Weapons of Mass Deception

During the course of this series, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss some of the same issues in my postings with people outside of the blog and classroom.  Occasionally, I would run across someone who would take offense to my ideas, who would assume my belief Russian fake news exuded a great influence over our last election infers I believe Donald Trump colluded with the Russians.

 

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Donald Trump and Vladamir Putin (Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

And though I informed them I never made that assertion, that my point had nothing to do with Trump and fake news and everything to do with the Russians and fake news, many of them still could not, or would not, make the connection, or rather, the disconnection.  Granted that Trump was the benefactor of the Russian’s interference in our elections, but pointing that out doesn’t also point at Trump as being partner to the Russians’ actions.  That’s just not the issue.

 

The issue as we can clearly see in recent news published just the last month or so, is that the Russians have taken their success in influencing our country’s elections and imported it for use in recent European elections.  In this posting, the last of the series, I take a look at the bigger picture of Russia transforming fake news into a global weapon for influencing democratic elections to their liking.

 

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Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron (Image from Euromaidanpress.com)

 

Fake news is a relatively new term; however, fake news is nothing new.  A more familiar term for fake news is disinformation, which has been around for a long, long time, and it is the term I’ll use in place of fake news in this post. The Russians are very familiar with disinformation, it was a major part of their arsenal during the cold war.  It should be no surprise that Putin, an ex-KGB man, has “retooled” the disinformation dissemination machine into a stealth operation.

Laura Reston, managing editor of the New Republic, wrote an article on that very subject.  I might not normally cite the left-leaning publication, but I have yet to see right-leaning publication get beyond the “Trump and the Russians is fake news” mantra, let alone embracing the idea that it’s not about Trump, but the Russians manipulating our elections.  She explains, amongst other relevant points, how the Russians use disinformation to create confusion about what is and is not real, what is and is not fake, which works to their advantage.

They use numerous paid bloggers to create and publish disinformation by tweets, social media, and comment sections of legitimate publications, often mixing disinformation with real news, enrobing falsehoods in the truth, to make it appear credible. The credible-looking stories are presented on Russian operative news sources and websites as legitimate news from reliable western sources. This fine-tuned operation can be deployed quickly whenever desired, spreading disinformation within a targeted audience and influencing them to react in a way favorable to the Russians.

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Fake CNN Website (Image from Wired.com)

 

And the Russians don’t save their efforts for the Americans alone, we have seen them interfering in recent elections Europe.  Last April, Anne Applebaum, columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece describing the interference Russia created in a recent Dutch referendum vote.  Prior to the referendum, the EU was slated to sign an innocuous trade agreement with the Ukraine.  However, a conspiracy theory based website managed to get the necessary number of signatures for a referendum to see if the Dutch people were in favor of the deal.  In the time leading up to the voting, the Russians had successfully manipulated the electorate to turn down (a “No” vote) support of the treaty.

According to DW.com (Deutsche Welle, a credible German news source), to achieve this goal, the Russians used fake news and hacked Dutch government officials’ email accounts to persuade fringe voters against backing the Ukrainian agreement.  DW claimed the successful Russian interference was practice for two more important upcoming elections in France and Germany.

Just weeks before the French presidential election (April 23 and May 7), French email and social media accounts were inundated with fake news.  The leading candidate (running in opposition to the far-right candidate) had his office computers hacked.  The leading suspect, the New York Times reported, was the Russians.

 

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Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin (Image from YourNewsWire.com)

 

So alarming was the recent French and American election interference, that Germany and the U.K., having their own elections shortly, are worried the Russians may attempt to interfere and produce results favorable to them.  Beyond the United States, Germany, France and Holland, Russians have interfered in the elections of Ukraine, Austria, Norway, and Bulgaria, according to Newsweek, using similar techniques and for the same purpose.

The Russian threat is obvious and it isn’t Donald Trump, regardless if he colluded with the Russian or not, it’s the way they have now made fake news, disinformation, an accurate and precise weapon in the new cold war.  We all thought of cyber-war as hacking into the electrical grid or large banks, a hi-jacking of data, something understandable and obvious as deceptive.  Who expected that cyber-warfare would include psychological interference and manipulation as a means to an end?  Why the Russians did and that is the greatest threat to our democracy, perhaps more than president Trump.

