Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fake news? Don't get mad. Get facts -- July 20, 2017 column


A Facebook friend shared a quote the other day purportedly from Vice President Mike Pence on Fox News.

Americans need more “Jesus care” not health care, because if people went to church, they’d be healed and wouldn’t need doctors, according to Pence.

The post soon sparked plenty of angry comments. Almost as quickly, though, someone linked to an article by the independent fact-checking site The quote was wholly fabricated.

Snopes rated the post “False” with a big red X, explaining the image macro, a picture with text, surfaced in May on Fox News the Facebook Page, which used a Fox News logo and lampooned Fox News, but was totally unrelated to Fox News. 

The Facebook page appears to have been taken down, but everything is immortal on the internet.

It was heartening to see the fabrication identified and neutralized so rapidly. Perhaps someone thought the quote squirrely – it was ungrammatical – but instead of moving to the popular video of the dog saving the fawn looked into the quote and found the facts.

That’s what we should do: Check out stories designed to make us mad, find the truth and share it. Fake news is an equal opportunity liar. So, whatever our personal political leanings, we all benefit when sunshine kills the germs.

Facebook is taking steps to combat fake news, but the perps are likely to find ways around changes. That’s why policing social media is up to us.

It’s also heartening to see news organizations persevere in debunking President Donald Trump’s brags and myths – and he has noticed.

“We’ve signed more bills – and I’m talking about through the legislature – than any president ever,” Trump said Monday at the White House.

“For a while, Harry Truman had us, and now I think we have everybody. . . I better say `think,’ otherwise they’ll give me a Pinocchio. And I don’t like those; I don’t like Pinocchios,” Trump said.

The Washington Post’s fact-checkers award up to four Pinocchios for falsehoods. 

Pinocchio-anxiety notwithstanding, Trump was still way off on his numbers. He lags behind Truman and several other presidents in bills signed to date, the Post fact-checkers reported, but they gave no Pinocchios for that flirtation with falsehood.

“He certainly appeared to pause for a moment and wonder if he was right. For Trump, that’s a step in the right direction,” the Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote.

Trump dismisses any news and news outlets he dislikes as fake news.

But fake news is intentional deceit, or as The New York Times put it, “pure fiction masquerading as truth.” Trump more often labels as fake news truth that makes him look bad.

Trump’s long-running war on the news media may yet backfire. Americans’ confidence in newspapers is actually up from last year, the Gallup organization reported last month.

To be sure, it’s nothing to brag about. Just 27 percent of people said they had confidence in newspapers -- but that was up 7 percentage points from a year earlier. Baby steps.

People actually have more confidence in news on the internet than in Congress -- 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, even though the internet is a fake news incubator.

The mainstream news media aren’t perfect by any means, but when they get it wrong, the incidents are painful. Three CNN staffers resigned last month after the network retracted a story about alleged ties between Russia and a Wall Street financier who is a Trump ally. 

On Friday, Trump named the financier, Anthony Scaramucci, a tough critic of the news media, White House communications director. (Updated 7.21.17)

But there’s a difference between mistakes and deliberate lies. Fake news can have dangerous consequences.

Last December, a gullible 28-year-old man in North Carolina drove 350 miles to investigate internet reports of a child sex ring connected to the Clinton campaign in a Washington pizza restaurant.

He fired an AR-15 in the restaurant -- only to learn he had been misled. There were no endangered children, much less a sex ring. His loaded weapons were real, though, and could have caused real tragedy.

Stopping fake news may be impossible, but we all must do what we can to expose it. The stakes are too high.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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