How Partisans Can Help Fight Fake News

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Just how big of a problem is fake news? As one indication, consider that Americans currently are debating the extent to which the Russian government used “classical propaganda, disinformation, [and] fake news” (in addition to outright hacking) in an effort to influence the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election. Glenn Greenwald argues that the Washington Post (among others) exaggerated the scope of such activities. Regardless, the fact that we’re discussing whether news about fake news is fake suggests that fake news is a real problem.

What can we do about fake news? That’s a big problem; here I’ll focus mostly on a proposal of Colorado Progressive activist Jason Salzman. But first it’s useful to delve deeper into the nature of the problem. Along the way I’ll address Greenwald’s complaint that “‘fake news’ has no cogent definition.”

Fake news zooms around social media. Often it is the case, as Mark Twain first said, that “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

Except, of course, Twain didn’t say that, at least not first. Versions of the quote circulated before Twain was born. The first version of it seems to come from Jonathan Swift in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” (I believe this claim from Quote Investigator because it provides a link to a Google book and squares with other sources.)

Swift’s fuller comments are well worth reviewing, for they illuminate our current predicament and show that our problems hardly are new ones:

[I]f a man had the art of the second sight for seeing lies, as they have in Scotland for seeing spirits, how admirably he might entertain himself in this town, by observing the different shapes, sizes, and colours of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people, like flies about a horse’s ears in summer. . . .

[I]t often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.

We can divide fake news into two broad categories: misinformation that the originator knows is false, and misinformation that the originator thinks is true.

Intentional Fake News

Some “fake news” really is great parody and satire (which Swift knew something about); the originator knows it’s false and doesn’t intend for others to think it’s true. The Onion is the best-known publisher of this sort of parody news. Generally this sort of parody isn’t a problem, as it’s widely recognized as such—although some people have taken Onion stories seriously.

Other publishers of fake news want their claims to be widely believed or at least don’t mind if they are. Motives for intentionally spreading misinformation vary dramatically.

On April 1 (April Fools Day) 2014, one fellow generated a series of fake factoids and posted them to Facebook. The messages included these gems:

  • “Every time you sneeze your heart stops until you take another breath. That’s why your heart nerves are connected to your lung; your heart wants you to live.”
  • “If our planet was 5 degrees rounder the sun’s rays would refract too much off our atmosphere and it would be too hot to support life.”
  • “If you are ever in an avalaunch lay flat as possible so the worst of it goes over you. Then you can simply push your way through the soft layers to the surface.”

Apparently some people took these seriously; the fellow reports, “Not only did no one call me out but I received numerous compliments and one guy even took credit for an image.” This seemed to be a benign experiment to test people’s gullibility.

One of the most famous hoaxes of our time was perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 when he submitted a nonsense article to a postmodernist journal. Of course the journal published the piece. Sokal immediately fessed up to the hoax; he perpetrated it intentionally to expose the sorry state of (much of) modern humanities studies.

If we take Jestin Coler at his word, he published fake news for humanitarian reasons. He told NPR:

The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.

We can wonder about the purity of Coler’s motives; he also suggested to NPR that he makes tens of thousands of dollars per month from ads on his fake news sites.

Certainly we can worry about the impact of Coler’s “work.” One of the false stories to appear on one of his sites was, “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide”—a story “shared on Facebook over half a million times,” NPR reports.

But the NPR story has an ironic flaw: Its reporting itself (unintentionally) perpetrates a fake story about a Colorado bill related to marijuana, as Corey Hutchins explains (see the forth item).

I too have gotten hoodwinked by fake news a time or three (although I cannot now recall particular examples), which I remedied by quickly deleting the offending social media post and posting a correction if warranted.

Generally, the proper response to intentionally faked news is to try hard not to fall for it; to correct ourselves quickly if we do; to call out others who spread it; and to expose and condemn those who recklessly or maliciously generate it.

Unintentional Fake News

Often the trickier problem to correct is misinformation that the originator believes (or carelessly assumes) to be correct. This sort of fake news (usually an element of a broader story) sometimes shows up in major newspapers and other publications.

Consider the NPR story mentioned above in a bit more detail. Coler, the news faker, told NPR that his fake story about “how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot” (NPR’s words) “turned into . . . a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana” (Coler’s words). In fact, Coler’s story had nothing to do with the proposed legislation, which was being drafted “at least four months before the fake news story even came out” (Hutchins’s words).

NPR related Coler’s false claim as though it were accurate, although the reporter in question later granted to Hutchins “that there was no clear evidence that his story was the reason the legislation was passed.” (The bill in question, Senate Bill 14-037, actually died in committee.)