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New 2016 Election Version of Clue: It was the Russians, in the Swing States with the Fake News!

False stories, currently referred to as fake news, have been a part of many US elections, as far back as the Adams-Jefferson race for the presidency when Adams was accused of being almost a hermaphrodite.

2016 was no better.  The specter of fake news lifted its head in the last election and appeared on the web and in social media in near epidemic proportions.  But was the mass distribution of fake news actually a substantial influence on the election outcome?  Trump backers point to a 2016 post-election Stanford/NYU study which found that fake news most likely had no effect on the election.  According to the study, of the total respondents to the survey, only 8% actually read the fake news they came across and even less believed what they were reading.

 

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The Epidemic of Fake News (Image from FlowJournal.org)

 

Although the Stanford/NYU study would seem to back up Trump supporters’ claims that fake news had no influence on the last election, I feel confident that certain players, primarily the Russians, used fake news to target rust belt, swing state voters with near surgical precision and persuade them not to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Study’s authors (Hunt Allcott, Economics, New York University and Matthew Gentzkow, Economics, Stanford University) started their work by producing a database of 156 unique fake news articles gleaned from snopes.com, politifact.com, and BuzzFeed.com.  The “news” stories consisted of 41 anti-Trump/pro-Clinton and 115 anti-Clinton pieces, reflecting real-world anti-candidate item proportions.  They then created a SurveyMonkey.com survey to gather participants’ recognition and rating of 15 fake news headlines randomly selected from the database on an individual by individual basis.

 

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Left, Mathew Gentzkow of New York University, New York (Image from ChicagoMaroon.com)                               Right, Hunt Allcott of Stanford Univerity (Image from Flickr.com)

 

Authors went to great pains to assure reliable results.  They developed accuracy ratios to offset participants’ ability to recognize actual fake news shared from the placebo fake news (fake “fake news”) they created.  They performed re-weighting operations to assure responses represented a broad, national cross section of Americans who voted in the last election.  Of 30 million “opt-in” SurveryMonkey.com members, 1,208 contributed.  Demographics were asked of the contributors, categories included political affiliation, income, age, education, web, and social media use.

Impressive and credible to say the least, and quite frankly, I agree with their conclusions.  That on a broad national basis, fake news had very little influence, if any, on voters.  But no one needed a survey to see that, simple common sense would tell you otherwise.  Anyone who sought to use fake news as a means to sway voters against Clinton failed miserably as well indicated by her 3 million popular vote lead over Trump.  Failed, of course, if influencing the electorate against Clinton on a national scale were the intent.  But what if that weren’t the intent?

 

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Pivotal Rust Belt States  (Image from TheDebtWeOwe.com)

 

What if the intent was simply to convince a minimum number of voters in key swing states with relatively high numbers of electoral votes not to go for Clinton?  What if instead of millions of voters on a national level, you only had to sway tens of thousands of voters in three or so key states?  States where the two top candidates were running a close race with Clinton just a few points ahead of Trump. All the most opportunistic circumstances brewing up a “perfect storm” for electoral manipulation.  The Russians saw it.  They spotted all the conditions needed to produce the best atmosphere for swaying the most effective number of voters within a focused region of the electorate and they took advantage of it.

A little over a month ago, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr (R) and committee ranking Democrat, Mark Warner, joined together to inform the press that the Kremlin had hired over a thousand workers to produce anti- Clinton fake news for use in the swing states.  They further claimed that the Russian also had a near thousand trolls working out of a location controlling botnets to disseminate the anti-Clinton falsehoods to specific areas.  These commandeered computers of unsuspecting voters used their Facebook and Twitter accounts to spread the falsehoods to followers under the guise of a familiar user.

Just a few days later, Clint Watts, an ex-FBI agent, testified to that same Senate Intelligence committee that Russian operatives had used “armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans.”

To explain how the Russians recognized the elements of the optimal situation in which to influence the right amount of voters away from Clinton and take advantage of it, I’ll use an emulsion as an analogy.  An emulsion is a substance that doesn’t “exist” until all its components are at the right state at the right time.

