick, deceive and flat out change people’s opinions on issues.

This became omnipresent during the 2016 presidential election. According to a New York Times story published Nov. 8, 2016, numerous fake accounts that were attributed to notable politicians were circulating bogus information in the days leading up to the election. There was this fake message attributed to former N.Y. City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: “We cannot let Blacks and Hispanics alone decide this election for Hillary! Everyone deserves a say. All others, head to the polls NOW!”

Another site with irresistible headlines indicated President Obama and Hillary Clinton were promising amnesty to undocumented immigrants who voted for the Democratic ticket. Also not true.

Yet, in 2016, this fabricated content is getting traction, and perhaps more concerning is that there is an entire generation of users who have grown up getting their “news” from social media feeds that neither claim nor deliver on the notion that what is appearing on these sites is accurate, objective or even remotely true. The intent is clicks, which drives revenue.

Some describe social media as a land mine. I would say it’s more like a landfill. You can find some good stuff out there, but it’s mixed in with a lot of stinking, rotting waste that left unmonitored can infiltrate the environment and create a serious cancer threat.

There’s no question fake news influenced some people during this past election. And in fact, it’s probably influencing them on a daily basis if they are relying on social media and bogus websites as their sources of information.

Those who have been involved with ethical journalism have known just how difficult it is to bring accurate and trustworthy news to readers every day, largely because it is labor intensive. It takes effort. That’s not always easy.

A few weeks ago Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Ison spoke to a room of ECM journalists about his efforts as an investigative journalist. He talked about digging through dumpsters to find documents. He and a colleague tracked key figures for days to gain further leads. He pored over hundreds of pages of government documents and talked with dozens of sources to help develop stories. It took weeks and weeks of effort, but it was money well spent because in one of those stories, it was being done to educate the public about sloppy arson investigations.

On a more local level, it’s impossible to tell the story of a city’s plan to create a new tax district without talking to the people involved, examining where it has been tried before, and asking questions of business leaders who may be affected by it. But in order to tell that story so readers have accurate information, an investment of time and energy must be made by the reporter. That means interviews, fact checking, citing reputable sources, and presenting it all objectively.

There is an expense to that, something that many of us have been willing to ignore because so much of what we read comes from somebody else who shared it through a post, connected to a link, taken from a screenshot or pasted as a PDF.

As readers we’ve had little reason to think about how much a newspaper spent in time and talent to bring that story to bear because the internet has fed our appetite and allowed us to devour it all quite anonymously, and in most cases at no charge.

And that is odd. Newspapers have real costs to bring readers the news. As consumers when we visit a restaurant, we not only pay for our food, we tip our waiter or waitress for exceptional service. In fact, many folks tip regardless of the level of service.

Even taxpayer-funded projects, led by city and county officials, end up charging us a fee for their use including our neighborhood community centers, city swimming pools, public school extra-curricular activities, community theatres, taxpayer-supported professional stadiums, community ed. programs and so much more. If there is value to it, there is usually a fee attached. That’s because it takes the investment of time and energy to create a product the public needs.

Of course it’s much easier to create bogus news that does not require fact checking, does not require accuracy, does not develop the basis of the story with any ethical standards and has no goal of objectivity. Usually, its No. 1 goal is to deceive, persuade and generate clicks, which in turn results in revenue.

Fake news promoters do not care what the impact might be to the individual, a community or a nation. Their agenda is usually singular and for the rest of society the results are cancerous.

Our society has become more polarized in the last 10 years than most of us have ever experienced. That tunneled perspective simply feeds into the fake news formula, which is insistent on appealing to the people who are eager to agree with whatever is being fabricated or stretched. That helps spread the bogus story to others and pretty soon fake becomes blurred with real and many who read only headlines are influenced.

That should scare every citizen in a democratic society. How can any of us make informed decisions if we are not getting our news from objective sources? It’s also perpetuated by the algorithms on social media sites that are designed to feed us even more stories that conform to the beliefs we have amassed by our previous clicks. In other words, our newsfeeds continue to provide us with views and stories that narrow our scope of our nation, state and community. That means there is a lot of reputable news that won’t even make it to your newsfeed because it doesn’t fit the algorithm for your site.

This decay from within is also possible because people by nature are trusting. Those with a stilted agenda are preying on that trust. They depend on it to spread their deception. Since few readers have the time to fact check and verify everything being read, it’s easy for those with a motive to exploit fears and invade that trust. But when people start making life decisions based on newsfeeds that are littered with deceptive news, as a society we must examine the ramifications.

In a free and democratic society there is a responsibility for each of us to be informed of the events and news that occur in our communities. In turn, we use that information to make intelligent decisions, take action with grassroots initiatives, support elected officials who will help improve our communities, and actively engage fellow citizens on issues that affect us all, including education, racial equality, public safety and health, transportation and human rights.

That is our mission as community newspapers. We strive to bring you news and information that is relevant to your lives, but also helps you stay abreast of the critical policy decisions that are being made every day by city councils, school boards, state legislators, county boards, chambers and more.

Will we make mistakes? Absolutely. But they won’t be deliberate and we will also acknowledge and correct them in our effort to make sure readers are getting accurate, pertinent information. And you should let us know when we are not living up to the standards of reporting that you deserve. We may not always succeed, but it won’t be for lack of effort.

But to do that there is a price. This is a fact. The trash that continues to get generated by the fakers and the deceivers will certainly multiply over the next few years, but even if you don’t want to support this newspaper, you should take steps to ensure the news you receive is not fabricated. First, don’t pass along content that seems unbelievable. It probably is. Certainly don’t do it deliberately. Every time you share questionable content with friends and others you perpetuate the problem. Check the sources. Verify that what’s being reported is in fact attributed to a reputable source. Avoid the influence of headlines that scream to your fears. And make sure you are getting more than one side to a story, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If your current news sources seem only to reinforce everything you already believe, you may want to see how much objectivity is really being reported.

Our society cannot successfully function with a populace that is receiving biased news and deceptive information. That’s why getting news from credible sources is so vitally important. But don’t expect somebody else to solve this problem. The fake stream only loses its value if people aren’t reading and sharing it anymore.

We hope you will help support our newspapers and the countless other media outlets that work every day to bring you information and stories that are relevant and factual.

Truth in reporting may not always be pretty, but a nation, state or community propped up by lies cannot survive.

Keith Anderson is director of news for ECM Publishers.


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