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Sorting out the news: It’s not just the bots that are killing us

Suzanne Donovan

“How to combat fake news and disinformation,” a recent Brookings Institution report, is a welcome if somewhat timid addition to a critical public dialogue, one that I’d argue goes to the heart of the viability of our political system. That is, if you’re not so jaded that you no longer accept that an “educated public” — individuals with the capacity to think critically, evaluate information, and question authority — is the foundation of a healthy democracy. 

The author, Darrell West, starts with the obvious, journalism is in flux, and leads up to his recommendations by reporting on a series of polls and developments in news media and technology that are reshaping our expectations and behaviors. His recommendations are made in the right categories, though I’d argue some are naive while others not so workable. Still, it’s a thoughtful proposal that needs more conversation and could help inspire change. 

First, some background.  

Social media and other digital platforms have created more ways to share information instantaneously. The vast majority of us now get our news— and an avalanche of pictures, cat videos and snarky comments, all under the umbrella of “content”— from friends, family, co-workers, and yes, bots, through online sharing. 

That’s great, and (mostly) democratic at its core. However, the technology also carries an onslaught of misinformation and ‘fake news,’ influencing how we interpret events around us. 

West also reports on the free fall in the public’s trust of traditional media. This is not new, sadly, but the precipitous decline, while justified in some cases, spells real danger for democracy. 

Much of the public’s mistrust is directed at corporate-owned outlets, specifically cable news (whose business is to cater to specific ideologies) and a few larger newspapers. The good news is most readers are more apt to believe their local paper. But without the Fourth Estate, and all the time, resources, and people it takes to report and investigate, we wouldn’t learn half of what government and major corporations prefer to hide.

Setting aside the widespread media mistrust, the social/cultural transformation we’re experiencing is far more complicated, fueled by our own cognitive capacity and predilections. The conflation of “content” and news available 24/7, are combining with new behaviors we’ve adopted — information sharing through platforms and devices that supercharge our addiction to staying up to the minute — and our deeply human albeit largely unrecognized prejudices. To complicate matters further, we apparently still believe most of what we read.

Put simply: We’re in a bad place.

Our prejudices get reinforced by information shared among trusted sources and are further bolstered by algorithms based on our online behaviors, resulting in a steady diet of reinforcing content streaming through our devices. Meanwhile we still hold that the printed word is “true,” even if we feel some tug of skepticism as we read. To make matters worse: These new habits are layered on top of our basic albeit flawed human predilection to accept what reinforces our own beliefs and biases. 

So the 21st century has brought us the tools to build a far more nuanced view of the world but it takes a whole lot more work, intellectually and cognitively, to sift through incongruent ideas, let alone critically evaluate them. But who has the time and the bandwidth?

And now what? There’s no turning back. West proposes a grab bag of fixes in the realms of government, news industry, tech companies, educational institutions and individual behaviors. 

Here are the best takeaways: 1) The onus is on each of us to read skeptically, regardless of who’s sharing, or the source. 2) Our public education system has got to get back to teaching critical thinking skills. Can’t say this enough. 3) His smartest tech recommendation: “Algorithms are powerful vehicles in the digital era and help shape people’s quest for information and how they find online material. They can also help with automatic hoax detection, and there are ways to identify fake news to educate readers without censoring it.”

(Newsflash: There is a new app for that. But it’s still up to us to read and question.)

No it’s not just the bots, though the disinformation campaign that tainted the 2016 election provides a cautionary tale. It’s not even the tyranny of Twitter. It’s the whole messy mix West describes and then some. Yes, it is exponentially harder to be the informed, educated citizens we need to be. But our future depends on it. 

Read the report and talk about it. 

Suzanne Donovan, a journalist and advocate for a free press, was assistant metro editor at a regional daily in Georgia before moving to Minnesota.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/05/2018 - 10:31 am.

    From the report:(quote)A

    From the report:

    A recent Gallup poll found that only 37 percent believe “news organizations generally get the facts straight.” This is down from about half of the country who felt that way in 1998. There is also a startling partisan divide in public assessments. Only 14 percent of Republicans believe the media report the news accurately, compared to 62 percent for Democrats. Even more disturbingly, “a solid majority of the country believes major news organizations routinely produce false information.”
    (end quote)

    The true take away from that data is that Republicans no longer believe in the veracity of the mainstream media–the acceptance of mainstream media by Democrats apparently remains the same.

    I’ve had the same experience as many others–the facing of some bizarre conspiracy fomented by right-wing sources as presented by an acquaintance who believed those ideas. For example, a friend, going to England to visit grandchildren, had some trepidation of being captured in a “no-go Sharia-controlled area” while there.