 

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Cupcake with French Buttercream (Image from Pinterest.com)

 

An easy emulsion for my analogy is French buttercream frosting.  Buttercream is made of four simple ingredients, water, sugar, eggs, and butter.  However, you can’t just add all the ingredients into a bowl and whip it up into frosting.

To make buttercream, you first beat the eggs to a certain thickness, then boil the sugar and water to certain temperature, slowly add them to the eggs while mixing it continuously until room temperature when you will add the butter, softened and in one tablespoon chunks.

At first, the mixture looks like a messy bowl of butter egg soup, but you keep beating it until it reaches the right temperature and conditions and suddenly you have buttercream frosting in a matter of seconds.  Remove any component for the process and you get nothing as each part is essential for the success of the others and the whole.

 

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Buttercream before complete emulsion (Image from CookingForEngineers.com)

 

So the same for the Russians and a perfect set of conditions to use fake news and sway voters against Clinton.  You have your necessary components: a close race in a swing state, an over-confident Clinton taking her lead in the polls for granted and the Russians recognizing the situation and precisely targeting the localized voting block with anti-Clinton fake news.  Take any one component out of the combination and it fails and the Russians lose the advantage and the opportunity for success.

Reviewing the election results of three key swing states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, we see how just a relatively small amount of the voters of each turned the win over to Trump.  In Wisconsin, Trumps beats Hillary by 27,257, a mere 0.9% of votes cast.  Out in Pennsylvania, Trump wins 68,236 more votes or a meager 0.6% of total vote.  And in Michigan, Clinton loses by 11,612, a scant 0.2%.

Remember earlier in this post where I mention Stanford study’s conclusion that fake news was read and believed by less than 8% of the national electorate?  All these winning percentages fall far below the 8% benchmark, coincidentally.  And those are the percentages of votes Trump won over Clinton votes, the actual percentage required to win those elections is slightly more than half the candidate percentage difference.

The Russians only required a change in the hearts of a small percentage of probable Clinton voters to sway the election away from her.  Inundating the social media accounts of targeted areas proved to be an effective means of achieving this goal and with a modicum of effort.  And while Trump supporters continue to point to the Stanford/NYU study as irrefutable proof that fake news, no matter what it’s origin, had no effect on the national electorate, they miss the same exceptionally important demographic that the study’s authors did, regional data.  And without that regional data, they cannot say, with great certainty, that fake news wasn’t responsible for swaying a small number of voters in some strategically important swing states. It was those states, their surprising election results, and their electoral votes Trump the election.  He says so himself.

How Fake News Lost Clinton the Election

The morning of November 9, 2016 proved to be a “rude awakening” for Clinton supporters and the never-Trump coalition.  Despite all the pollsters, predictors and pundits prophesizing a Clinton win last November, the Fates had a different outcome in mind and Trump won the election.

 

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Nate Silver (Image from Politico.com)

Even the pollsters’ pollster, Nate Silver and his fivethirtyeight.com website, got it wrong.  They had estimated a 72% probability of Clinton winning the election on the morning voters went to the polls.  By the end of the day, however, they had reversed their prediction and gave Trump an 84% chance of gaining the presidency.

 

Despite Clinton getting close to three million more votes than Trump, Trump won the Electoral College by turning three key swing states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in his favor and by a small amount, around 77,000 votes over Clinton.

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2016 Electoral College Results (Image from Curbed.com)

 

And it is that relatively small amount, roughly 0.06% of total votes cast in the country that lead to Trump’s perplexing win.   What was it that turned these voters to Trump?  Within a few days, most every credible (and non-credible) news source had some sort of theory; and from the start of the discussion, the prominence and influence of fake news ranked high among them.

Many Democrats and a few of the anti-Trump group turned their attention to the prospect that fake news had a substantial influence on the election.  Fake news villainized and disparaged Hillary Clinton, influencing enough undecided voters, particularly in the rust belt swing states, to turn against her and hand the 2016 election over to Trump.

 

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Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton (Image from MorningLedger.com)

Top on the list of suspected fake news suppliers is Russia.  Vladimir Putin’s disdain for Hillary Clinton is certainly no well-kept Russian state secret.  Putin did not like interacting with her when she was Secretary of State and attempted a re-boot with the Russians.  He certainly didn’t want to have to interact with Clinton as president.  Seeking to hand Clinton a defeat in the election, Russian operatives inundated the internet and social media platforms with anti-Clinton fake news.