Fake news scandals hit even the most prominent publications—for example, Jayson Blair not only plagiarized others’ work for his New York Times stories but fabricated some of his claims. Certainly Blair’s editors did not intentionally aim to mislead their readers.

In my political writing I’ve often criticized media stories for making false or misleading claims. Here are a few examples:

  • Last December, the Washington Post published inaccurate and misleading claims about Ayn Rand.
  • Last year, I criticized conservative pundit Jim Hoft for his misleading story about a flyer circulated in Colorado that was critical of Donald Trump.
  • In 2014, the Denver Post published a misleading story about IUDs.
  • In 2011, the Denver Post published inaccurate statistics about gun deaths; the paper issued a correction in response to my inquiries and criticisms.
  • In 2008, a Denver Post reporter cited unspecified “studies” that did not, in fact, support her claims. Dave Kopel wrote about this (originally for the Rocky Mountain News), following up on my exchanges with the reporter.
  • In 2000, the Rocky Mountain News falsely claimed that members of a gun-rights group blocked the entrance to a gun-control meeting. In fact, as the paper noted in a correction, members of a gun-control group blocked the door to keep our their opponents.

But I too have unintentionally gotten details about a story wrong. In 2015, in the course of criticizing Progress Now Colorado for misstating the facts about a legislative bill (the “Parent’s Bill of Rights”), I misstated the facts about the bill. Embarrassing! I apologized for my error as soon as I figured it out, then wrote a detailed article to reflect a correct understanding of the bill. I’m proud of my final draft, as it carefully dissects errors others made about the bill as well as my own errors. I regret initially getting the story wrong, but I worked hard to correct myself and help clarify the discussion. The main problem is when news reports contain false or misleading claims that go uncorrected.

Unintentional fake news is in some respects harder to deal with than intentional fake news, for several reasons:

  1. False or misleading claims can occur in broader stories that, for the most part, are correct and sensitive to relevant context.
  2. Such claims can occur in publications that a reasonable person ordinarily regards as reliable. (I’m a lot more skeptical of, say, Media Matters or Breitbart than I am of the Denver Post or National Review, even though I can find good and bad material at all those sites.)
  3. Sometimes journalists, most of whom after all try to adhere to normal journalistic standards and think of themselves as protecting democracy, get defensive about their work.
  4. Although some incorrect claims readily can be marked as outright errors, more claims fall into the “misleading but debatable” category.
  5. Partisans have an interest in tagging perfectly objective claims as “misleading” in order to generate more-favorable publicity for their side. So editors have to distinguish complaints about genuinely misleading reporting from groundless complaints of partisans—while remembering that partisans can be right.

Salzman’s Pledge

Let us concede, then, that fake news is a real problem. What should we do about it, beyond what I’ve suggested above?

Jason Salzman thinks part of the answer is for legislators and others to sign a “fake news pledge.” His pledge reads:

As an elected official, I agree that the spread of fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms has a toxic effect on rational civic discourse. And I understand that when community leaders spread fake news, we legitimize it. By our example, we encourage people to play fast and loose with facts, and we blur the lines between real journalism and fabricated stories masquerading as news.

So, to promote informed and reasoned debate, I pledge not to knowingly spread fake news. If I accidentally do so, by sharing, “liking,” or posting inaccurate information, packaged to look somehow like news, I will remove the falsehood as soon as possible and post a correction as well as an explanation of why I posted it in the first place.

If it’s deemed unproven or false or inaccurate by Snopes, Politifact, Factcheck.org, or by a respected news outlet, information from my Facebook page will be removed as soon as possible–or detailed reasons for not deleting it will be provided.

I think Salzman’s pledge is sensible and that everyone should strive to abide by it.

However, I personally do not plan to sign the pledge (there’s a non-legislative version), nor do I advise legislators to sign it.

Why won’t I sign it? I already behave the way Salzman outlines. The idea that I might have to sign Salzman’s pledge in order to not spread fake news is insulting. I already don’t spread fake news as a matter of course, and I correct myself quickly on the rare occasion that I get something wrong. The presumption is already that I share news responsibly; I don’t need to shift the presumption by signing a pledge. I invite anyone, Salzman included, to peruse my articles and social media posts let me know of any errors.

I think legislators might reasonably decline to sign Salzman’s pledge for similar reasons.

And there’s another reason that at least Republican legislators should think twice before signing Salzman’s pledge: Doing so might be seen by Progressive activists as an open invitation to hector them over debatable points.

