The Truth Matters – Bruce Bartlett
A Citizens Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks
At just 88 pages, I am unsure that Bruce Bartlett’s latest book, The Truth Matters really “stops fake news in its tracks,” but it certainly provides the reader insight into journalistic integrity and the pressures that reporters face in the modern political environment. But his primary purpose is to present the reader with a series of resources used to evaluate the credibility of information presented under the media umbrella. Bartlett has written 15 short chapters each providing suggestions and relatively simple actions that even a casual political observer can do to ensure that he or she is engaged in critical thinking when reading and responding to the news.
Everybody hates the media
This is not new. Bartlett points out that antipathy toward the press dates back to the founding, although I highly suspect that Adam and Eve blamed The Garden of Eden Daily News for eating the apple. Hell, I can almost hear Adam now, “The liberal media has concocted this story because they do not have a message of their own. But God is not going to buy it!” Historically, the public’s skepticism is understandable. Early on, newspapers were the domain of political parties and then later, succumbed to what was known ‘yellow journalism,’ which conceivably may have been responsible for pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War. Moreover, we have always had our “sectional divisions;” cities lean to the left and rural, less populated areas are more conservative. With the major news outlets based in cities, the natural tendency is to see them as “liberal” leaning and thus biased. Finally, with the advent of television and “investigative journalism,” media executives discovered a brand new aspect to their field: news as a profit center. Billions of dollars are generated each year on the back of journalists and the media and we know that sensationalism and conflict sells. Taken together, it is not surprising that Americans view the industry with suspicion and at times, outright hostility.
But it does not matter if everybody “hates” the media. We NEED it now, more than ever.
Russian Disinformation Campaign – AMERICAN Disinformation Campaign
Bartlett’s book is timely of course, given the conversation around Russian intrusion into the 2016 election. Why did the Russian misinformation campaign work? Because Americans wanted to believe the bullshit they were fed on social media. It was as simple as that. Of course, not every American; the plan relied on data analytics and the ability to pinpoint voters feelings, tastes and apprehensions based on their internet search histories. Yes, every click is tracked, stored and used mostly for benign purposes like shopping or travel options. Barnes and Noble have made a fortune by presenting me with ebook selections that “I might like” based on my previous purchases. Now consider what an insidious entity might serve up if it could identify that you were an undecided voter in a swing state or district? What if that insidious entity “served up” an ad or story that it thought would influence your decision?
Russian trolls or bots (trolls are real people, ‘bots’ are robots) bought Facebook ads, created posts and wrote: “news articles” (aka – misinformation and lies) that Americans then forwarded and shared with personal networks thereby ensuring that it was seen by millions of people. There is no way to know how this activity influenced the election results. Best case scenario, all of this disinformation created a lot of noise which crowded out the really important political conversations like, “what candidate is least likely to get us into a nuclear war with North Korea?” Worst case scenario, these ads changed votes not by hacking into the state election systems but by flooding the Facebook and Twitter feed of “Undecided Voter X” who happened to be living in Precinct Y in Michigan’s Twelfth District. Data analytics are now that precise and why investigators are looking into Jared Kushner’s role in the Trump campaign. He managed that aspect of his father-in-law’s presidential run and some have argued that what the Russian’s did with micro-targeting could never have been that precise without information from American data analytics. Other’s disagree which is why these investigations are critical.
I have posted a few choice ads throughout this blog, but the danger does not just come from the Russians. I have had several friends share posts from their Facebook feeds that are clearly “fake news.” It is critical that we all be cognizant of what we read, post and share with our networks. We cannot part of this ever growing problem.
Being informed takes more time than it did in the past
Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum (left, right or center), it is highly likely that your internet browser has figured out your ideology, even if you have not. That’s the way it works. If you “like” pages or blogs that tend to produce “fake” information, then you can bet you will see more and more disinformation of that sort in your daily Facebook or Twitter feeds. Recent studies have concluded that a large percentage of Americans sole source of news is from their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Wow. If the only information being “served” to them are blogs and conspiracy theories, the ability to think critically breaks down. This happens more than you think.