 

Two weeks after Clinton’s defeat, Craig Timberg, technology reporter for the Washington Post, published a piece showcasing the results of analytical research exposing the methods employed and the reach obtained by the Russians spreading anti-Clinton fake news.

 

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Botnet Network (Image from CBSNews.com)

According to the analysis, the Russians enlisted a combination of operatives consisting of paid trolls, botnets and collections of social media accounts and websites.  At light speed to record numbers of viewers, they used this network to distribute fake news, conspiracy theories and any hyperbolic propaganda against Clinton.   One researcher estimated 15 million viewers on the websites.  As for Facebook, the researcher calculated Russians promoted or produced fake news stories viewed over 213 million times.

 

Supporting the concept of paid operatives (trolls), Rachel Roberts of UK’s Independent news site and Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian report that Senator Mark Warner (D – VA) of the US Senate Intelligence Committee stated testimony confirmed Russians hired 1,000 individuals to create anti-Clinton fake news for distribution during the election in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Regardless of any specific technique used by the Russians, planting disinformation is nothing new for them; however, the vast number of viewers reached and the speed at which they accomplished it is.  And it was this high-speed, all reaching dissemination that enabled them to sway the election against Clinton.

The Russians were not the only ones using fake news to their advantage this election.  Additional players with other agendas, such as the “alt-right” and unscrupulous entrepreneurs, likewise infiltrated internet driven media platforms with fake news.

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InfoWars.com (Image from InfoWars.com)

Late last March (2017), Wil Worley, of the UK Independent as well, published an article informing his readers that the FBI was investigating rightwing sites, such as Breitbart and InfoWars, to assess their role in the dissemination of pro-Trump fake news via bots at times when the Trump campaign’s poll numbers were down.  While scrutinizing these sites, the FBI was also investigating if any of them colluded with the Russians in their efforts, intentionally or otherwise.

 

Of course, colluding with the Russians isn’t the only fake news game around, some purveyors of fake news are in it for the money.  Two such enterprising businessmen, Cameron Harris (New York Times article by Scott Shane) and Paul Horner  (Washington Post article by Caitlin Dewey) say their interest in creating fake news is purely monetary.

Both gentlemen have produced slick, authentic looking news websites for the purpose of launching click bait fake news.  They use Facebook accounts and other social media-driven platforms to share their stories on their sites.  Shares get re-shared and more people are clicking the links to the sites, increasing ad revenue.  Both have said that emotional and sensational, pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake stories get the most clicks, several times over any pro-Clinton/anti-Trump stories.

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Breitbart.com (Image from Breitbart.com)

 

Both men insist their motives have nothing to do with politics.  Horner states he was not nor ever would be a Trump supporter and worries he may have helped put Trump in the Whitehouse. Harris was simply looking to pay his college bills.  Yet, for whatever the reason may be, they have both contributed to the anti-Clinton atmosphere and may have influenced a large number of voters away from Clinton with their convincing stories.

Every day, we hear more and more about fake news’ role in the election.  The effect of fake news is so subversive, Congress and the FBI are seriously investigating any fake news connection with Russia and if anyone associated with Trumps winning campaign colluded with them to spread it amongst vulnerable swing state voters.  Every day, we see more and more evidence pointing to just such a scandal.

Fake News Substantially Influencing the Election is the Fake News

Days after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 presidential election, supporters, pundits, news organizations and players from all sides of the battle contemplated on what exactly caused the surprising defeat for Clinton.

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Donald Trump (Image from BusinessInsider.com)

Nearly every marker pointed to a successful Clinton effort.  So, they pondered, what could have possibly turned voters in key, traditionally Democratic, swing states against her?

 

The name of the FBI Director, James Comey, was tossed about by some who believed his late October Clinton email announcement swayed enough of those valuable rust belt voters against her.  However, a great many others asserted that the flood of anti-Clinton conspiracies and stories promulgated through fake news, particularly on social media platforms, had a direct effect in influencing the voters in those key areas to move away from Clinton.  After all, anti-Clinton fake news out numbered anti-Trump fake news about 5 to 1 around election day.