It’s not as though Salzman is known for his even-handed criticisms of politicians of both parties. Salzman devotes his BigMedia.org web site largely to criticizing Republican politicians and conservative talk radio hosts. (He also has a friendly review of my recent book, Reclaiming Liberalism.) Maybe I could crawl through his archives and find some criticism of Democrats, but if that exists it’s rare. (By contrast, I routinely criticize Republicans as well as Democrats.) Salzman has taken special aim at Laura Woods, formerly my state senator—because she was an especially devious politician? No; because she was a Republican legislator in an exceptionally competitive district (she lost this past November).

Salzman is the guy who cowrote—with Michael Huttner, formerly of ProgressNow—50 Ways You Can Help Obama Change America (a book that I had fun reviewing).

And then there’s the 2009 Pork Roast Rally in Denver to criticize Barack Obama’s “stimulus” spending–a rally that Salzman and Huttner counter-protested. The image with this article shows Salzman (left) and Huttner holding a giant sign blaming George W. Bush and former Colorado legislator Josh Penry for Colorado’s then-high unemployment. Although it’s reasonable to blame Bush (among many others) for the mortgage meltdown of that era—for Bush actively promoted loose standards for mortgage loans—the suggestion that Penry had anything to do with rising unemployment is laughable.

Incidentally, after ColoradoPols.com published fake news about me related to the rally, Salzman did not, so far as I recall, step forward to defend me. He did, however, offer Jon Caldara (who helped organize the rally) a helpful opportunity to reply to criticism of the event.

The upshot is that I don’t think Salzman—or at least his allies—would use the pledge to conduct an even-handed evaluation of the social media posts of Democrats and Republicans.

Salzman does report that he looked at Democrats’ postings for several weeks: “I looked at the Facebook pages of all Colorado state legislators from Oct. 1 until the November election, and I found that three lawmakers spread fake news during that time.”

All three were Republicans. I don’t spend my time monitoring the social media postings of elected officials and party leaders, so I can’t say whether I might have come up with a longer (and bipartisan) list. Maybe Republicans in Colorado really have been the worse offenders in this regard.

Regardless, I sincerely hope that Salzman continues to hold politicians accountable for their irresponsible media posts. The fact that he’s partisan in his approach does not negate the value of his fact-based findings. If he spends less of his time investigating Democrats, hopefully other observers (perhaps including Republican partisans) will fill in the gaps.

Legislators (and others) don’t have to sign some pledge in order to be held accountable. The pledge is essentially irrelevant to the task of holding people accountable for distributing fake news (although the pledge is a useful PR stunt to draw attention to the problem of fake news).

And Salzman has done some truly great work exposing elected Republicans and Republican party leaders (in Colorado) who distributed fake news. Following are some examples of Salzman’s findings, as he reported in November and December articles:

  • Laura Woods shared a story claiming that a vaccine causes autism. I checked the link, and it is based on the fraudulent claims of Andrew Wakefield.
  • Gunnison County Republicans posted a story about a quote falsely attributed to Diane Feinstein: “When the gunman realizes that nobody else is armed, he will lay down his weapons and turn himself in.”
  • A candidate for state house posted a false claim that one of Hillary Clinton’s ancestors was hanged for horse stealing. (Aside from being false, the claim is stupid; who cares what someone’s long-ago ancestor did?)
  • “GOP Vice Chair Derrick Wilburn shared a meme claiming that Obama’s Department of Justice would no longer use the word ‘felon,’ so as not to hurt the feelings of criminals.” I looked up the story, and it’s grotesquely misleading—although even the Washington Times got in on it. Here is the truth.
  • A county GOP chair falsely attributed a quote to Jimmy Carter about the “first woman president.”
  • State representative Polly Lawrence shared a fake story about Clinton’s alleged “hot mic racial slurs” and suggested it might be true.
  • Former state representative Gordon Klingenschmitt—perhaps the most bizarre person ever to be elected to office in Colorado (and that’s saying something)—shared fake news about the alleged assassination of Antonin Scalia, suggesting it might be true.

The appropriate response by Republicans to Salzman’s reporting is to condemn fake news and criticize Republican leaders for sharing it. Period. That’s the decent thing to do, and it is therefore also the politically expedient thing to do. Republicans cannot do well if many people think they’re crackpots.

What is not helpful is for Greg Brophy, formerly a state senator and a chief of staff for U.S. Representative Ken Buck,* to call Salzman a “fake reporter” for his efforts. Salzman has never made himself out to be a nonpartisan reporter; he is explicitly an advocacy journalist (as am I). And, anyway, calling Salzman “fake” does not disprove the claims of his articles at hand, which as far as I’ve found are all true.

