Bob Bestler

Fake news looks just like the real thing on Facebook

By Bob Bestler

On The Loose

So you go to college, you major in journalism, you back it up with minors in political science and history.

You learn the basics of a news story – who, what, where, when, why and how – and you learn the techniques of a good interview.

You learn to seek out reliable sources and verify their stories. If you can’t, then fuggetaboutit.

Above all, you learn to check and double-check facts. If your own mama tells you it’s raining, check it out.

The thing is, the professors tell you, all you can offer readers (or viewers in another medium) is your credibility. Get your facts wrong too often and you’ll end up peddling the weekly shopper.

Now fast forward to 2016 – and you can fuggetabout that big fancy journalism degree.

Now some guy in Utah sits at home and manufactures, out of thin air, a story disparaging a presidential candidate and brags on national TV about making a cool $8,000 for his effort.

None of his story is true, none of it carries a single fact. But a lot of people believe it.

The same for a story headlined: “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Trump for President.”

No, he didn’t, but a vehement Vatican denial is lost on those who believe what they want to believe.

Welcome to the world of fake news, an increasingly frightening phenomenon that feeds on fiction, not fact.

Much of the so-called fake news has turned up on Facebook, where more and more Americans turn for information, fake or otherwise.

Remember that commercial: If it’s on the Internet, it must be true. Most of us laughed; some became believers.

PEW Research Center has said that 62 percent of the U.S. population gets its news from Facebook and Google. It added that in the three months leading to the election Facebook carried more fake headlines than real ones.

A post-election PPP poll showed the upshot of that phenomenon. Despite having, by all standards, the world’s strongest economy, many voters still believed that unemployment rose under President Obama and that the economy worsened.

If they had spent less time with the Kardashians and more time with NBC News, they would have known that unemployment dropped from 7.8 percent on Jan. 20, 2008, to 4.6 percent today and that the stock market soared from 7,909 points to more than 19,000 today. (Yes, Virginia, those are called “facts.”)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week that his site will begin closer monitoring of its stories and will flag those that have little or no basis in fact.

It’s a important start, but it probably won’t quickly end fake news.

Craig Silverman, of the Buzzfeed website, has been tracking the fictions of fake news and sees no end in sight.

“When the president-elect will say the only reason Hillary Clinton won the popular vote is because of the millions of people who voted illegally, which is completely not true, it gives license to folks to really be loose with the truth and just make things up,” Silverman said.

President Obama, in an interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, expressed his concern.

Speaking about just one issue, climate change, Obama said, “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.

“And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal – that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

His words brought to mind the words of the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan.

“You may be entitled to your own opinion,” he told a colleague. “You are not entitled to your own facts.”

And Moynihan didn’t even have a big fancy journalism degree.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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