Everyone is talking about fake news these days. Even the Comet Pizza shooter, Edgar Maddison Welch,
discussed the issue in an interview with the NYT...
“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he said. However, he refused to dismiss outright the claims in the online articles, conceding only that there were no children “inside that dwelling.” He also said that child slavery was a worldwide phenomenon.
And that makes shooting up a pizzeria a viable option...?
He said he did not believe in conspiracy theories, but then added that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks needed to be re-examined. He has listened to Alex Jones, whose radio show traffics in conspiracy theories and who once said that Mrs. Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up” children. “He’s a bit eccentric,” Mr. Welch said. “He touches on some issues that are viable but goes off the deep end on some things.”
There is an important debate as to what fake news actually is. This Slate piece
correctly points out that some pundits are using the term far too loosely, as a catch-all designation for any text one considers dubious or disagreeable.
The right-wingers -- and others -- have argued that mainstream sources can be fake as well. This argument has some merit. We've all complained about misleading reportage. Hell, this very blog has bitched about the NYT, the WP and CBS on many previous occasions, and I have every intention of doing so in the future.
The difference, I think, is this: Whenever the NYT or the WP publishes something which you and I might decry as "fake," the real sin on display is (usually) undue journalistic deference given to a Voice of Authority. Too often, our reporters function as stenographers to the powerful, and powerful people often seek to maintain their power by manipulating public perceptions. The result is, arguably, a kind
of news-faking. Nevertheless, I would argue that ultimate responsibility for these exercises in deception belongs with the original source, not with the reporter/stenographer.
The 2016 election forces us to confront fake news of a different sort: We now have writers who deliberately concoct outrageous lies in order to smear a candidate (especially candidates named Clinton) or to stimulate the pleasure centers of partisans.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Weekly World News
and other tabloids have performed this function for many years. Much of the early Iraq war coverage -- especially the pulling down of Saddam's statue -- was deceptive and propagandistic.
Our intelligence agencies have indulged in newsfaking of this sort for many years. You may want to research PBSUCCESS, the operation which led to the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Guatemala in the 1950s; the broadcasting of fake news stories led to a nearly bloodless coup. An even more instructive example would be the subversion of Salvador Allende's government in Chile, best described in Death in Washington
, by Fred Landis and Donald Freed. The parallels between that media campaign and the efforts to demonize Hillary are, in my view, uncanny.
So let's narrow our definition of the term fake news.
Obviously, we have every right to apply the label to this story
, published on the True Pundit site, which came into existence alongside the Trump campaign. (Am I suggesting that the Trump campaign surreptitiously created
that site? Oh no. Heaven forbid!)
New York Police Department detectives and prosecutors working an alleged underage sexting case against former Congressman Anthony Weiner have turned over a newly-found laptop he shared with wife Huma Abedin to the FBI with enough evidence “to put Hillary (Clinton) and her crew away for life,” NYPD sources told True Pundit.
NYPD sources said Clinton’s “crew” also included several unnamed yet implicated members of Congress in addition to her aides and insiders.
But new revelations on the contents of that laptop, according to law enforcement sources, implicate the Democratic presidential candidate, her subordinates, and even select elected officials in far more alleged serious crimes than mishandling classified and top secret emails, sources said. NYPD sources said these new emails include evidence linking Clinton herself and associates to:
Sex crimes with minors (children)
Pay to play through Clinton Foundation
Obstruction of justice
Other felony crimes
NYPD detectives and a NYPD Chief, the department’s highest rank under Commissioner, said openly that if the FBI and Justice Department fail to garner timely indictments against Clinton and co- conspirators, NYPD will go public with the damaging emails now in the hands of FBI Director James Comey and many FBI field offices.
“What’s in the emails is staggering and as a father, it turned my stomach,” the NYPD Chief said. “There is not going to be any Houdini-like escape from what we found. We have copies of everything. We will ship them to Wikileaks or I will personally hold my own press conference if it comes to that.”
On the face of it, the fakery here should have been obvious on Day 1. Why no named sources? Why would the NYPD say such things to a brand-new garbage rag like True Pundit and not to any real newspaper -- not even (say) the Trump-friendly NY Post
Another obviously spurious story appeared on a page that has since disappeared. It used to be here
on the Subject Politics website. (This site appears to be another Trump-era creation.) This Buzzfeed story
reproduces the front page I saw when the article first appeared: I distinctly recall that photo, which allegedly shows an NYPD raid on Hillary Clinton's home. No such raid ever occurred.
isn't an example of "fake news," then what is
As noted earlier, we have all carped about many sins of mainstream journalism, and for good reason. But neither the NYT nor any other mainstream source has ever done anything this
In recent days, some opinion writers have argued that "fake news" is also a problem on the left. Amusingly, the cited examples usually point to articles by H.A. Goodman ("Lord H.A. H.A.," as I call him) and other Feelers of the Bern. Although the Sanders die-hards and other progressives have indeed demonstrated an eagerness to don woolen sunglasses, we must put the problem in its proper perspective. Nowhere
on the left side of political aisle will you find a kayfabe operation even remotely similar to True Pundit and Subject Politics.
