Exchanging facts for whatever stokes our emotions can only end in fiction
If I told you that mac & cheese was legally the official food of six-year-olds, would you believe me? Probably not, because you’re not likely to have much, if any, emotional connection to the subject. However, if I told you that red meat had been outlawed and you were only allowed one soda a month, then you might respond. You’d at least read whatever article followed and if it appeared that your dietary habits were being forcibly altered you would be more likely to actually share the article so as to express your outrage. How dare anyone tell you what you can or cannot eat?
Welcome to the post-truth world.
What is post-truth? Post-truth is the Oxford Dictionaries word(s) of the year. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” the use of the adjective has been dominant in discussions of both the UK decision to leave the EU and the US presidential election. Since use of the word shows no sign if slowing down, both the UK and US versions of the dictionary are adding the word to their pages.
The prevailing question, at least in my mind, is whether we can “handle” the post-truth. Societies generally rely on factual information is they are to survive. If we replace objective facts with something derived purely from emotion, what does that do to our society? Can we survive if the bulk of information we’re receiving is fiction? The danger seems to be very real and very pertinent.
Who is making up this nonsense?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about who is to blame for all the false post-truth news that is circulating on the Internet. A lot of people seem to enjoy blaming Facebook (FB), but FB’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg plays down that idea. Zuckerberg says, “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — it’s a very small amount of the content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”
Something tells me Zuckerberg’s newsfeed looks a lot different than mine does. I’ve blocked a number of sources already, but every time I do a dozen more seem to pop up in their place. How does that happen? WHY does that happen?
As it turns out, there are a bunch of pimply-faced teens in Macedonia who think creating propaganda websites is great fun. According to BuzzFeed:
Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.
Isn’t that lovely. Our entire nation is being trolled by a group of teenagers who are stuck in the Balkans. I understand their boredom. What I don’t understand is why we fell for it all so very heavily. Why does the post-truth content bait us so very easily? I can’t find any direct reasons but one has to assume, based on everything else I’m reading, that we believe the nonsense because it fits the version of truth we have created in our own heads. If we want Mrs. Clinton to be prosecuted for some email offense, then we’re more likely to believe a story that follows that narrative, even if there is nothing else that corroborates that story. We are willing making ourselves gullible fools.
There is no good, only bad and ugly
With the whole post-truth problem comes the challenge of knowing which sources are legitimate and which are not. There are times when they all look the same. The number of so-called “media outlets” has exploded over the past five years making it nearly impossible for the average person to keep up with those that are actually trying to present the correct information and those that are intentionally making us look like fools.
To that end, Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication & media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, created a list named “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” The list started with only a couple dozen sites but has expanded considerably. Ms. Zimdar states in one of the updates to the list:
I’ve received hundreds of emails with suggestions, very few of which are duplicates, so it will take me a while to sift through and verify them. I will add them as appropriate.
She is also receiving help from librarians and plans on adding more details to her list as time allows. The problem is a serious one. At the very least, those who are conscientious about separating truth from fiction would do well to go through Ms. Zimdars’ list and make sure all the sites are blocked from their newsfeeds. Remember, the people behind this are only in it for the money. If we take away their access to our newsfeeds, they don’t make money and will move on to other activities, hopefully, something along the line of finding a cheaper wi-fi solution.
Oh, but this problem gets so much worse the longer we look at it.
When Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads both the NSA and US Cyber Command, says there shouldn’t be “any doubt in anybody’s mind” that there was “a conscious effort by a nation-state” to sway the result of the 2016 presidential election, we should begin trembling with fear. Specifically, it seems almost certain that Russian hackers obtained email from the Democratic National Committee and then only release to Wikileaks those it felt would most damage Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. Wikileaks then, in a very post-truth manner, ran with the emails, couching them in terms that gave an appearance of wrong-doing even though such was not the case.
When post-truth tactics are used to alter the democratic process, we have to make very sure that we are doing something to eliminate this danger to national security.
So, here’s what ya’ gotta do
No! Do NOT go take a nap, even if you do look so nice and innocent when you do. At the very least, as we mention above, one needs to black every known fake news source from their social media feeds. Facebook has had that ability for quite a while and Twitter just recently added similar capabilities as well. Use them . Block the nonsense before it ever has a chance to get into your brain.
Ms. Zimdars also offers the following suggestions:
- Avoid websites that end in “lo” ex: Newslo (above). These sites take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).
- Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources
- Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
- Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
- Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.
- Some news organizations are also letting bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not go through the same editing process (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs).
- Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or Wikipedia for more information about the source.
- Bad web design and use of ALL CAPS can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources.
- If the story makes you REALLY ANGRY it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
- If the website you’re reading encourages you to DOX individuals, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate source of news.
- It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames.
Post-truth tactics only work when we don’t. If we’re paying attention, verifying our sources as we were taught in high school, then the power of post-truth nonsense is tremendously diminished. We can eliminate this threat simply by removing the profit incentive for those who create such trash. If the concept of having a bigoted, fear-mongering, xenophobic, homophobic, backward-driving administration bothers you, then you have to take responsibility for shutting down the post-truth information that makes its way in front of your eyes.
This is your country you’re saving. Can you handle the post-truth? I hope you can.