In the wake of emotion comes an assault on the truth.
Here are a few of the questionable or false things that surfaced in surprisingly authoritative places in the last week.
- The Las Vegas shooter was a liberal activist . . . except that he wasn’t. According to top search results on Google, Stephen Paddock, who just shot and killed 59 people in Las Vegas and injured 500 more, was a liberal who hated Trump, had been linked by the F.B.I. to the Islamic State, and had recently converted to Islam. None of these statements about Paddock are true. As described in a New York Times article by Kevin Roose, Google’s “Top Stories” news section picked up on a link to trolls on 4chan scheming to pin the shooting on the left. Facebook got fooled too; its “safety check” feature showcased a link to “Alt-Right News” with false information. Political fantasist Alex Jones, of course, told his audience that leftists, Communists, globalists, ISIS, and the antifa were responsible for the shooting.
- Tom Petty died . . . but he didn’t . . . but he actually did. Yesterday the LA Times and Rolling Stone prematurely reported that Petty had died, when he was still on life support. Later that day he actually died.
- Who gets most of the gains from the Republican Tax Plan? It appears to be rich people . . . unless it somehow isn’t. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center did an analysis of the Republicans’ proposed tax plan and found that 80% of the gains would go to the top 1% of taxpayers. The tax plan is so vague at this point, with no indication of where the tax brackets start or stop or whether there will be a higher tax bracket above the ones in the plan, that the Tax Policy Center made the most reasonable assumptions it could based on past tax policies and noted its assumptions clearly. Naturally, this meant that Republicans including President Trump challenged the analysis, while Democrats and tax hawks like Rand Paul used it to thrash the tax proposal.
- Trump said that the Graham-Cassidy health insurance bill failed because a Republican senator was in the hospital . . . but he wasn’t. President Trump said the Republicans couldn’t win this vote because of a hospitalized senator who couldn’t vote. While Senator Thad Cochran was in Mississippi for medical issues, he wasn’t in the hospital. And even if he had voted yes, all of the Democrats plus Republicans John McCain, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz were voting against it, so Cochran’s vote couldn’t bring the total past 48, two votes short of what the bill needed to pass.
- GM said it would go to all electric cars . . . but when? An article in USA Today was typical of the coverage of this announcement, with the title “General Motors to switch to electric vehicles as gas vehicles die a slow death.” Indeed, Mark Reuss, its product development chief, said, “General Motors will move humanity forward in the future with all-electric propulsion. Because General Motors believes the future is all electric, these aren’t just words in a war of press releases.” But he also declined to specify a year on which the change would take place. GM’s intentions aren’t really news; if consumers keep insisting on gas cars, GM will certainly keep making them.
- Russians continue to post fake news on Facebook . . . on both sides. As Hiawatha Bray explains in the Boston Globe, Russians on Facebook stirred up dissent against Muslim refugees, and separately, in a made-up group called “Blacktivists” to boost turnout at anti-racism protests.
Is all this making you doubt the truth of what you read? That’s the idea.
Ten years ago, I was one of many who helped stoke the original vision that social media would create an ongoing conversation about the issues that mattered in America.
Things went a little differently from how I expected.
America polarized into blue and red states who read different news sources and believe in different realities.
Trolls and foreign agents weaponized social media to inflame those divisions and cast doubt on truth from respected sources like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN.
Those sources lost revenue and therefore, resources that were their safety net for checking stories. At the same time, the news became a race — the fastest news story got the traffic. Speed and less checking meant more inaccurate stories getting published, which further undermined media credibility.
We elected a president on a platform of discrediting media. His Twitter feed — and the media’s penchant to cover his inflammatory and misleading pronouncements — gave him a direct path creating further doubt in what we read. “Fake news!”
You may think the objective is render the media toothless. It isn’t. The enemies of the press and reasoned debate need only sow doubt. In this they have succeeded.
Ironically, my own message would be the same as that of these enemies of democracy: don’t necessarily believe what you read.
Seek multiple, independent sources.
And when you’re most upset — when people are shot, or politicians are whipping up a frenzy — take a step back. This is when you are most susceptible to believing what those who twist the news want you to believe. If what you read confirms your most deeply held beliefs, suspect it.
Silicon Valley needs a project to solve this problem
Google, Facebook, Twitter, AOL/Oath, Apple, and every other organization embedded in the ecosystem of news share the same problem — they are complicit in spreading lies. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg says the company doesn’t want to be “The Arbiter of Truth.”
Regardless of what she says, it is. So are Google and Apple. If you spread news, your algorithm is an arbiter of truth. Google and Facebook screwed up on the Las Vegas story, and their algorithms promote fake news all the time. The trolls are playing them like a piano.
Because these companies are completely interwoven with each other and with the media ecosystem, they cannot differentiate based on who has the best hold on truth. The only solution is for them to work together.
It’s time for these companies to found a Truth Foundation, with the objective creating a truth metric for internet sites and pages. If their algorithms can optimize for traffic, then with a sufficient level of A.I., they can optimize for truth.
This is the only path for the redemption of news media and social media. Without it, the trolls will win. Without it, the truth will become a distant memory, and one that is different for each of us based on our political views.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple created this problem. They need to fix it.