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James Comey (Image from FBI.gov)

 

Trump’s backers, primarily conservatives, Republicans and other supporters of Donald Trump, claim fake news had little if any influence on the outcome of election 2016. Rather, they point out, it was Trump’s superior campaigning skills and Clinton’s elitism and incompetence that won him the presidency.

First and foremost, they note, fake news influenced nothing and believing so is disingenuous. A prominent study done by instructors at Stanford and NYU shows fake news had very little effect on voters’ decisions in election 2016. The study was done by economic professors Hunt Allcott and Mathew Gentzkow of New York University, New York City and Stanford University, respectively.  They sought to calculate what effect fake news had on the turn of the election.  They crafted a post-election survey to assess voters’ reaction to fake news.  Recording participants’ responses to questions involving campaign news sources, amount of fake news read and whether or not it was believed.

 

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Left, Mathew Gentzkow of New York University, New York (Image from ChicagoMaroon.com)                               Right, Hunt Allcott of Stanford Univerity (Image from Flickr.com)

 

Allcott and Gentzkow’s calculations produced some surprising results.  They found that most people did not get their campaign news from social media like Facebook, and of those who did come across fake new in their perusing, only 8% actually read the items and even fewer believed them.  It’s been said that it is impossible to prove a negative, but these two professors come close by showing us the probability of fake news influence voters is nominal and statistically low.

Having shown fake news to be a weak suspect, we can explore a more probable reason for Clinton’s loss. Trump won the Whitehouse because he connected with non-college educated, working class, rust belt, white voters and acknowledged the significance of issues important to them and she could not.

Clinton spent the election campaigning on cultural issues and maintaining Obama administration advancements attracting east/west coast and urban center liberal voters.  But democrats in the Midwestern rust belts states, particularly Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, were dismayed by her lack of interest to matters which were important to them, primarily those concentrated on economic and trade.  Local Democratic managers and organizers in these regions contacted Clinton campaign leaders stressing the importance her focusing on these areas and these issues or face the consequences of losing these voters and these states.

 

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Pivotal Rust Belt States  (Image from TheDebtWeOwe.com)

 

Trump campaign managers saw opportunity in these pivotal states and brilliantly took advantage of them.  He visited these states often and at his rallies, he guaranteed his audience that he would focus on those issues most important to them.  By doing this, Trump was able to convince traditionally blue state, labor voters he was more concerned about their plight than was Clinton and he deserved their vote.  They gave it to him, turned their states red and handed their electoral votes to Trump and he triumphed.

Handing over the rust belt to Trump wasn’t Clinton’s only mistake, she also lost because she expected Obama voters, especially people of color and millennials, to vote for her based on their fear of Trump.  It proved to be a failed strategy.

Clinton modelled her campaign to duplicate the strategies that created the Obama coalition, the electorate of millennials and people of color, woman and other minorities who backed Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections.  Unfortunately for Clinton, these people were not as fired up about her as they were Obama and many of them, turned off by Clinton’s elitism and her Wall Street and Washington connections, simply did not vote for her.

 

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Clinton Supporters React to Her Loss (Image from Mashable.com)

 

It appears Clinton supporters are just having a tough time admitting their candidate made some serious errors that cost her the presidency.  They use fake news as an excuse for her loss and Trump’s win. Doing so means they don’t have to accept the fact she lost for legitimate reasons.  That, despite the many, many voices promising that indications pointed to a Trump loss, It was actually Trump’s talents that prevailed and got him the Whitehouse.

Amidst a sea of indicators pointing at a Clinton win, was the faint din of a scant chorus of Trump supporters claiming their victory was inevitably nigh.  They “sang” of the skillful prowess of their candidate and his ability to spot a weakness in his opponent’s campaign strategy and use that to leverage his victory.  That his skills as a deal-maker would attract voters to his campaign and secure his win. And the many politicos whose career it is to be politically savvy simply chose not to listen, and so they lost and the supporters of Trump surprisingly were, in the long run, the winners.

 

Fake America Great Again?

The country is concerned about how intentionally false and malicious media, known as fake news, may have influenced many voters in the 2016 elections.  Enough, perhaps, to have swayed it in a certain direction.

