Fake news could re­veal dis­turb­ing truth

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Ge­orgie Anne Geyer Colum­nist Ge­orgie Anne Geyer has been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and com­men­ta­tor on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_ geyer@juno.com.

For decades, for­eign cor­re­spon­dents have cov­ered coun­tries where peo­ple are quite lit­er­ally beg­ging for true in­for­ma­tion.

Dur­ing the Cold War and un­der the worst dic­ta­tor­ships, Rus­sians, Hun­gar­i­ans, Poles and many oth­ers would whis­per to us in locked rooms or some­where where the mu­sic was so loud the dic­ta­tor­ship couldn’t over­hear you. Then they would tell us, of­ten tear­fully, about se­cretly lis­ten­ing to the clan­des­tine broad­casts of Voice of Amer­ica or Ra­dio Free Europe or, more re­cently, Ra­dio Free Asia. The dan­ger to them­selves was very real.

Af­ter the walls around Rus­sia be­gan fall­ing in 1989, it was stag­ger­ing to us over­seas re­porters how much of the col­lapse was due to those brave and dis­ci­plined Amer­i­can ra­dio broad­casts. How ter­ri­bly much they meant to peo­ple so starved for what we care­lessly take for granted -- news!

There was no ques­tion in my mind all dur­ing the 1980s that hard-line Com­mu­nist East Ger­many was chang­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly, changes that led to the Ber­lin Wall com­ing down. Why? It was a sim­ple ques­tion of “read­ing the tea leaves,” watch­ing and un­der­stand­ing the sym­bols that in­vari­ably re­veal when and how changes come in closed so­ci­eties.

The rigid, cruel, an­ti­sep­tic East Ger­man Com­mu­nists, for the first time, be­gan al­low­ing West Ger­man television across the fright­ful bor­der, with an in­no­cence of out­come rare to these goons. Western TV crews would film and in­ter­view, then take their raw footage back home and fi­nally broad­cast news shows back to the East. The East was no longer red; the East was dead. And not from tanks or tommy guns, but from in­for­ma­tion.

That’s why I take so poorly to all the news about “fake news.” It’s as though, hav­ing ef­fec­tively won the bat­tle for mankind’s mind, we Amer­i­cans are mer­rily abol­ish­ing the sys­tems that gave us the vic­tory. But it is cer­tainly not the first time that what was sup­posed to free us has ac­tu­ally en­slaved us.

In case you haven’t heard about it -- per­haps be­cause you’re on Face­book read­ing it -- fake news has sud­denly be­come the new­est Darth Vader of jour­nal­ism. Af­ter the elec­tion, it was re­al­ized that Face­book, Google, Twit­ter and many of those won­der­ful new out­lets for “cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists” were, in truth, only swamp­ing us with con­spir­acy the­o­ries, prej­u­dice and anony­mous ha­rass­ment.

At first, Mark Zucker­berg, Face­book’s $50 bil­lion chief­tain, didn’t want to bother his rich self about it. He wasn’t a “pub­lisher,” he said; be­sides, only 1 per­cent, if that, of news cir­cu­lat­ing on the sites was fake.

But those words were fake, too. Ac­cord­ing to Buz­zFeed, the web­site that cov­ers trends, fo­cus­ing on ru­mors and gos­sip, in the last three months of the elec­toral cam­paign, the 20 top fake news sto­ries on Face­book gen­er­ated more en­gage­ment than the 20 top sto­ries from real news web­sites. Then Paul Horner, a pre­vi­ously lit­tle-known blog­ger who had placed many of the fake news sto­ries, stepped into the spot­light, stat­ing, a lit­tle amazed, that peo­ple “be­lieved ev­ery­thing.”

Face­book and Google spokes­men have now as­sumed some re­spon­si­bil­ity. But they have not yet ac­cepted that they are pub­lish­ers, with all the re­spon­si­bil­ity for lay­ers upon lay­ers of re­port­ing, fact-check­ing, writ­ing in bal­ance, copy­edit­ing and le­gal ad­vis­ing that comes with real news. In case you haven’t no­ticed, all the mean­ing­ful re­port­ing still comes from news­pa­pers, pub­lic television, and a hand­ful of se­ri­ous jour­nals and their re­porters. And yet the cit­i­zens of Amer­ica blithely and self-in­dul­gently go about spend­ing hours (teens re­port­edly spend 7 ½ hours a day) on the in­ter­net, mostly with­out know­ing a take­off from a take­down, a rev­o­lu­tion from an evo­lu­tion or an ex­e­cu­tion from a mur­der.

Mean­while, ex­actly what are we to say to peo­ple still liv­ing un­der dic­ta­tor­ships in Cen­tral Asia or Africa or Asia (or, still, Rus­sia) when they des­per­ately take us aside to talk about news?

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