Senator Kevin Lundberg’s reply to Salzman is much more helpful (although still troublesome in certain respects). Admirably, Lundberg begins his reply by noting his opposition to fake news:

I have always been as careful as I can in not promoting inaccurate information. However, there is a troubling element to the idea that news out of the mainstream might be suspected of being “fake.”

Having been a legislator for many years, and at one time a member of the news media, I know that every story is laced with the assumptions and perspective of the reporter. Hence, almost all stories have elements of what somebody might want to brand as “fake.” This is the reality of news reporting and the consumer of this information should always be discerning.

This new term “fake news,” to me smacks of a new censorship that ultimately could do more damage than what inaccurate news could ever do on its own.

I will respectfully decline to sign your pledge.

Kevin Lundberg
Colorado State Senate

As much as I appreciate the tone of Lundberg’s reply, I take issue with three aspects of it. First, I don’t read Salzman’s pledge as singling out non-“mainstream” sources as “fake.” After all, Salzman’s own web site is well outside the mainstream (as is mine). Second, although Lundberg is right that a lot of claims are debatable, it remains the case that some claims just are flatly wrong and can be proved to be so. Third, “censorship” is definitely not the right term here. Censorship refers to government forcibly restricting speech; what we’re talking about are expressions of freedom of speech for the sake of condemning the dissemination of fake news.

But, for reasons outlined above, I do think that Lundberg reasonably can decline to sign Salzman’s pledge, even as he personally takes care not to spread fake news. Hopefully Lundberg also will take on a leadership role within his party by encouraging party leaders to share information responsibly.

I’ll note here that, as of last Fall, I too am a Republican by party affiliation, and I am happy to join Salzman in better policing ourselves, our allies, and our opponents to check the dissemination of fake news. Thankfully, we don’t need people to sign Salzman’s pledge to make this a reality.

Salzman Shares His Views

I asked Salzman (via email) whether anyone has signed the pledge and whether Republicans might reasonably suspect the pledge would be used against Republicans.

He said that State Representative Mike Foot and State Senator-Elect Dominick Moreno, both Democrats, have signed the pledge. “I am hoping more legislators will sign, from both parties,” Salzman wrote.

I reproduce the rest of Salzman’s reply in full:

The pledge is bipartisan, and as a practical matter, it won’t work for partisan attacks. I don’t think fake news has a lot of pop politically, insofar as it’s not a good political attack to say something like, hypothetically, “Sen. Lundberg signed a fake news pledge and posted fake news on his Facebook page.” I don’t think that would work. You and I care about journalism and accurate information, but can you really see an attack ad being made around this issue? The fake news pledge is about the boring grind of good government, meaningful debate, etc., stuff we all care about.

So will leftists use it to attack righties? I don’t think so, but I don’t control them. It wasn’t designed for this purpose. I wrote the pledge after seeing many outrageous instances of bogus information being spread on Facebook by lawmakers. Both sides should be concerned about this, and the pledge is a chance to do something about it and hold elected officials of both parties accountable.

If you’re worried that this is biased against Republicans, then please edit the pledge so that it’s more fair, in your mind. I’ve asked conservatives to do this, and none has taken me up on the offer. Yet, I know conservatives care about accuracy and civic discourse. And they know fake news is a problem. So let’s do something about it.

The sticking points are 1) the definition of fake news and 2) the arbiters. The pledge defines fake news as information packaged in some way to look like news. And it uses mainstream sources as arbiters, with the caveat that the signer can ignore the arbiters if the signer explains why. What’s wrong with that? I don’t think our local media fact checkers favor progressives. Same at the national level. And it doesn’t matter anyway, since no information or information source is banned by the pledge.

The pledge focuses an amorphous discussion about fake news on specific ways we can try to agree on ground rules for how to wage fact-based civic discourse.

Thanks, Ari, for reaching out.

Although I disagree with Salzman about the need for the pledge, I agree with him that each of us can and should help to establish a “fact-based civic discourse.”

Because, as Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

* Note: Originally I claimed that Greg Brophy currently is chief of staff for Representative Ken Buck. I based this claim on Wikipedia’s entry about Brophy and on Brophy’s claim on his Twitter profile that he’s a “Congressional CoS.” But Buck’s page currently lists Ritika Robertson as Chief of Staff. So I’m not sure what Brophy is up to these days. Anyway, this minor point again serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to get every detail exactly right.

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