    How do you counter those sorts of ideas when the first step down their road of belief was the specific denial of the truthfulness of ordinary news (remember “we make our own reality” and “lame-stream” ?) and then the insertion of greater and greater distortions of the world.

    The problem is not so much that everyone risks the same sorts of distorted views–it’s that a major segment of the public has a self-reinforcing set of delusions, started by “true-believers” and crackpots and maintained in a hot-house of support by politicians and people who know better (or could know better) but find the strength of the deceived masses a useful political weapon.

    • Submitted by Suzanne Donovan on 01/06/2018 - 03:46 pm.

      thanks very much for your comment

      it is true that the polling data describing the partisan-ization of media mistrust is disturbing, as well as that so many in the US think major news organizations are producing false information. i still think this needs to be parsed a bit more, however, which was hard to do in this piece. there have been numerous polls over the last number of years detailing our collective distrust of media outlets (and government) that break it down a bit more than the data relayed in the Brookings report. still, it is quite likely that our Tweeter-in-Chief has fanned the flames of his supporters’ mistrust– and the more he and others in that camp, broadly speaking, repeat the “fake media” charge, the more ingrained it becomes in people’s minds, particularly those already so inclined. the whole mistrust phenom is a complicated and emotionally charged area to explore because it is so subjective. Many progressive-leaning individuals for years have mistrusted the larger corporate-owned media, for good reason, though I’m not trying to equate the two groups…

      i appreciate your question regarding how we can counter the wild “theories” and distortions. i wonder sometimes if we can, in all instances. (What’s remarkable to me is how brazenly open so many of these ideas have become but that’s directly the result of new media.) I do think that our willingness to pose questions and engage in debate remains important, even if it feels painful and futile at times. I also feel we must continue to support all types of “legitimate” news outlets– from neighborhood, community press, radio, etc to local, regional, and those with a national reach–so they know that readers value in-depth reporting and analysis, and that we’re willing to take a stand for the first amendment, quaint as it may seem in this context.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/05/2018 - 12:45 pm.

    Those of us in the public who believe in critical thinking might use the Wolff book on Trump’s White House–with all its reported screaming and tantrums and in-fighting and with practically everyone quoted by Wolff as believing the President to be an idiot, ignorant and incurious, even unstable to an extreme–to test our skills at discerning when or if Wolff “invents” stuff. In other words: How much of the book is true?

    There has already been some fascinating press comment on Wolff’s techniques of quoting or summarizing, or “re-creating” whole scenes with quoted dialogue, comment that would like very much to cast doubt on what he reports in the book. Some of that criticism is envy (the guy has what may be 2018’s singe biggest book sensation, thanks to Trump). But we can use the book as an exercise of our own thinking process.

    And, I am going to ignore any comment from people who haven’t read the entire Wolff book.

  3. Submitted by Tom Johnson on 01/06/2018 - 11:26 am.

    Critical Thinking is the Key

    The fact is that the vast majority of the U.S. population is too lazy and willfully ignorant to use the critical thinking (and critical feeling — i.e. “shit detector”) capabilities that all humans are born with. These so-called skills are actually normal human survival functions that much of the world’s population continues to employ.

    The majority U.S. population surrendered its critical thinking and feeling capacities when it embraced anti-communism, the Red Scare, the Cold War, permanent global warfare, capitalism, consumerism, the genocide against indigenous peoples in the U.S., patriarchy, fundamental religionism and ideologies, and white supremacy.

    In every case critical thinking and feeling requires courage, self-discipline and a bit of effort. We have become a nation of consumers, cowards and liars that embrace our mediocrity because it’s easy to do when you have basic creature comforts.

    That is why social media and what pass as public media are so successful in manipulating the vast majority of people in our “exceptional” nation.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/06/2018 - 11:39 am.

    Of course it’s not the bots – it’s ourselves… including the sad truth that we can’t even have an open discussion. Critical thinking is impossible without knowledge of all points of view, including the opposite ones.

    • Submitted by Tom Johnson on 01/07/2018 - 10:58 am.

      I Agree, But…

      Understanding anything requires more than two points of view (stated and opposite). Understanding requires dynamic thinking in which as many factors as possible are considered, always knowing the factors change with time and context. The proverbial “glass” is neither half-full nor half-empty – except when you are drinking from it. And is the water clean or polluted?

      We understand with a dynamic combination of body (senses), intellect (mind) and emotions (who the hell knows how those work?). Water is Life.

      And we need to start with facts, not “opinions” if we are ever going to get to clean and healthy actions, which is what a “good life”” is about.

      Thanks for your perceptive comment.

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/07/2018 - 04:58 pm.

    I want news waiters to bring me the news, not tell me how to interpret it. But that’s not the game anymore, so it is up to us to gather as much as we can, from as many sources we can and sift through the mess for bits of truth

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