The term "fake news" definitely applies to those two sites. Does the same label apply to Fox? I would say no, although Fox has run many stories which come perilously close to qualifying.
Studies have shown that spurious stories receive the widest distribution on Facebook and other social media sites
. Most Americans now receive their news via Facebook. Moreover, Americans have indicated a greater willingness to believe
fake news sources -- particularly if those stories make grand claims involving dark conspiracies.
As I've said many times before, right-wing conspiracy theory is best understood using the addiction model. Paranoia gets you high. Whenever a right-wing conspiracy junkie says "The MSM is just as bad as this so-called fake news
," what he's really
saying is: "I love the rush and I refuse to pull the needle out of my arm."
So how do we solve the problem?
Many have argued for some form of censorship -- which is, in essence, what Twitter, Reddit and Facebook have started to implement. But censorship allows the right-wing newsfakers to cry foul. As an old friend might have put it, they'll "do the martyrella routine."
Hollywood found the right solution some 48 years ago. Ratings
I'm old enough (barely) to recall a time when films were not rated; everything shown in the movie theater was supposed to be viewable by the entire family. In the 1960s, movies began to experiment with nudity and violence. The result: Widespread calls for government intervention -- for official censorship.
That's when the studios formed a non-governmental agency, the MPAA
, which offers ratings for all non-pornographic films. (Porn is allowed to rate itself.) Films are not censored; they are labeled.
The system got off to a rocky start: When I was kid, I could not believe that Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
(a blood-fest which instantly became one of my all-time favorite films) received a G rating. Midnight Cowboy
certainly did not deserve the X rating that it initially received. In the years since, nearly everyone has complained at one time or another about the MPAA's decisions, many of which have seemed downright unfathomable.
Yet despite the problems, the system has worked. It certainly fulfilled its initial function of staving off the threat of government censorship. Although studios will self
-censor in order to avoid an R rating, it is nevertheless undeniable that the screen has been far freer since 1968 than it was before. Labels liberated.
I propose a similar solution to the fake news problem.
We live in a world in which Facebook, Google and similar entities provide the "news gateway" for most people, at least for most Americans. It's time for those companies to stop ducking their responsibilities. They should join with university-level experts in media studies to form an association modeled on the MPAA. Job 1: Rating as many news sources a possible.
Call it the Social Media Providers Association, or SMPA.
This non-partisan association should be composed of academics, and it should be dedicated to offering disinterested judgments of news providers. A user-generated system, such as the one discussed here
, is doomed to failure, because organized political operatives can always manipulate the results.
Here are my proposed ratings -- and please note that these are provisional suggestions
, meant to demonstrate the general principle:
-- Mainstream news source.
-- An academic source, a declassified government document, or a report issued by an organization such as Human Rights Watch.
-- a source predominately devoted to relaying opinions and analysis. Most blogs, including this one, would be rated O. Although I occasionally contact sources and do original research, I could live with an O rating.
-- An openly partisan news source. Fox, MSNBC, Rush Limbaugh and Daily Kos would qualify. Certain think tanks issue reports which deserve a P rating. (This label would not necessarily indicate falsity or unreliability).
-- Fake News. True Pundit and the offerings of Jestin Coler would be good examples of the genre. Any site which regularly publishes exercises in deliberate
deception would earn an F rating.
-- Unconfirmed. This rating would apply to any site that the SMPA has not yet examined.
Whenever someone on social media sends a link, one of these ratings would automatically appear next to the link. The programming should be a simple affair. Blog posts on the Blogger and Wordpress platforms could also use this system.
Can the main social media providers afford to maintain something like the SMPA? Of course. The cost would be minimal; a budget of $500,000 a year should be ample. Google, Reddit, Twitter and Facebook are swimming
One salutary effect of this system is that it would pressure the more outrageous "nearly F-rated" sites to clean up their acts. Alex Jones would have to decide whether he wants Infowars to live with the F rating, or if he wants to keep things within O territory.
Obviously, there will be endless complaints about the ratings, just as there are now endless complaints about the decisions rendered by the MPAA. But for all the caterwauling about the MPAA, few want the film rating system to disappear entirely. I believe that, after a bumpy initial period, few will seek the elimination of my proposed SMPA.
Of course, people addicted to conspiracy theories will insist that the above-described system -- or any
system -- is rigged against their interests. Paranoia connoisseurs will claim that certain F-rated links offer better information than do M-rated links. Fine.
I have no problem with anyone making that argument.
The white supremacist right is setting up its own forums -- Gab and Voat, for example -- which will surely want no part in this proposed SMPA system. Those who gravitate toward those alternatives will inhabit an intellectual ghetto; within its confines, they will have the perfect freedom to romp and scamper as they will.
No one will be able to claim any danger to the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not contain a clause which compels Facebook to offer label-free links to news sources.
I am not proposing censorship; I am proposing a voluntary, non-governmental labeling system. All writers and readers will be at liberty to ignore those ratings or to argue that any given rating is unfair.
Most Americans, I believe, will want to know whether the latest shocking "news" story in their Facebook feed was actually concocted by a fly-by-night organization with a track record of peddling hogwash.