Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

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Donald Trump is dividing the church

As women of faith find their voice and Millennial Christians question the Religious Right, what does making Donald Trump the candidate of the faithful mean for the church?

I was traveling through the Mississippi Delta when I heard the tape of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk.”

“How can he recover from this,” I initially reacted, before reminding myself how many times we’ve wondered that before.

But as the weekend progressed, the backlash was stronger than any Trump controversy to date, as more establishment Republicans disavowed their own candidate.

Trump couldn’t have been luckier from a news cycle perspective. The tape leaked on Friday afternoon and the exodus followed while most of us were watching football. By the time we started paying attention again, the second debate had fragmented political media attention in a million different directions. And while Trump may have not won over many undecideds with his performance, he delivered enough red meat to his base to give fleeing Republicans pause.

Leaks targeted both candidates that Friday. Before the Trump tape, Wikileaks released emails containing text excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street executives. Both leaks were revelations only insomuch as they confirmed things we already knew about each person’s character.

But the Trump audio was the far bigger story. For one thing, it was more visceral. We could hear the crude words from Trump’s own lips, as opposed to reading the pandering words attributed to Clinton.

More importantly, while the Clinton excerpts outraged people who were never going to vote for her, the Trump tape caused division among his supporters… a division that’s more significant than one election.

It was the countless churches lining that Mississippi highway, and highways like it all across securely red states. Trump divided Evangelicals.

Continue reading “Donald Trump is dividing the church”

Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage. Would fact checking change any of that?

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage.

Donald Trump is distrusted by 57% of Americans, according to last weekend’s ABC/Washington Post poll. As with so much in this bizzaro-world election, that would be a damning figure if not for his opponent – 60% of those surveyed viewed Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy.

The moderator of the debate, NBC’s Lester Holt, meanwhile, is the stand in for “the media,” which is less trusted than either historically distrusted presidential candidate. Only 32% of Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust in media, according to a Gallup poll released in mid-September.

So, it’s not surprising that we’re talking a lot about fact checking at the debates. The question is whether or not it’s the role of an agent of the widely distrusted media to call out either widely distrusted candidate on claims that are demonstrably false.

Plenty has been written about whether fact checking is the moderator’s role. The moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, has already said he doesn’t think it’s his job. Yesterday, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed with Wallace’s stance, in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying that live fact-checking was too much of a grey area.

I want to approach this from a slightly different angle – would a fact-checking moderator benefit anyone? And if so, who?

First, we need to look into the minds of voters, and under the hood of the polling data.

Continue reading “Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials”

[Media Rundown] The Democrats held a convention, but everyone’s still talking Trump

The Democrats channel Ronald Reagan, while Donald Trump continues to own the news cycle. That, plus Bill Clinton plays with balloons.

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The nominating conventions are in the books, and we are now in the final 100 days of the presidential election. We looked at the Republican National Convention last time. Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn.

I thought we saw political theatre of actual consequence from both conventions – very rare for the polished infomercials these events have become. Both parties displayed friction. The continued resistance by Bernie Sanders supporters got the DNC off to a rocky start, spurred in no small part by email leaked by (Russian?) hackers suggesting the Democratic Party favored Hillary Clinton throughout the primary. Set up for a freefall into chaos, the Democrats used their convention tried to redefine American politics.

Wait, what?

Continue reading “[Media Rundown] The Democrats held a convention, but everyone’s still talking Trump”

[Media Rundown] Live at Colbert’s Late Show; Trump’s RNC; Ailes FOX ouster

Today, live and in-person for the return of “Stephen Colbert.” That, plus the Trump convention and the end of Roger Ailes at Fox News.

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The Colbert Nation

I was on vacation last week, being a tourist in New York. The last night in town, my wife and I were in the audience for the first live broadcast of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The show was live last week for the Republican National Convention, and will do the same this week for the Democrats.

We had a blast. The crowd was crazy energetic (much more than for a usual afternoon taping, says CNN’s Frank Pallotta, who went to a show later in the week). I got to geek out about watching a live broadcast of a typically taped program come together. My wife got to dance to the tunes of Jon Batiste and Stay Human (and got to be on-stage as part of the audience warmups!)