Russia has been fingered by some as a major player in the peddling of fake news and its possible manipulation of our elections and, as such, our democracy.  Citizens do not want to feel conned, especially by a foreign power.  And as fake news, regardless of its source, is primarily distributed and proliferated via the internet, social media users want to feel secure that platforms, such as Facebook, properly screen sources and postings for credibility and accuracy.  No one wants to be bamboozled.

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Graphic from ValleyNewsLive.com (Fargo, ND)

Oddly enough, there isn’t much, if any, disagreement between the losing and winning sides of the election as to the preponderance of fake news during the last cycle.  Where they disagree is to the amount of influence fake news essentially had on the outcome of the last election, if any at all.  Did fake news substantially influence the 2016 elections?

Proponents, those who believe the election results were substantively influenced by fake news, such as supporters of the losing sides, were shocked over the surprising election results.  Certain of the polls and predictions which concluded that the victorious outcome of the election would be handed to the democrats, the would-be losers are now at a quandary as to how exactly things didn’t end up quite as expected. Several credit the ubiquity of fake news and its effect on susceptible swing voters as the primary rationale the election went the way it did.

Supporters of the winning side of the election, the opponents, such as Trump backers and Republicans, as well as mouthpieces for the Russian government (such as the RT news service), acknowledge the presence of fake news during the election, but doubt it had so great an influence on the electorate that it derailed what the losers felt was an obvious outcome in their favor.  They believe that the other side’s incompetence and inability to accurately gauge the true concerns of voters, especially those in the economically troubled swing states, are principally what set in motion Trump’s victory and their defeat.

Proponents feel cheated and that they are victims of a concerted effort to intentionally denigrate and slander their candidate(s) with a barrage of negative memes and inflammatory fake news specifically targeted at susceptible and swing voters.

Opponents trust that their acute understanding of the true needs of the voters is what garnered their winning edge.  Proponents, they insist, are simply sore losers, complaining about the sour grapes.

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Joe Concha                         (Image from Twitter.com)

Pundits for both sides of the question have presented credible evidence to support their views.  Joe Concha, writer for the conservative publication, The Hill, tells us that although fake news favorable to Trump far outnumbered that favorable to Clinton, it actually had no considerable effect on the voters.  Citing a recent research study by Stanford and New York Universities, Concha claims study data shows that a significantly large number of voters did not look to social media, the chief vehicle for fake news dissemination, as a source for election news. And those who may were far less persuaded by the content.  Not enough voters were manipulated by fake news enough to be of any significance. Russian mouthpiece, RT.com, cites the same study to back up its position that fake news had no effect on the election outcome.

 

 

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Former FBI Agent Clint Watt (Image from NPR.org and Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Recently, however, Gabe O’Connor and Avie Schneider, in an article for NPR reporting on Clint Watts’ March 30th Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, tell us that Watts “described how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans.”  Tal Kopan, from CNN, cites the same testimony describing “a sophisticated Russian propaganda machine that specifically sought to bolster and influence President Donald Trump.

 

Proponents frame the issue as a deliberate, and ultimately successful, endeavor to disparage one candidate (Clinton), turn voters against her and give the victory to Trump.  An effort assisted in great detail with the help of the Russian government. On the other hand, proponents cite studies from credible researchers which support their idea that fake news, regardless of its origin, had little to do with the outcome of the election.

As most of us already know, fake news was nearly everywhere last election cycle.  And if it actually had a substantial influence on this last election, then the very fabric of our free elections and democracy are at stake.  However, if fake news is essentially more of an annoyance and less of a threat, it may affect voters’ belief in any, and potentially all, news source media and people may no longer care about what is truthful and what is not.

Some Questions and Answers About Fake News

Just two weeks ago, Donald Trump claimed that former president Barack Obama had his Trump Tower wiretapped during his campaign.

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Trump Tweets about Obama Wiretap (Image from LegalInsurrection.com)

Although to date, Trump has provided no evidence to support his claim.  It is thought that the story about the wiretapping originated with the Breitbart website.  And although the story is on Breitbart, no credible evidence is available on their site to back up their claim.  Just another incident of the spread of fake news.  To many of us, fake news is a relatively new phenomenon and we quite do not understand it.  Here are some basic questions and answers about fake news that should provide you with a foundation for understanding and navigating through the fake news fuss.

