Insisting on facts in a 'post-truth' world can help us get savvy about social media propaganda

December 2016 - by Carolyn Dale

If we're living in a "post-truth" world—the Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year for 2016—I need a passport to somewhere else. Or, I'll stay put and be part of some grumpy, vocal minority that keeps insisting facts are real. I also believe that members of our society can face some realities together and agree on them.

What radical ideas! The dictionaries define post-truth as an adjective for times when "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief: 'in this era of post-truth politics, it's easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.'"

This is so discouraging, for I've built my professional life around facts. For decades, I've been a reporter, editor, and journalism professor, and I've labored hard to sift verifiable realities from masses of opinion and propaganda, to seek out sources who've really researched what they're talking about, and then to write and edit stories that give accurate accounts of events plus a range of views interpreting what they mean.

How old-fashioned and stodgy this must sound. It's a lot more entertaining to get post-truthy messages on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that have been posted by friends and people you trust, along with people you don't know at all. But do we need to blithely pass these on, or should friends avoid sending false items to friends?

We seem not to care where fun stuff comes from, if it reinforces our viewpoints and gives an emotional lift. Take that guy in Austin, Texas, who saw a group of buses near an anti-Trump demonstration and Tweeted that paid protesters were being bussed in. A few hours and several hundred thousand re-Tweets later, the New York Times reported the buses were actually taking participants to a conference. It doesn't matter that the Tweet was false and had nothing to do with Trump protesters—it still resonated soundly.

Maybe we're in an era of, "If it lies, it leads." The abundance of "fake news" on online sites shows how open social media are to accounts reported by anyone, anywhere. At first, this crowd-sourcing of news was greeted as a strength of new media, a fresh democratizing freedom from the controls of those elitist editors of "legacy" media.

I think we're naïve about our use of social media, which are still new in our culture. Each time a new media form has arrived in our country—from radio, to film, television, and now social media—audiences have rated it as highly credible at first. Then over time, people figure out how to analyze it, to sort value in the nature of its messages, to look for context, and to test facts against the reality evident in their own lives.

When television news began, audiences rated it as more believable than newspapers because they thought they were seeing events precisely as they happened. In the decades since, people have learned more about the techniques of framing, cutting, layering, and adding computer-generated images. We're more skeptical of television now, and we can become wiser about social media messages, too.

Since the recent presidential election, alarm is rising that numerous fake news stories sweeping through social media may have affected the outcome of the vote—and that some of these stories were planted by Russian intelligence agencies. Both Facebook and Google say they'll attempt to rein in advertising revenue for sites that relentlessly post less-than-truthful material.

But Facebook is not likely to start checking articles for accuracy, or to require a balanced presentation, because that would mean hiring editors and news staff to sift fact from rumor or gossip, and informed comment from distorted partisanship or crass commercialism. Facebook insists it is a technology company, not a media company. In other words, it's as neutral as the cable that carries your internet or TV connection.

People who do want to get reliable, factual information online have some options, as well as some work to do. A study recently released by Stanford University of 7,805 students from middle school through college age found that 82 percent could not "distinguish between an ad labeled 'sponsored content' and a real news story on a web site," according to a Wall St. Journal story. Further, two-thirds "didn't see a valid reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help."

With older media such as newspapers, we've learned to read the context that tells us which page has editorials, which has news, and which shows grocery-store ads. But on social media, all messages look much the same—and sometimes this is intentional. The home page for Yahoo! for example, lists paid ads right among the top news stories of the day, with only the tiny word "sponsored" above each one to signal the difference.

A reader looking for "true facts" can examine the same things that a news editor looks for:

  • Who wrote the story, and does the source stand to gain from it? (What does that banker hope to gain by giving financial advice to those school kids?)
  • Is an actual event being reported, and if so, what happened, when, and where?
  • Are multiple sources, including official ones, used to document aspects of the event? (Or is it just one guy guessing about some buses?)
  • Are various viewpoints included, or only one? Are other viewpoints mentioned, but in sketchy, derogatory and inaccurate ways?
  • Can the statements be proven or disproven, or are they personal opinion?

It's work to do this with every article we read that claims to be true. An easier option is to turn to established media that employ editors and reporters and have a reputation for accuracy and accountability. This may mean paying for news by taking out a subscription, which runs counter to the online expectation that everything should be free. But if we recognize the value of work news organizations do by paying for it, we might keep them in business a while longer.

Numerous online news sites display the day's news for free, such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. BuzzFeed has reported on "fake news," and investigates and debunks rumors from both ends of the political spectrum.

Highly slanted messages that are distributed for personal, financial, or political gain, and that place the receiver at some disadvantage, are known as propaganda. Studies on the effectiveness of various techniques show why social media are especially persuasive. We humans tend to trust messages from friends and family; the highly personal nature of sharing posts leads us to expect a less objective context; we readily absorb information that supports our worldviews; we quickly separate information from its source and remember the content but not where we heard it; we give weight to statements by famous people.

So, are we doomed to a future of absorbing "fake news" and believing every bit of it, while reinforcing our divergent, individualized worldviews? I hope not, but the idea that facts don't exist, that we live in a post-truth world, is the largest bit of propaganda yet. If we can resist that, and insist that facts are real and can be verified in a reality we share, we'll grow more sophisticated at how we take in social media messages.

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