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Tips for Knowing that What you Know is True and Real: The Fake News Edition

In the previous two entries, I have laid out my approach to gaining knowledge.  This one was the preamble (theory and concept), and this one laid out specific approaches.  They are roughly ‘stand alone,’ and this one is more of an application of the aforementioned principles.  I have been wanting to discuss these principles for awhile, but my son asked me how to detect Fake News, so I was prompted to finally sit down and do it.

“Fake News” is a strange animal.  Throughout history, there have been examples of deliberate deceit, propaganda, falsification, etc.  Some of these were of little consequence.  Others left epistemological devastation in their wake.  Sometimes that devastation consisted of only of very wrong ideas that terribly skewed a worldview that nonetheless only impacted the people who accepted the lies.  Sometimes it’s worse, and people die.  Lots of people.

But that old pattern has manifested in bizarre new ways today, thanks largely to the Internet.  It is relatively easy to fabricate credible looking websites that make credible sounding claims.  It is very easy for such websites to spread like wildfire through social media, often by virtue of their headline alone.  The makers of these sites get advertising revenue or other returns on their investment–such as skewing the perception of a person or incident in a way that they favor.

This all sounds like the realm of people we know intuitively as malevolent actors merely out there to make a buck.  And indeed it is.  However, the so-called ‘mainstream media’ is also interested in making a buck, and members of the MSM are also interested in slanting our perceptions of persons and incidents in a way that they favor.  I could go on and on about this, but I think most readers can agree with this much and I don’t need to expand on it further here.  For the purposes of this post, the goal is to detect ‘fake news,’ not explain it.

To begin with, we need to observe that there are different kinds of ‘fake news.’  For example, there are parody sites, such as The Onion or The Babylon Bee.  These are meant to get a laugh, not to trick anyone, but with the real world increasingly as insane as anything we ‘make up,’ it is possible to confuse their articles as actual news.  Then there are intentionally deceitful sites, which sometimes have an agenda, but more often than not, probably are more interested in getting advertising revenue.  They justify themselves as ‘satire’ but since the ‘joke’ is impossible to detect, it is hard to trust them at all.

Finally, there are the ‘mainstream’ news outlets.  We’re going to use them for our analysis in this article because the techniques for recognizing ‘fake news’ in the ‘mainstream’ are roughly the same across the board.

‘Fake News’ of the MSM variety falls into 4 categories, all of which are dangerous specifically because the MSM presents itself as objective repeaters of FACT.  It is precisely because they are taken seriously as ‘objective’ that they are able to get away with nefarious content.

In the first category, we have articles which are ‘fake’ in the sense that we are only enduring them because the journalists themselves are inclined to report on them.  The topic itself might be insignificant, or blown out of proportion, or irrelevant.  Since there is limited air time on television and radio, and print space must be carefully deployed, the consumer’s assumption is that if the article is being published at all, it must be of some importance.  Nope.  The article just scratches the journalist’s itch, and the publisher felt it too.

This describes a huge proportion of the content that we see out of the MSM.  The articles themselves might not have faked content, rather its the content’s importance that is faked.  Now multiply that over 365 days a year times 500 different outlets.  How does one know how much of that content is important or not?  That is the question.

In the second category, we have articles which are presenting (we will assume) actual newsworthy content.  However, in any reporting, decisions have to be made about what to include and exclude.  The journalist’s own judgement about what is important, relevant, and significant, determines what is included and not included.  Again, our natural inclination is to assume that if something is included, it must be important, relevant, and significant.

However, we can actually only know that if we are privy to the same details and able weigh them ourselves.  But the whole point of getting the ‘news’ is to bring to our attention material that is not otherwise available to us.  Thus, if the journalist’s ideology has hopelessly slanted the article–not malevolently, but merely by virtue of the journalist being an ideologue (something that they usually are unaware of, themselves)–the consumer is basically over a barrel.  The individual details in this content might be true, but the manner in which they are constructed and presented might be faked.

Pro tip: many people believe that overtly biased websites are to be distrusted from the get go.  Actually, the overt bias is a big help, because you are aware of it and can factor it in to your analysis.  Its also useful when applying the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ (scroll down).   Its the sites that pass themselves as unbiased and objective and ‘non-partisan’ that are epistemological landmines, since they are not straight forward about their ideology (everyone has one!), its difficult to factor it into your analysis.

In the third category, we have the deliberate alterations of the factual record.  You’d think that reputable organizations would never do that, but I assure you that they do, and more often than not they get away with it.  They get away with it because much of our ‘news’ is consumed by headlines or short blurbs which for some strange reason many people believes counts as knowledge–but the consumer does not pay attention to the full arc of the developing story.  In other words, a media outlet can broadcast an entirely false story, get called out on it, and even eventually issue a full retraction.  But the consumers never knows about the ‘calling out’ and the retraction is not ‘broadcast,’ leaving the ongoing impression in the consumer’s mind that the initial story is correct.

This phenomena falls into the category of what is referred to as the ‘drive by’ media.  Think: ‘drive by shooting’ except with news.  The media comes, shoots to kill, but even if it wounds, it is long gone.  Whether or not its just because they need to move on to the next news story or they were actually being malicious isn’t always possible to detect, but I’m talking about what appear to be actually malicious incidents.

