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Renée Loth

Fake news and telling the difference between fact and crap

A fake Facebook page falsely claimed to be that of Myeshia Johnson (above), widow of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger.ABC News/AP/File

Our algorithmic overlords — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the like — have been slow to admit their role in the disinformation campaigns that infect US elections, promote malicious conspiracy theories, or peddle propaganda. We’re just a platform, they cry. But a platform is also a stage: for claims that the Las Vegas shooter was an anti-Trump liberal; that Hillary Clinton was running a sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor; and, more recently, that a beleaguered Gold Star widow, Myeshia Johnson, complained on her Facebook page about being exploited by her US congresswoman — a page that turned out to be utterly fake.

The reticence of the tech giants is starting to yield, as they have now agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, opened their own internal reviews, and promised more transparency with their targeted political ads. These are good steps, even if they have the feeling of small fingers in the dike holding back the flood of online fakery.


A more difficult problem is the credulity of a public that accepts these canards and counterfeits as truth. According to a survey conducted a year ago by the Pew Research Center, only 39 percent of adults were highly confident they could tell the difference between real and fake news stories, and the hackers and hoaxters have only become more sophisticated since then.

Fake news is surely not new; most of us have smirked at supermarket tabloids, with their tales of alien invasions and appearances of the Virgin Mary’s visage on a breakfast muffin. What’s missing today is the discernment to tell the difference between Fact or Crap, as a popular board game is titled. The American people, it seems, have lost their BS detectors.

Social scientists offer some reasons for our national suspension of disbelief. It’s human nature to believe what our friends tell us, and two-thirds of Americans now get their news from social media. But “friends” can also be fabulists. The Pew survey found 23 percent who admitted they shared fabricated stories, and not always accidentally. With 328 million active Twitter users and 2 billion on Facebook, 23 percent is a lot of baloney.


Meanwhile, near-universal access to information online has steadily devalued expertise and authority: Why rely on a medical doctor when you can diagnose your own symptoms with this handy website? Why slog through complex news stories when a tweet is so much more satisfying? Why insist on facts when everyone else is just “speaking my own truth?”

Trump has been doing everything possible to sow distrust with the press: calling verifiable news stories “pure fiction,” planting doubts, blurring lines, promoting the notion that a belief is as good as a fact. And it’s working. An alarming new poll has found that 46 percent of registered voters agree with Trump that major news organizations make up stories about him.

One possible corrective surfaced recently in Italy, not everyone’s idea of good governance. The public there has been so thoroughly gulled by rumors and intrigue that the Italian Ministry of Education is training students in 8,000 high schools how to recognize fake news. At the University of Washington, a new curriculum started not by journalists but by a data scientist and an evolutionary biologist has received funding from the Knight Foundation. The course title: “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data.”


Of course, if you’re reading this — online or in print — you already support the much-maligned legacy media, with its old-school notions of verification, accountability, and attribution. So you are not part of the problem.

But are you part of the solution? Even the most responsible mainstream media consumer knows someone who is bingeing on a diet of junk news. We all need to gently ease our wild-eyed Facebook friend or app-addled nephew back to the reality-based world. Ask: Who published this? What do they have to gain from it? Can these claims be checked independently? Have you tried?

It can’t hurt to pose those same questions to ourselves.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.