 

Q: Just what is “Fake News”?

A: The simplest and most obvious definition of fake news is the one taken at face value: news that is actually false news. An item produced to look and sound like credible news but containing bogus information.

Oddly enough, a dictionary definition for “fake news” isn’t too terribly common or easy to find.  Four of the more credible dictionary websites, OxfordDictionaries.com, Meriam-Webster.com, AHDictionary.com (American Heritage), and Dictionary.com offer no definition of the term whatsoever, although the Oxford website sites “Post Truth,” a term and concept with a connection to fake news, as its word of the year.   (See Question 3, “What is fake news’ role in and connection to the ‘Post-Truth’ world?” below)

Of those other dictionary websites that did provide a definition of fake news, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary had it listed as its word of the year.  Other sites, such as CollinsDictionary.com, and the even less reliable, crowdsourced MacMillianDictionary.com, along with Macquarie site, offer similar definitions of the term, basically defining fake news as sensationalized falsehoods propagated as credible news to discredit an individual or draw attention to a site (“click bait”).

 

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Three Types of News (Image from ByrdNick.com)

Interestingly, a contributor for UrbanDictionary.com, another user-sourced, crowd-rated dictionary site, suggests that the definition of fake news has evolved from its original meaning.  DisillusionedPolitico, the contributor, describes the former meaning in terms similar to the definition offered above, and further proposes that the definition has now changed to being a label applied to anything that does not support one’s narrative or views.

 

The most accepted definition of fake news is the simple obvious one: falsehoods presented as credible news for purpose of manipulating the viewer to the benefit of the fake news creator.  The definition can now be expanded to include being a label applied to anything the user feels is in opposition to his/her views.

Q: How can fake news be recognized?

A: A recent Stanford University study found that a large number of “digital natives,” middle and high school aged children, have trouble differentiating legitimate news articles from advertisements, click bait and fake news. Clever advertisers, website promoters, and politicized individuals have employed professional looking graphics and text to dupe unsuspecting web surfers.

In an effort to assist its reader in recognizes manipulative web material , NPR’s “All Tech Consider” section writes that a basic understanding of media literacy is an essential tool in combating fake news.  They list a series of practices the surfer can utilize in order to become more media literate:

 

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Internet Hoax  (Image from The Inquirer.net

Check out the URL and domain of the source.  Does the URL and/or domain name contain the name of the news organization it is purporting to link to?  Does the URL’s contain a normal top-level domain (the part right after the “.”)?  Is it a “.com” or “.com.rt” or “.com.co”?  The originating website should have “about us,” “contact” or similar type links that will provide you with the background of the website and the means to contact them.  Websites that provide source links back to itself or to sites with credibility issues are suspicious

 

How many quotes are used in the piece?  Just a few or none is probably an indicator of fake news.  If there are a number of quotes, are they from reliable sources?

What are people saying in the comments section?  If a large portion of the commentators are accusing the work of being fake and provide reasonable evidence to back it up, the piece probably is fake and may require additional investigation.

No fool-proof method exists for easy identification of fake news.  As readers, we have to become media literate and practice techniques, such as those listed here, that aid us in recognizing manipulative sources.  This is our best defense against the spread of fake news.

What is fake news’ role in and connection to the “Post-Truth” world?

As mentioned earlier, “Post-Truth” was OxfordDictionary.com’s word of the year. They define post-truth as referring to a situation where emotional appeals and personal narratives hold greater sway and importance in the shaping public opinion than do objective facts.

Emotional appeals and sensationalized stories are the building blocks of fake news. By employing these techniques to produce items for targeted audiences, fake news has created an environment where truth has become an opinion, its honesty judged through its support of a narrative and agreement with a person’s beliefs rather than of any association with real facts.

As we are inundated with a flood of fake news appealing to our emotions and opinions, the boundary we have established between what is factual truth and what is not becomes blurry.  Almost everyone feels their beliefs and opinions are meaningful because we have spent so much time forming and perfecting them.

Articles that validate our beliefs are viewed as fact regardless of any connection to real facts they may have.  Truth is no longer an absolute backed up by facts.  Because of the manipulative power fake news has on well-meaning, but susceptible individuals, facts have evolved away from truth into the post-truth world where facts are validated in proportion to their support of a point or view rather than any connection to truth they may have.  And as fake new news has contributed to the existence of a post-truth world, the post truth world has enabled the further growth of fake news.

