Fake news could reveal disturbing truth
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?