On “fake news”

Barton Swaim wrote this in the Washington Post:

The arrest in Washington of the “Pizzagate” shooter — the North Carolina man who stormed the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in the District in hopes of exposing a child-abuse cabal that fortunately didn’t exist — has put “fake news” near the top of things to panic about in the strange new age of Donald Trump. “Fake news” is the name many journalists now use for fabricated Internet-based news stories, many of them generated from sites in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the pizzeria scare has encouraged many of them to conclude that Web-based rumor-peddling is a threat to the republic.

First (the thinking seems to be) this new and creative form of disinformation gave us Trump: All those Facebook stories about Hillary Clinton having Parkinson’s disease and Barack Obama’s closet Islamism poisoned enough minds to turn a presidential election. Now, as if that weren’t bad enough, it’s sending armed lunatics into kid-friendly pizzerias. Worries about lies in our political life aren’t baseless, to be sure. The Internet teems with these idiotic inventions, especially during election years — boxes of fraudulent Clinton votes found in an Ohio warehouse! White House tells Pearl Harbor vets to “get over it”! — and they introduce mental havoc into the lives of well-meaning people.

Fake news is real, yes, but the anxiety it has occasioned in the news media often seems motivated by something other than mere concern for the truth. By agonizing over “fake” news, journalists often appear to blame nameless others for the failings of the widely distrusted news industry. It’s not our fault, some in the media seem to be saying, it’s the fault of some teenage hoaxers in Romania. That modifier “fake,” to put the point slightly differently, suggests that non-“fake” news must be conversely genuine, truthful, factual.

But of course it isn’t. All of us, whatever our political attitude, have read what we regard as essentially false or inaccurate or wrongheaded stories in mainstream news sources. Does that make the reporters of these stories perpetrators of fake news? Surely not, as they were trying, however imperfectly, to report the truth. That’s not much comfort to the people and institutions these false or inaccurate stories damaged, however, and indeed they are entitled to regard this new term “fake news” with a degree of derision.

Let’s get at the problem by asking this question: Which is more dangerous — the entirely fabricated story your ornery uncle links to on Facebook, or the story we read in a respectable news source containing an important and substantially false claim? The fabricated story that exercises your uncle is dangerous in its way, but it’s unlikely to sway anyone’s opinion about the subject. The only people inclined to believe the hoax headline “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” are those who already loathe Clinton. The story may intensify hatred, but it doesn’t alter opinion or allegiance.

The false or inaccurate story published in a mainstream venue, by contrast, does the opposite. Maybe the story consists of mostly true statements, but it’s built on an egregiously false premise. Or maybe it includes a key line that infers far more than the facts allow. Or it presents a tendentious interpretation of the facts. Take this sentence, published last week in the New York Times about House Republicans breaking with Trump over the latter’s trade policies: “He [Trump] repeatedly insisted that trade deals had displaced American workers and harmed the economy, upending two centuries of American economic policies that held trade up as a good thing, a position that Republicans have pushed in recent decades.” The latter half of the sentence (a) implies that Trump opposes not just disadvantageous trade deals but trade itself; and (b) suggests that American policy has unswervingly favored free trade for 200 years. Both are false, but the uncareful reader may easily imbibe one or both without realizing it, so subtle is the misinformation and so authoritative the source.

I don’t know the reporter’s views, but the article’s tone leads me to suspect that a dislike of Trump gave her license to interpret his pronouncements in the worst possible light, even at the cost of sense and factual truth. And that — the ever-present danger of allowing our likes and dislikes to dictate our interpretations of facts — may be what mainstream journalists preoccupied with “fake news” haven’t yet appreciated. The facile and stark distinction between real and fake, fact and invention, truth and lie suggests a failure on the part of mainstream American journalists to grasp the importance of interpretation. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact, and journalists are just as much interpreters as reporters of facts. Indeed I suspect one of the chief reasons so many Americans prefer harrowing Internet rumors to mainstream news is that they’ve grown impatient with journalists’ pretense that their assertions involve only truth, only facts unmediated by opinion or partiality. These Americans may have their gullible moments, but they know better than that.

The rise of fake news, if it’s anything, is an indictment of America’s newsrooms. Yet somehow I doubt the newsrooms will interpret it that way.

