Fake News: Determining the Truth Via Critical Thinking

There is an increased focus on Fake news, particularly in light of Russia’s alleged involvement in its creation and dissemination in the steps leading up to, during, and after the 2016 presidential election.

Many believe that the motivation behind this ongoing “fake news” campaign is to disrupt or subvert the democratic process. Recently, U.S. Senator Mark Warner said that between 2012-2016, there was more than 700 percent increase in the use of digital political adverting.  Additionally, the Senate Committee on Intelligence is concerned about Russian use of social media platforms, inviting Google, Twitter, and Facebook and for a public hearing to further discuss this matter.

You wouldn’t believe this! Fake News is growing to scarry proportions!

Facebook disclosed that it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads suspected of having been purchased by Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.  Approximately 3,000 ads running between June 2015-May 2017 and tied to 470 fake accounts neither targeted nor focused on a specific candidate as much as concentrated on pushing divisive social issues to the forefront. Facebook has since shut down these sites.  This disclosure further supports the conclusions found by the U.S. Intelligence Community January 2017, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.”  The assessment determined that the Russian influence campaign was designed to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump during the election.  The report also determined that Russian Internet “trolls” had posted anti-Clinton messages.

What is “Fake News” ?

Broadly speaking, fake news consists of made-up stories manipulated to appear like credible journalism, and widely disseminated with the intent of influencing target audiences, and ideally, having these individuals pass on the message.  Indeed, many legitimate and mainstream media outlets are denouncing the proliferation of fake news, often calling it “too important to ignore” and “dangerous.”  Regardless of the intent of its production and dissemination, fake news is not illegal in the United States, despite some initiatives to the contrary.  The Security and Exchange Commission has taken action against 27 companies and individuals for allegedly promoting the promise of their stocks or receiving secret compensation while masquerading as unbiased market reporters.  The state of California proposed its own bill that made it illegal to publish false or deceptive statements on the internet about a political candidate or ballot measure, but the bill was ultimately removed from consideration over free-speech concerns.

Legal fight against Fake News

Germany appears to be leading the effort to legally counter the production of fake news.  In April 2017, Germany initiated a bill targeting the mitigation of spread of fake news.  If passed, the measure would compel outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to remove fake news that incites hate and other “criminal” content, or face fines.  According to the draft, “illegal false reports refer to those that break existing German laws on hate speech, libel, defamation, or disturbing the peace by simulating a crime.”  The law would apply only within Germany’s borders.  Nevertheless, despite potentially a model for other governments to follow, there are critics suggesting that such legislation curbs the very free speech principle advocated by Western democracies.  Indeed, if passed and enforced, this would be an aggressive initiative launched by a major Western government to control social-media content, a tactic that has been criticized of authoritarian regimes with regards to their part in controlling and censoring information.  Recent efforts in Iran, for example, require social media services to locate servers inside of Iran to implement a comprehensive media strategy that combines existing press regulations with new laws to govern new media.

How can one evaluate the accuracy of news online?

The proliferation of fake news has highlighted the reality of how expansive and accessible the information environment is.  There is no accepted definition of fake news, which can refer to satirical news, hoaxes, poorly written, propaganda-like, blatant lies, or outright wrong, depending on the person asked.  According to PoltiFact, a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials, ignoring the facts has long been a staple of political speech, and many politicians overstate some statistic and distort their opponents’ positions.  This begs the question how being influenced in this manner is any different from being influenced by mud-slinging TV ads, ranting blogs, or media articles that don’t necessarily present the objective truth?

Instead of relying on other organizations or the government to identify and censor content, a better approach is to educate society in how to apply critical thinking skills to enable it to better identify fake news.  Helping society to determine the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of news stories will better position it to make informed decisions.   The access to free information enables everyone to receive it and be affected by it if they so choose to be.  And that is a personal choice, a decision reached by the individual and not a coercive entity “forcing” them to change their mind.  This is the foundation of what a democracy supports.  If our adversaries are seeking to use the very freedoms of democracy against us, trying to shut down fake news would cut against the heart of the very freedom of speech principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence.


Social media outlets must do more

Social media outlets more proactively self-monitoring content and more robust independent fact-checking can certainly help curb fake news dissemination.  But fake news cannot be stopped simply because information cannot be stopped. Authoritative regimes aggressively trying to control information within their borders know this challenge first hand.  Empowering people to draw their own conclusions by their own decision making puts the onus of responsibility back into the hands of those who legitimate and amateur news outlets target in the first place.

This way, people can make up their own minds as to what to access, what to question, what to accept, and what to ignore.  Because today’s reality is that information is voluminous and constant,  and government’s role in a free society should not be about curbing information flow, but positioning society to be better discerning consumers of it.

This is a guest post written by Emilio Iasiello.

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