One day at the grocery, a woman who recognized me from my work as a reporter smiled as we passed in an aisle and said she liked my “political views.”
I assumed she meant she liked my Sunday column, which is on this paper’s Opinion page, and thus where I try to confine my political opinions. Even in a column, though, a reporter should look at things objectively and reach conclusions based on verifiable facts, not rumors or hunches.
If we journalists have a bias, it is a bias toward the truth.
So I nodded and thanked the woman, thinking she simply appreciated good journalism. I was feeling a little puffed up when she turned her cart around and came back.
She told me in hushed tones that in Florida, where many of those eligible have voted in the Nov. 8 election already, a woman had voted the straight Republican ticket, but when she hit the button to record it, the machine changed her presidential choice from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.
According to “another post” she had read, she said, in a different jurisdiction, the polling machines resembled roulette wheels.
“That’s unbelievable!” I said, shaking my head.
And I meant it in several ways.
Welcome to the brave new world of democracy in the age of social media.
Regardless of our varying political views (and yes, journalists’ views vary greatly), it drives us old-school reporters crazy that so many people now get their information from Facebook and Twitter rather than from reliable news sources such as the nightly news programs on the old television networks, public radio, the wire services and, of course, newspapers.
When I started in this business, all of us got our news from these traditional sources — what I call “real journalism” to distinguish it from “citizen journalism,” which nearly always has an agenda and doesn’t adhere to ethical norms. Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” The New York Times was the “old gray lady” whose word was as solid as granite. The AP had to be independent because if it wasn’t, at least half of the dailies and broadcast stations in the country would drop them. But with the rise of partisan radio talk shows, networks that lean left or right (MSNBC and Fox, for example) and especially, hyperbolic “news” sites that mostly exist on Facebook, people are more misinformed than ever.
And, no, it isn’t just the uneducated and unengaged that are being taken in. I know engineers, doctors, school administrators, merchants and clergymen who believe nonsense they read on the Internet because: (a.) they want to believe it, and (b.) some of the news sources seem authentic.
For example, a relative, an intelligent and well-read person who was close to having a Ph.D before he quit grad school and sometimes listens to NPR on the way home from work, asked me not long ago if I had heard about Hillary Clinton having an affair with Yoko Ono. No, I laughed, where did you hear or read that? World Daily News Report, he answered.
World Daily News tops many lists of fake news sites. Others are Alex Jones’s InfoWars, The Other 98 Percent, The Federalist, End the Fed, Truth Feed, and Occupy Democrats.
While some of these sites are liberal and others conservative, the phenomenon is far more prevalent on what has come to be called the “alt-right,” the far right extremists who distrust the Republican “establishment” almost as much as they despise the “mainstream media.”
BuzzFeed’s reporters analyzed 1,000 posts from hyperpartisan pages and compared the “truthiness” of their posts with those of mainstream pages like CNN and found that 38 percent of right-wing posts were a mixture of true and false or mostly false. That was the case with 19 of leftwing pages.
Not only are many of the stories false, but also they are selected because they’re inflammatory. Several times in recent days, I’ve seen Facebook posts about President Obama signing an executive order ending the Pledge of Allegiance. It didn’t happen. And when American Muslims held an anti-ISIS rally in Dearborn, Mich., the alt-right media spun it as a pro-ISIS rally.
In the New Yorker magazine profile of Mike Cernovich, an alt-right favorite, admitted, “I use trolling tactics to build my brand.” He said he spread rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health not because of its importance compared with Syrian refugees or other issues, but because of its potential to go viral.
There are ways to tell if something on the Internet is likely from one of these disreputable sites or from a real news source. One of the most helpful guides I’ve seen is from an unlikely source, the online version of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine started by Billy Graham in the 1950s.
Here are a few of their tips:
• Beware of sites ending in “.ru” “.co” or other unlikely domain names. Just this week, I had to tell a Facebook friend that a story she shared was not from ABC.com, the American Broadcasting Network, it was “ABC.com.co,” which is something else entirely.
• Keep in mind that some sites are satire. Almost everybody knows The Onion is just for laughs, but it isn’t the only one. World Daily News is a hoax site that is more hateful than humorous, and most people don’t see the hidden disclaimer that it is “a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways.”
• You shouldn’t share something on Facebook or re-tweet it without checking it out. When you can Google something in seconds to see if it’s true or not, there’s no excuse for not doing so. But be careful what sources you use to check it out.
Snopes.com is the bestknown fact checker of Internet rumors, and no, it isn’t biased. If it were, it would destroy its business model. For political news, Fact- Check.org checks out statements in political TV spots and speeches. PolitiFact.com is another good one.
• Finally, if something sounds far-fetched, it’s probably false. Don’t be fooled again.
The Kentucky Standard newspaper is located in Bardtown.