By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Fake news!
We read it, wittingly or unwittingly. We hear it and watch it– and sometimes talk about it and post it and pass it on.
We think we know what fake news means, but we should be worried about two types – “real” fake news and “fake” fake news.
Let’s start with real fake news. That is information that’s simply untrue or manipulated but looks and sounds legitimate, at least to the gullible.
In the United States as in many other countries, “real” fake news comes from a wide range of sources. They include activists on the political right and left, advocacy groups on issues such as crime or immigration, ultranationalists, homophobes, racists and bigots, and hackers from Russia, Iran, China and elsewhere.
Creators of “real” fake news have a variety of goals. One is to foster distrust of government, undermine institutions of power and influence or cripple specific candidates, as we saw in the 2018 election season.
A second goal is to create doubt about the reliability of science and technology, including climate science and health. A third common goal is creating hatred against African Americans, Jews, immigrants, Muslims , foreigners or other groups different from themselves.
Still another is financial gain with fake news attacking business competitors.
Last year we learned how Cambridge Analytica accessed a huge amount of data about millions of Facebook users.
The company, which specialized in psychological profiling and political messaging, misused the data to target voters with propaganda and misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election – to promote Donald Trump and torpedo Hillary Clinton.
As “A Short Guide to the History of ‘Fake’ News and Misinformation” – a new report from the International Center for Journalists in Washington – notes, the U.S. wasn’t the only stomping group for the company’s nefarious political meddling. “Undercover reporters captured Cambridge Analytica’s executives boasting that the company and its partners had worked on more than 200 international elections, including in Argentina, Nigeria, Kenya, India and the Czech Republic.”
Also last year, a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian citizens and a Russian internet agency for allegedly conspiring to disrupt our presidential election. The conspiracy included using false identification of U.S. citizens to post misinformation on social media accounts to help defeat Clinton.
We see “real” fake news from climate change deniers – people who don’t believe that human activity is largely responsible for the fast rate at which the planet’s climate is warming.
This is disturbing because these stories are intended to derail scientific researchers and responsible public officials who want action to slow climate change.
“Real” fake news can trigger lethal results. For example, some parents still refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe now-debunked fake news reports asserting that vaccinations can cause autism. There is absolutely no scientific evidence for that claim because it’s not true, but these parents expose their children to serious, sometimes fatal, diseases such as mumps and measles.
The asylum-seekers’ caravan from Central America through Mexico sparked lots of “real” fake news about the men, women and children seeking refuge from the dangers of their home countries. Some stories claimed the migrants were preparing to invade the United States, that the caravan included Middle Eastern terrorists and that refugees would bring diseases into the U.S.
Here’s the second type of deeply troubling fake news – “fake” fake news.
During the 2016 campaign and since taking office, Trump has labeled stories that criticized him and his circle as “fake news.” He sharply criticizes respected news organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN as “fake news” organizations.
If a newspaper or network reported questionable business operations, he responded by calling it “fake news” – even if the information was true. If the press reported how a top advisor or appointee did something illegal or improper, he called it “fake news” – even if the information was true.
And if the media disclosed unethical activity by members of his own family, he called it “fake news” – even if the information was true.
In other words, the president has misappropriated the phrase “fake news” as a powerful political weapon he wields over and over while labeling the press “the enemy of the people.”
The president’s fake news rhetoric distracts the public from the accuracy of stories he dislikes. If he can pretend the media is unfairly attacking him because journalists disagree with his political views, then many citizens won’t consider the truth of the reporting.
Second, this tactic avoids discussing the substance of the charges. For example, when the media reported about his companies’ business, he didn’t answer questions about whether foreign governments were dealing with those companies in an effort to buy favorable treatment by the government.
Third, this tactic is intended to damage public trust in the press. The president treats most of the media as his enemy, along with members of the opposition party and the law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies investigating him.
Both types of fake news –“real” and “fake”– damage our democracy. Both create confusion in the public mind about what to believe, what to do about their families’ wellbeing, about the safety of the foods we eat, about U.S. relations with other countries and about the government’s ability to protect us at home and abroad.
At the same time, both types of fake news impair the media’s ability to serve as a watchdog on behalf of the public.
This commentary is adapted from Eric Freedman’s column in Domemagzine.com.