On the night we got to see the return of Colbert the character, we also got to know Colbert the man, who seems as affable as every profile would lead you to believe. During taped segments, he would give the audience cues, rather than the stage manager. “I’m going to watch this with you,” he’d say before sitting on top of his desk, chewing on a pen when he wasn’t mouthing the words and looking back toward us to see if the joke had landed.

By the end of the night, we came away with some souvenirs, pictured below. I’m particularly excited about showing my students the rundown – those blue sheets of paper that keep the production crew on track. Continue reading “[Media Rundown] Live at Colbert’s Late Show; Trump’s RNC; Ailes FOX ouster”

[Media Rundown] Periscoping politicians; baffling Brexit; hiding Hillary; short-handed SCOTUS

Today, recapping unexpected events – Congress and C-SPAN on the cutting edge, and the U.K. leaving the E.U. Plus, we’ll check in on the Supreme Court and the two most unpopular presidential candidates ever.

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All politics today… let’s go.

The Streaming Sit-In

The hippest place this week to see social video streaming? The floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and C-SPAN, of course. House Democrats staged a sit-in demanding a vote be taken on gun control legislation in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando.

It was similar to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster the week before. Both were publicity stunts – Democrats know they don’t have the votes to do anything involving guns. But why was the House sit-in – even further removed from the mass shooting – so much more effective at drawing public attention to the cause?

Novelty. Of the protest itself, to a small degree. Filibustering isn’t allowed in the House, so this was a, let’s call it “creative,” way around those rules. It also helped to have George Representative John R. Lewis – a man who knows about honest-to-goodness sit-ins – front and center.

But I still think the sit-in would have been mostly ignored and quickly forgotten if not for the greater novelty of how it was broadcasted to the country.

Continue reading “[Media Rundown] Periscoping politicians; baffling Brexit; hiding Hillary; short-handed SCOTUS”

Is there an (((echo))) in here? Hate speech, social media and the marketplace of ideas

Hate and harassment on social media is driving users away. The difficulty of exposing hate, protecting victims, and limiting censorship.

Any corner of the Internet that facilitates anonymity is going to attract trolls. Twitter is no different. Recently, you might have noticed users placing their names in multiple (((parentheses))). It all traces back to anti-Semitic groups. Members place this parenthetical “echo” around Jewish people or businesses when attacking them on social media, giving compatriots an easy way to search for the target and join in on the harassment. There was even a now-removed Google Chrome plugin that made echoing easy, by cross-referencing text against a database of Jews. Here’s what it looked like in action:

echo_sample
Tomorrow Comes Today // Tumblr

Vox has an explainer if you want to read more about how the echo was used, as well as how it and the Chrome plugin were discovered by the rest of us.

Point is, once the echo was exposed, Twitter users, Jewish or not, began putting the echo around their names and other content. Not only a symbolic stand, it also undermined the beacon system being used by the hate groups.

The echo was defeated by the rest of the social media community. But that also involved Google taking down the plugin, which violated its terms forbidding “promotions of hate.” And it involved Twitter banning a number of users who “promote violence against or directly attack or threaten” other users.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like all have different policies on dealing with harassment and hate speech, as well as the ways in which they curate content. They range from Google’s broad ban on hate code to Twitter’s fairly specific ban on direct, violent threats. A few weeks ago, all three agreed to adhere to the European Union’s “code of conduct on illegal online hate speech,” which requires resolution of hate speech reports within 24 hours, be it by removing or restricting the content or the user responsible.

However, speech laws are more restrictive in the E.U. than in the U.S., and vary by country. It’s the service provider’s job to figure out if a particular post fails to meet legal standards in those various jurisdictions. Much like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which YouTube already lets rightsholders wildly abuse, companies face penalties for failing to suppress content, but suffer no consequence for blocking everything in sight just to catch a small number of actual offenders.

It’s easy to see how the social media platforms could lean on the side of heavy censorship.

Continue reading “Is there an (((echo))) in here? Hate speech, social media and the marketplace of ideas”