After the massive push to brand heretical outlets ‘fake news’ following Donald Trump’s election, I figured it would be the latest left-wing witch hunt. Such a witch hunt would let us avoid confronting the serious questions about why Democrats lost this election season. I thought that this outlook was pessimistic but likely to be correct. However the wildfire takeoff of ‘fake’ and related terms like ‘debunk’ in the new zeitgeist humbled me. I clearly had not been nearly pessimistic enough. Black and white thinking obviously isn’t new, but it feels like it’s been massively accelerated since the start of 2017.
The source of this particular teapot tempest is Russia’s recent cyberops against our electoral system.1 The media reacted to these cyberops very poorly, immediately running to print headlines about ‘fake news’. This strategy was doomed from the start because it assumes the credibility of newspapers with American voters, and that credibility just isn’t there. Predictably, Trump flipped the media’s narrative and now his supporters are more convinced than ever that ‘mainstream’ outlets are just out to get them. Meanwhile, use of these binary terms to categorize things is slowly burning the intellectual commons.
Most importantly though, it’s not even hurting the people that the parties spreading this stuff are supposedly after. They’re extremists, they profit routinely from black and white thinking. For example, this is VoxDay talking about how ‘fake american’ will go over yuge in the rhetorical arena. Who is VoxDay you ask? Wired has the least biased article I could find about his recent career in science fiction (but still pretty terribly biased). In short he’s a ethno-nationalist activist that thinks anybody who immigrated to the country post-1965 needs to ‘go home’ and sells tshirts about throwing his political opponents out of helicopters.2 Do some opposition research and figure out whether you’re actually hitting your targets before creating a massive pile of collateral damage like this. But watch out I guess, or you might learn you’ve been doing fake research all along.
In case you think this is an isolated case, have a sample of /r/the_donald threads to drive the point home:
- Red alert: ShariaBlue caught posting fake rumors about Bannon/Kushner all over pro Trump channel. The goal is to alienate Trump's populist activist base.
- Mike Cernovich on Twitter: Obama had a cult, including the entire fake news media. Trump has free thinking supporters. That's the moral of this story.
- In light of possible fake news rumors: WE STAND WITH STEVE! KEEP BANNON!
- Hi, I'm Fake Russian Hacker Guccifer 2.0 and my real name is Warren Flood. I am a DNC and Obama Staffer who assisted in the cover up of Seth Rich's Murder. Here I am with Vice President Joe Biden.
A Few Words On Media Credibility
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that people have stopped trusting journalists. Journalism has been in trouble ever since blogging hit it big. Writing convincingly about the topic in 2005, Paul Graham points out that the PR firms which rule traditional journalism would have to find out how to influence bloggers or they’d be out of a job. And of course, they figured out how to do just that. What’s worse, the rise of the web has made news a commodity. And that means news organizations are in a race to the bottom with each other that encourages the worst sort of yellow journalism. I don’t know how to fix this from an economic perspective, but I have some procedural ideas that might make things better if we could figure out a way to get them implemented.
I think the first big confidence improvement we could make is to start keeping score when it comes to predictions. We already have a fairly decent metric for keeping track of a predictors accuracy, the Brier Score. If authors had to attach real predictions to their op eds and were scored on their outcome later it would help temper some of the completely ridiculous claims we’re seeing in the news right now. Perhaps people would focus more on what is reasonably likely to happen and what can be sensibly predicted.
Another big improvement would be for news articles to genuinely cite their sources. Right now if you want to track down the source of junk which has been fed into the news ecosystem, it’s rough going. You have to try and track down topics by date and figure out where they were first discussed on the net. Google makes this possible, but so painful it’s barely worth the effort. If you’ve ever done any kind of academic writing before you were probably told that careful citation was necessary to avoid plagiarism, or taking credit that isn’t yours. This is a hilariously awful notion of why citation matters in academia. You cite things as a service to your peers, so that they can evaluate your claims in detail and find related documents and prior work for the subject you’re discussing. You also cite things as a way to make your work more trustworthy, because it proves you’ve done careful scholarship on a subject and don’t have to rely entirely on your own reputation to prove your claims. Citation shows the pedigree of and creates a family tree of ideas, which is massively useful in the course of research. I’m not asking for a lot here from journalists, just when you copy someone elses story find a way to include a BibTeX or something of where you got it from. If everybody did this then finding bad actors poisoning the environment would be a lot easier.
Speaking of citing your sources, for original content such as interviews there’s really no excuse to abridge it these days besides readability and editorial fiat. I accept both of these, but if news organizations expect us to trust them they should publish the full originals in an archive of some sort where interested readers can track them down and verify that what is put into the final product is what was actually said by parties interviewed. The threat of being exposed as completely misrepresenting people might make news organizations a bit more honest about the way they edit interviews.3 Shoutout goes to reason.com for occasionally doing just this. However one or two interviews when someone complains isn’t exactly what I’m talking about, it should be a systemic thing that is the automatic action for news agencies.
I would love to create a media startup that does this and potentially more, but I have other more urgent duties in my life that need attending to. Besides, news is commodity now and how would you ever earn a living off that?
There’s actually a much larger story here of exactly how ‘fake news’ started as a right-wing story about Facebook censoring conservative news and then morphed into a left-wing story about Russia. ↩
Such threats are one of the many reasons why I think Democrats should buy guns. ↩
I say this as someone who’s been interviewed in the newspaper more than once, reporters really like to play fast and loose with quotes. ↩