One thing “fake news” is not is new. Binghamton University Prof. Robert G. Parkinson gives a history lesson that includes my favorite Founding Father:

Last week, The Post reported that Paul Horner, “the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” believes he turned the election in favor of Donald Trump. For many, the claim signals an alarming turn into uncharted political territory. But fake news is part of American history. In fact, it goes back to the founding of the republic.

In 1769, John Adams gleefully wrote in his diary about spending the evening occupied with “a curious employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurrences etc. — working the political Engine!” Adams, along with his cousin Sam and a handful of other Boston patriots, were planting false and exaggerated stories meant to undermine royal authority in Massachusetts.

Several other leaders of the American Revolution likewise attempted to manage public opinion by fabricating stories that looked like the real thing. William Livingston, then governor of New Jersey, secretly crafted lengthy pieces that newspaper publishers featured. One, titled “The Impartial Chronicle,” was anything but, claiming that the king was sending tens of thousands of foreign soldiers to kill Americans.

But the most important was crafted in 1782 at a makeshift printing press in a Paris suburb. Benjamin Franklin, taking time out from his duties as American ambassador to France, concocted an entirely fake issue of a real Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle. In it, Franklin fabricated a story allegedly from the New York frontier .

The story was gruesome: American forces had discovered bags containing more than 700 “SCALPS from our unhappy Country-folks.” There were bags of boys’, girls’, soldiers and even infants’ scalps, all allegedly taken by Indians in league with King George. There was also a note written to the tyrant king hoping he would receive these presents and “be refreshed.”

None of this was true, of course, but it struck a frightful chord. To drive the point home, Franklin composed a fake letter from a real person, naval hero John Paul Jones, that ventriloquized almost verbatim the Declaration of Independence, including the accusation toward the end of that document suggesting the colonies must declare independence because the king has “engage[d] savages to murder . . . defenseless farmers, women, and children.”

Franklin sent copies of his fake newspaper to colleagues insisting, “the substance is truth.” Sure enough, the story appeared in real papers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island. What did those readers believe? Did they know they were being manipulated?

Franklin wrote a friend about the power of what he had just done. “By the press we can speak to nations,” he wrote with pride. With the power of the newspaper, politicians could not only “strike while the iron is hot,” but also stoke those fires by “continual striking,” Franklin wrote with a wink.

Franklin’s concoction didn’t swing the Revolution. By this time, the Americans had defeated the British at Yorktown, and independence was all but secured. But the topic of Franklin’s gory hoax was significant: What an independent United States would do about the people Franklin spread this untruth about was entirely up in the air.

To be sure, many Native Americans had allied with the British and inflicted deep wounds to families across the frontier. But not all of them had. Franklin’s lies added to the notion that all Indians were “merciless,” as the Declaration referred to them. None of them, by that reasoning, could be Americans, even the thousands who served alongside George Washington. By the “continual striking” of that idea, Franklin’s bags of scalps obliterated such nuance. They were all enemies to the republic.

Flash forward 30 years. It is 1813, and America is again at war with Britain. The king’s men are again making alliances with native people. At the Raisin River in Michigan, a combined force of British soldiers and natives routed the Americans, killing hundreds of Kentucky militiamen. An outraged public then adopted the rallying cry “Remember the Raisin!” for the remainder of the War of 1812.

How did newspaper publishers remember the Raisin River massacre? By resurrecting Franklin’s hoax. That spring, to illustrate the long roots of this terrible bloodshed, U.S. newspapers introduced a new generation to Franklin’s fake bags of scalps, heating up the iron once again. And, once again, reinforcing the idea that Indians — supposedly bloodthirsty, dangerous and in league with the British — were America’s enemy.

Our own fake news purveyor, Paul Horner, suggests that Americans today are “definitely dumber” than they used to be. Perhaps. But we are not the only ones who fell for hoaxes, and American leaders — even ones we revere as Founding Fathers — were not above embracing such fabrications to shape opinion.

These stories from America’s past, however, are not dissimilar to ones in our own time. Then, as now, they were about who belongs to the republic and who does not. Then, as now, they were about stirring up fear and passions. We need to proceed cautiously. Stories that we think may vanish as a blip in our social media news feeds may end up having a longer life than we expect, causing more damage than we can anticipate.

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