It is fair to state that media outlets, including blogs, typically have a liberal or conservative bias. They are run by humans – it is inevitable. If you are not sure whether a news site leans left or right, you can check out the “Resources” section on my homepage. Media Bias and Fact Check is a great site to give you an idea of a news outlet’s particular objectivity. However, leaning left or right does not make an outlet good or bad; you just need to recognize the bias and ensure that you are looking for facts as well as analysis. Sometimes, a network is identified as “left or right” because of the political programs on the schedule, and not necessarily the way it reports headline news. I point to MSNBC as the example of which I am most familiar. Most of the day, MSNBC reports on the news: what is happening in politics. Every hour, there is a new host. Typically, there are guests from both sides of the political spectrum to comment on a topic (standard fare). But from about 6:00 ET to 11:00 ET, the network staffs a steady diet for liberals from Chris Matthew’s Hardball to Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. FOX News is similar. Viewers know what they are getting when they sign on to watch Sean Hannity or Rachel. And if you know that, then from my perspective, there is no problem.
Problems arise when you do not know a commentator is biased or if your critical thinking neurons are not astute enough to recognize subjective analysis. Bloggers, like me, can be a particular problem. Recently, I read a post from a conservative blogger meant to stir up antipathy for the “liberal reporters of the White House Press Corp.” The Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, was framed as the heroine for shutting down the evil reporters for asking a question about something that the President said in order to make him look bad. The blogger’s implication was that the “evil liberal media lied about what the President said in order to attack him and the WH Press Secretary fought back and won.” The problem? The blogger left out context and the truth. Not only did the President actually make the specific statement about which the reporter questioned, but then the White House Press Secretary lied and dismissed the question with a sarcastic grin on her face. But to the reader who posted that blog to Facebook with a comment that Sarah was the heroine who “fought back after the evil media (complete with a photoshopped picture of said evil reporter) twisted the truth,” all she and others like her knew was what the blogger “reported as news.” Whether the post was created by an American citizen, a Russian troll or a Russian ‘bot’ makes no difference. It is misinformation and it results in the dumbing down of our electorate. It has to stop,
I have a few rules when it comes to “news” I get off Facebook. Some of them were validated by Mr. Bartlett in his book, The Truth Matters. I will share a few here.
- No named attribution? It’s not real. In major newspapers (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc), the editorial board is anonymous. But in those cases, you will know that you are reading an editorial in the The New York Times. But an original Facebook post or a link to a blog entry on a random website without an author listed? No. This is not a post worthy of sharing or reposting and is likely “fake.” Articles in online journals and newspapers always have a byline. No name = no accountability. Do not post it.
- Does the author (named or unnamed) provide sourcing? It is perfectly appropriate and within journalistic standards to quote and refer to anonymous sources. But real journalists confirm anonymous source information with multiple source attributions. One of the amazing aspects to the leaks coming out of the Trump Administration is precisely that – the number of anonymous sources that confirm specific stories. There have been upwards of 3 dozen sources to confirm a specific account. Real journalists check and then they check again and again. In online reports, you might find links to previous reports or to other stories written by other reporters from the same news outlet. If you choose to get your information from non-mainstream news outlets, then you must do your due diligence to ensure that the information you digest is accurate and not bullshit. (Bartlett devotes time to explaining the differences between “off the record, on background, and on deep background” in modern journalism. The definitions are at times inconsistent but nonetheless important. I’d suggest picking up a copy of the book – again 88 pages. You can read in one sitting).
- Google. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have read a headline and just thought, “WTF?” I always pull up Chrome and do a quick Google search on whatever topic or headling I find quizzical. Here’s a hint: if your “story” is debunked in the first 2 Google results, then it is a safe bet that you have yourself some fake news. If the only credible reference to the topic is your article, then it is fake news. If you are unable to confirm the “WTF headline,” do not forward it as you are just perpetuating the noise and will ultimately embarrass yourself. No one wants that.
- Breitbart is not a credible news source. It may have started as a viable alternative to the other conservative media outlets, but anything coming out from that site must be met with caution. Do not share it or repost unless it has been confirmed. Its headlines are attention grabbing and typically offensive. There is no need to forward or share if you know that your friends are going to be taken aback and offended.
Yes, being informed takes more time than it used to. It is an investment. For those who lean to the right, you should know that studies have shown that conservative news outlets lean to the far and hard right. There is very little moderation in that vertical especially when you compare it to the mainstream or left media. Experts have reviewed the spectrum and determined that mainstream and left of center media are just slightly left of center while the right is close to the polls (which means that they are much farther to the right on the spectrum than the left is to the far left). Bartlett speaks to the impact of these extremes, and they are profound. The end result is that conservative viewers tend to remain in a “conservative bubble” while liberal and moderate thinkers remain in the center to center-left space. (Conservatives will dispute this – which proves my point. If the mainstream media were truly leftist to the extreme, it too would be advocating conspiracy and autocracy).
It matters a lot more if you fight fake news
Last week, attornies for Facebook and Twitter testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on their companies internal investigations into Russian use of their platforms during the 2016 election. For those that have not stayed abreast of the detail here, I understand the difficulty.
