I miss news. Real news, that is. I appreciate the vast volume of information, news and opinion now available to me online and offline. But there is one byproduct of the digital age that I’m not so crazy about: the rise of Fake News and demise of legacy journalism.
I often think about what the Watergate investigation would have been like in the modern news era. Would the constant barrage of thinly veiled opinion disguised as outrage have hindered or helped the investigation? How would social media have swayed public opinion? After the Watergate break-in, instead of proudly declaring, “I am not a crook,” would President Nixon have argued he was a victim of “Fake News?”
From the moment the Watergate burglary was discovered on June 17, 1972 until President Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974, the wiretapping scandal and cover-up became appointment news.
Network correspondents and journalists near and far were prime movers in the Watergate investigation. Constant coverage, the press believed, was necessary to hold investigators’ feet to the fire. People worldwide scoured their papers every morning to read the latest bombshell about Watergate, said Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. The White House named more than 50 reporters to a Nixon “enemies list.”
Fake News: Of Schisms, Mice and Men
Yes, similarities abound between how our politics shaped our views during the late ’60s, early ’70s and today in the Trump era. We have a deeply divided nation and hostile political climate, then and now. Cynicism and distrust of Washington people in power. Skepticism about the transparency and truthfulness of our politicians.
What we didn’t have as the Watergate scandal unfolded: an excess of news analysts, pundits, opinion writers and elites willing to parse every word and action of our party leaders and explain its meaning to the masses.
Many journalists harken back to the first televised debate between liberal commentator Gore Vidal and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. as the birth of modern day political punditry. ABC orchestrated the debates as a ratings booster during the 1968 political conventions. Meant to be an instructive alternative to the other networks gavel-to-gavel convention coverage, the live forum quickly spun out of control.
Vidal, a best-selling author and champion of the New Left, saw the debates as a golden opportunity to skewer Buckley, someone he viewed as an inferior debater. Buckley thought the debates would offer a reasoned discussion on the divergent party platforms. Vidal’s heated attack caught him off guard. As broadcasts for the first two debates aired from the Republican Convention in Miami, the rhetoric intensified. When the third debate moved to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where anti-war protests grew into full-blown riots, the debate evolved into fits of name calling and personal slurs.
A Truth for a Truth
Everyone loves to watch a train wreck. So the popularity of political opinion shows, including Buckley’s own Firing Line airing on PBS, grew. Then, Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980. Soon a buzzing 24-hour news cycle supplanted national evening news broadcasts. What started as blocks of rolling news coverage on CNN, FOX News and MSNBC is now largely partisan news analysis and interview programming.
This evolution took time. When FOX News began airing in 1996, CNN had by far the lion’s share of the cable news audience. FOX added more conservative commentators, surpassing CNN’s viewership in 2002. The news structure at all three cable channels — the mix of packaged news stories, live event coverage and interview formats — changed significantly by 2013, a Pew Research analysis finds. The popularity of FOX News and its embrace of Far Right entertainment opinion shows spawned similar programming for the left by MSNBC and CNN. Heated election cycles and divisive politics fueled more debate-style journalism.
Meanwhile, CNN can’t stop talking about FOX’s conservative news bias, while FOX program hosts decry the founding cable news channel’s extreme liberal views. Like the politicians they cover, each station plays to its base in a ratings grab and appeal to like-minded advertisers.
Personalization and the Filter Bubble
It wasn’t until December of 2009 that Google began customizing its search results for all users, the new era of personalization. Thus began the race to collect as much personal information about us as possible and tailor our online experience accordingly. Every web site visited uses data-laden cookies to track our searches, information valued by advertisers who hope to get us the right ad at the right time.
In the newsletter Farnum Street, the author points out our tacit bargain: “Your identity shapes your media. There’s just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity.”
Today, the vast majority of people get their information from News Feeds on social media. Provocative headlines, pithy soundbites and video scream for our attention from content providers seeking more click throughs and page views for advertisers. Algorithms learn what information we like, then serve us more.
Some have learned about the power of social media to manipulate opinion, skew facts and sway the public. Partisan warfare fueled by modern technology. Hackers gain access to campaign secrets in both Democrat and Republican circles. Foreign powers try to influence American elections.
With so much information pouring in from so many fronts, it’s hard to know what or who to believe. Living off the grid sounds better and better. But we are creatures of habit. Tech junkies, connected 24-7 in a world happy to feed us more of the same.
Fact or Fiction: What’s the Difference?
These days, study after study shows us the major impact who we know has on our beliefs and the information we choose to share. We tend to gravitate to people and views most like our own. At the same time we are unwittingly influenced by our friends and followers, we are losing our ability to distinguish between Fake News and Real News, truth and fiction. Have we reached a state where Americans can’t even tell the difference?
Perhaps. A new Pew Research Center survey examines this question in depth. Early this year about 5,000 U.S. adults were presented with five factual statements — capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence — and five opinion statements that reflect the beliefs and values of whoever expressed them. Two statements did not fit clearly into either bucket.
When respondents identified a statement as factual, they explained if they believed it was accurate or inaccurate. When they identified a statement to be an opinion, they said whether they agreed or disagreed with it. Overwhelmingly, Americans who believed a statement was factual also believed it was accurate, even when it was not.
In addition, although a majority correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set, this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all the statements wrong. Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats were more likely to view statements as factual when they appealed to their side.
Despite this, the vast majority believes that media coverage of political issues should be unbiased, according to another Pew Research Center poll. The trouble is, we no longer seem to know how to be objective.
Breaking the Fake News Cycle
There has been a lot of buzz about fake news in the lead-up to U.S. Midterm Elections. Tech firms Facebook, Twitter and Google have pledged to fight fake news and stop its spread. They recently agreed to a voluntary Code of Conduct requested by the European Digital Commission in April.
Still, researchers have found stopping fake news has new challenges, as reported by NBC News Nov. 2nd. Messaging services like WhatsApp are easy to infiltrate and have become de facto Town Squares in many developing countries. Their efficiency and economies-of-scale make them a popular channel for propagandists.
So, while tech leaders, media, politicians and regulators spar over who’s job it is to fight fake news, perhaps it’s time we shoulder this responsibility ourselves. Here’s some advice from experts at Harvard University on how to become a more discerning news consumer:
- Consider the publisher’s credibility. Look at the domain name, author and the publisher’s mission statement. Does the publishing site meet academic citation standards?
- Pay attention to quality and timeliness. Is the information current or recycled? Are there lots of typos and grammatical errors? Legitimate publishers have high proofing standards.
- Check the sources and citations. Where did the research come from? Who has gone on the record to verify the facts? Is the information available on other sites?
- Do your own detective work by visiting a fact-checking website. There are many good ones, such as FactCheck.org and Snopes.com.
We’re Doing this to Ourselves
Despite best efforts by tech leaders and fact checkers, we still have an imperfect picture of what’s happening with news on social media and some say even traditional outlets. If spending on security and content moderation and other self-policing attempts by Silicon Valley don’t pay off, more regulation may be coming. Until then, it’s up to all of us to get smart about the news sources we engage with by questioning what we see, hear and read in today’s digital age.
The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.