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Opinion | Diane Hessan and Josh Bernoff

Fake news, real consequences

A Twitter account that satirized the The New York Times opinion section’s account had a tweet with a fabricated quote from Hillary Clinton.Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP/Getty Images

“Fake news” is a term, popularized by our own president, that calls into question everything we read and hear from the media. Although it sometimes is used to signify bias, there is a surge in news that is outright fabricated — and it’s having an enormous effect on the culture of America. It is surely coming from Russia, but also from right here in our country.

In 2016, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed compared 20 fake news stories from the presidential election with 20 real news pieces across 19 major media outlets. The fake stories spread faster on Facebook.


Will the inability to tell real from fake make a difference in who gets elected in 2020?

Most members of Diane Hessan’s panel of 500 voters think they know how to test for truth among the vast array of articles, videos, and posts they consume. But when asked to give examples of what influences them, Christina, a well-informed Republican from Pennsylvania, sent this tweet from @NYTimesOpEd, which included a photo of Hillary Clinton:

Christina said this was evidence that “The Democratic Party has lost its way.”

Except that it’s fake. @NYTimesOpEd is actually the “Neo York Times Op Ed,” a parody account. Christina was appalled to learn this. “How would I even know?” she asked. “I mean, it scares me that I didn’t figure this out.” She said that dozens of her friends were passing the tweet around as if it were legit.

The problem is getting worse, and it’s not just Republicans getting fooled. One of our liberal friends furiously defended herself for posting a screen capture of a supposed Trump tweet denigrating community college: “Maybe call it the 13th grade, that’s more like it. Community college makes it sound like it’s real college and it’s not. It’s only for dummys.” When told it had never actually appeared on Trump’s feed, she said “Maybe he deleted it. And anyway, it sounds like the sort of thing he would say.”


And, ironically, confusion even happens in reverse: Many Americans thought it was fake news — or at least an article from satire site, The Onion — that President Trump wanted to host Taliban leaders at Camp David this past week.

Why care about parody accounts and fakery? Democratic Party leader Tom Perez has already fooled a room full of security analysts with a “deepfake” video that appeared to be him but was created synthetically to match someone else’s words. It took only one hour — and a budget of zero — for artificial intelligence expert Christopher S. Penn to generate a heap of authentic-seeming fake Trump tweets such as: “I am pleased to announce our new alliance with North Korea. Kim Jong Un and I are great friends. He’s doing a fantastic job for his country. I look forward to a future of great cooperation and commerce between the United States and North Korea!” You can go to sites like Zeoob and generate tweets that look completely authentic, blue checkmark and all, such as this fake tweet, which we created in less than a minute:

What is under attack here is nothing less than the idea of objective truth. In the past, we believed that, for the most part, the now much-abused “mainstream media” and other institutions and sources of information — like scientific consensus and the office of the president – stood behind facts you could count on. That trust is eroding. People are substituting their own ideas of the truth, which is whatever reinforces their own prejudices.


This is essential, because once the idea of objective truth is gone, the electorate devolves into a collection of ignorant, easily duped clans.

Here’s what to do to make sure this is not you.

First, become familiar with fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact. Be suspicious of what you read, especially if it reinforces your own ideas too strongly or seems extreme. If fact-checkers say its fake, read their justification and judge for yourself.

Second, expand your media diet. If you are a fan of Fox News, check out CNN. When it comes to opinion pieces and editorials, balance The Boston Globe’s perspective with The Wall Street Journal’s. Even if you don’t buy the other side’s arguments, become familiar with what they are. There is a tradition in American politics of identifying solutions that generate mainstream bipartisan support – like background checks for guns. But you won’t even know what the other side is actually saying unless you take a peek.

Third, if it’s funny, don’t just share it as the truth. In fact, NiemanLab found that people are often fooled into believing articles on parody sites like The Onion or The Babylon Bee. While parody is protected speech under the First Amendment, you shouldn’t confuse it with reality.


Fourth, support legislation to hold social media sites like Facebook and Twitter accountable for spreading lies. These organizations host conspiracy theorists: Mark Zuckerberg has stated that Holocaust deniers aren’t violating Facebook policy.

And finally, let’s rebuild our children’s ability to be skeptical of what they read. They’re even more willing than adults to believe what they want to believe online. Our schools should be teaching Internet literacy, and as parents, we should, too. Keep your kids safe from lies, just as you’d keep them safe from violence.

We are in a new era, where it seems that all of the information in the world is at our fingertips. It’s time to fortify our skills in dealing with the consequences, and to get better at knowing what is real and what is just plain malarkey.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. Josh Bernoff is the author or coauthor of six books on business strategy and social media. Follow him on Twitter @jbernoff. He blogs daily at Bernoff.com.