Social media’s response to the Russian attack on our democratic process was anemic. As government investigators have doggedly pursued information and “who knew what and when” it has come to light that Russians had created accounts and bought ad space on FB as early as 2015. At some point, fees for these ads were paid in rubles which should have been a clue to the company to at least investigate, but obviously, it did not. And when looking at the situation from a different perspective – a “capitalist” one – why would they? The ads were not regulated, and the process for purchasing and posting likely completely automated. It is possible that no human being was even involved in the transaction.
I did not watch last week’s full testimony but saw the clip’s that the media wanted us to see: both Democratic and Republican senators forcefully condemning Facebook and Twitter (Google may have also been there) attorneys for their weak oversight and governance. Both sides took the time to remind the executives that they had a responsibility to the American people to ensure that their platforms were safe and being used appropriately. While the criticism from the Democratic side was to be expected (although Diane Feinstein was particularly harsh, given that she represents Silicon Valley), I found the Republican Chairman Richard Burr’s exchange ironic. Republicans seem quick to target and threaten technology companies with regulations while allowing others to skate with little oversight.
And while I do agree that the social media company’s strategy in this space has been laughable, I do think it unfair for politicians to place the blame solely on their shoulders when they themselves have created a culture and an electorate ripe to absorb the noise distributed on these platforms. I go back to a very simple question and answer from the beginning of this post:
Question: Why did the Russian misinformation campaign work?
Answer: Because Americans wanted to believe the bullshit they were fed on social media.
Every “bullshit” blog, Russian bot post, fake gathering, and lie could have been fact-checked in a matter of seconds before forwarding or reposting. Had Americans thought, “Hey – this just does not sound right. Something does not sit right with this,” the Russian propaganda campaign would have failed. Notice that I did not say Hillary Clinton would have won. We cannot get wrapped up in the tie between Trump – Clinton and the Russian campaign to support our current president win the election. Robert Mueller will figure that out. Americans have to fix the larger issue.
So what is the larger problem? What is the root cause behind our inability to differentiate between a lie and the truth? Fact versus fiction? Every American had access to public education and I would suspect that a majority of us took advantage of the curriculum it offered. At some point, we all learned out to think critically – to root out propaganda from an actual fact. Of course, we did. I suspect that the answer comes down to one or more of the following root causes, none of which are particularly complementary:
- Sheer stupidity, ignorance, and desire to believe
- Naivety and gullibility
- Lack of education or loss of critical thinking skills
- Low bar and willingness to accept bad information
- Simply not knowing how to fact check
Bartlett can help with that last bullet point. The rest are on the reader. He cites resources available to the public, most of which are free, that can be used in various situations to fact check and verify information. Once you start you will find that it is much easier and takes much less time than you might think. I have added most of his sources to the ever-growing list of “Helpful Resources” on my homepage.
As important as I tell myself I am (ha!), I am only one person. I am loud, but I’m just one voice. Each of you has your own networks, with friends, family, and work acquaintances. Calling out a friend for posting “fake news” or insulting propaganda is hard; more than likely they do not mean harm. They are just sending as an FYI. But ‘shares’ and ‘reposts’ are, unfortunately, not innocent any longer, and we all have to be more judicious. That means that you have to read, verify, and fact check. That does take time but in taking those few minutes, you will end up learning a bit more about the subject and maybe, just maybe, seeing another person’s view.
Bartlett, however, makes the point early on that when faced with facts, people tend to refuse the truth. I have seen it happen. Someone posts a story that is just inaccurate (and sometimes poorly written). He or she is then presented with a counterpoint (an actual fact that proves the lie) but instead of recognizing and accepting that they were wrong or at least that there is “more to the story,” Bartlett acknowledges that people tend to become even more obstinant in their position. Further, studies show that the more people hear something, even if it is wrong (and they know it is wrong), the more they believe it is true. Experts call this “confirmation bias.” This is a concept that I do not understand at all.
If all that was at risk was winning a reality TV show, then I would not care. But we are talking about propaganda – propaganda that when believed puts our democratic traditions at risk. Take a look at these posts one more time. What is missing is the context. But given that, these ads sow division and discord among Americans. Granted, Americans have their differences and yes, they are real and we need to have a national conversation about then. But we do not need to make them worse or antagonize painful wounds that we are desperately trying to heal.
The Russians used social media to attack our culture and democracy. They succeeded because they found a cleavage in society and citizens that decided that the truth did not matter. Do your friends and family sit in that cleavage? Do you?