Three examples that come to mind are Dan Rather’s ‘expose’ of Bush’s national guard service, the editing of George Zimmerman’s 9-11 tape, and within the week of this writing, accusing Trump of calling illegal immigrants ‘animals’ when it is a demonstrable fact that he was referring at the time, specifically, to MS-13 gang members.

Realize that if it was not for the Internet, Dan Rather’s ‘expose’ would now be cemented into our history as collectively accepted fact–now ask yourself about all the things you think you know that were reported prior to the Internet.  How many exposes were similarly fabricated?  How many people never learned that Rather’s source documents were likely frauds, and voted accordingly?

The personal consequences to George Zimmerman have been significant, a substantial portion of them due to the altered 9-11 audio.  The abuse came even from the president…  “If I had a son…”  Zimmerman was cleared in the trial, which created its own controversy–controversy that would not have existed if there had not been an edited 9-11 call to begin with.  In short, even though it was known to many that the call had been edited to make it more inflammatory, vast numbers of the American public never heard the news.

I offer the MS-13 story in the (unbiased, objective!) NY Times only as an illustration, not to dwell on, but as it is instructive in its own way, its worth a quick word.   In the original story, MS-13 is mentioned but the impression is left that Trump is talking about illegal immigrants in general.  Someone might argue that it was inadvertent, as the title itself of the article is “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant” [my emphasis].   Of course, the article doesn’t say WHICH immigrants are the ‘animals.’  If this seems like an innocent oversight, since the NY Times itself appeared to miss the ‘nuance’, the American public can be forgiven, too.  The NY Times tweeted the piece as follows:

Trump lashed out at undocumented immigrants during a White House meeting, calling those trying to breach the country’s borders “animals”

No nuance there!

And my point here is that any of they NY Time’s 42,000,000 ‘followers’, 42 MILLION, who read only the tweet would be left with a distinct impression–forever.  Even reading the headline of the article and the article itself wouldn’t have altered this impression very much.  It was left to the ‘biased’ White House and alternative media to take the time to review the actual recording and report the full context.  If it had been left to the NYT and the AP, etc, most Americans would be none the wiser.  But most Americans will never learn about the wider context.

Its worth pointing out that a similar smear was made on Trump, with the lasting effect being that many people believe that Trump is racist.  I’m speaking specifically of this portion of his announcement speech when still a candidate:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

  Granted, this was not artfully put–but no one has ever accused Trump of eloquence–but you would have to be a truly, utterly, stupid person to derive from this the view that Trump believes all Mexicans are rapists.  Just a smidgen of literacy or ability to comprehend the English language would understand what “And some, I assume, are good people” means.

But that didn’t stop Tim Kaine from saying that Trump said that ALL Mexicans are rapists.  The WAPO (the WAPO!) also dispensed with that generalization, but how many Americans have the time to go around following up on every news report or tweet to make sure that what they heard the first time was fairly and truthfully presented?

Both of the ‘fact checking’ sites I just linked to take the trouble to ‘debunk’ Trump’s claims, even as they set the record straight on what Trump actually said.  After what I’ve written so far, you’d be a fool to accept even their fact checking on its face, as if it is relevant or even important for documenting what TRUMP actually said.  They went behind the FACTS they were checking to then insert their opinion about what Trump said.

That’s why in this instance I linked directly to the transcript, and did not just post the fact checkers; however, both fact checkers lean liberal, so on the criterion of embarrassment, if THEY repudiate that characterization, the characterization is almost certainly false.  Funny how large swaths of the American public failed to get the memo.  Many Americans proceeded to interpret later comments and policies in light of this false narrative, manifesting even in this MS-13 incident. Thus, my point.

I have used some instances that expose the ‘left’ because frankly its usually the ‘left’ that engages in such tactics, and usually liberals that fall for it, hook, line, and sinker.  This is primarily because 90% of the mainstream media are leftists, so when I’m trying to show how the MSM pushes fake news, it stands to reason that the cases are going to be oriented towards liberals.  It doesn’t at all mean that you’re not going to find cases where Republicans or conservatives engage in some form or another of ‘fake news’, only that you won’t find it in the MSM.

Can you imagine the NY Times posting a contrived article that makes Trump (or any conservative) look good?  The idea is laughable on its face.

Can you imagine Breitbart contriving an article that makes Obama look bad?  Or falsifying a story to make Trump look good?  For better or worse, I bet many people can.  But then, Breitbart is not ‘main stream media.’  The New York Times is.

A reader would probably be LESS likely to be deceived if they got their news from a site like Breitbart because the bias is transparent.  They are MORE likely to be deceived if they get their news from the NY Times, because its portrayed as ‘objective’ and impartial.  But of course–and here is the problem–you would be hard pressed to KNOW what it is you have been deceived about, unless you took the time and energy to investigate each and everything you read about.

No one can do that.

– – – –

I had wanted to discuss the fourth category and then provide some more specific methods for actually detecting fake news, but now that this essay is more than 2,000 words long, I think I just need to leave it here for now.  If you really can’t wait, I suggest you read the preamble and the first article of application (you’re reading the second), as detecting fake news will just be an extension of those principles.



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