 

What Do People Think?: An Analysis of the Comments Offered for Lindsey Bever’s “If state lawmakers have their way, California schoolchildren may be taught how to spot ‘fake news’,” Washington Post, January 12, 2017.

Lindsey Bever, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a piece about State of California Assemblyman, Jimmy Gomez’s (D), recently introduced bill requiring schools in the state to create curriculum structure and benchmarks for teaching teenage students “online reasoning” in recognizing “fake news.”

 

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California Assemblyman, Jimmy Gomez (D) (Image from DailyKos.com)

Of the relevant commentary offered by responding readers the curriculum bill (“curriculum”), most (51.52%) seem to think the idea a good one, but only by a margin of two commentators.  Those opposed (45.45%) were almost equal to those in favor.  It would be fair to say it appears serious commentators were close to evenly split about the idea.

 

The article was published on January 12, 2017 and commentary was closed on January 26, 2017.  Although the Post indicates that 150 comments were offered, only 108 actual comments were listed.

Within these 108 comments, 43 were off-topic for various reasons.  The 65 pertinent comments remaining were comprised of 33 unique commentators.  32 of the comments provided by this group were of commentators who had already contributed.  All those additional contributions were condensed into their originating comments to produce one “opinion” from the author.

Of those commentators whose opinions related a negative reaction to the idea of the curriculum, the most cited reasons were: 1) it is an unnecessary waste, 2) learning critical thinking skills would be a better alternative for students, and 3) the curriculum will be nothing more than an avenue for left-wing indoctrination.

Half of those commentators who offered a negative response to the curriculum primarily did so based on their feeling that California is left wing and therefore, the curriculum would be left wing biased.

Commentator AnnieUSA says, “This is a permission slip to list websites liberals don’t like.”  Culturerot fears leftist teachers instructing children on truth spotting.  And SimpleCountyActuary feels that the state educational system is swamped with left-leaning contain falsehoods

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Image from Truthfeed.com

 

These commentators have a pre-conceived notion about the political climate in California, believing it to be biased for the left, and think the State is incapable of providing an environment free of any left-wing partisanship.  They are concerned liberal values are and will be the only values discussed in California schools.

Some were not so concerned with a leftist threat.  Approximately 31% (5) of negative contributors felt the curriculum was unnecessary simple because teaching students critical thinking skills would give them the skills needed.

Chance the Trapper thinks, ” Basic cognitive and research skills should be enough.”  While drluggit suggests a curriculum concentrated on recognizing fake news is virtually the same as one supporting critical thinking.”

These readers felt we only need to return to the days of teaching our young people the importance of critical thinking.  That the curriculum

Some negative commenters were not considering any specific reason as to why they thought the curriculum was a bad idea, they simply did not like it and that was all.  There were three of the commentators (slightly less than 19% of negative responders) who felt the curriculum was a waste and unnecessary.

Old Whiskey thought it was all a waste of time, another way for schools to spend the day not involved in significant education.  “This well intentioned but misguided bill will only take time away from other, more valuable learning,” gregdn claims.

These folks believe the idea is just plain wrong but offer not reason as to why other than to say it is a waste.  The curriculum is either redundant or frivolous and represents money better spent elsewhere.

 

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Kids and Fake News (Image from RaisingDigitalNatives.com)

However, even by the slightest majority (2), most relevant commentators thought the curriculum was a good idea.  Most of these felt these were basic skills that were taught at one time and if not being taught now, they should be.  Other indicated that the curriculum would actual teach students those desired critical thinking skills.  Some felt it was just a good idea without offering any reasoning.

 

Seven (41%) of the commentators offering an affirmative response to the curriculum based their opinion upon the need for critical thinking skills which used to be taught in the past but, apparently, not currently.

One commentator, “Amy Crittenden,” responds that in the sixth grade she was taught how to read periodicals and recognize the difference between the reporting of facts and the expression of opinions.  She cannot fathom why these skills are no longer taught.

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Girl reading a newspaper (Image from Weebly.com)

 

Another suggests, “THIS is what brings civics lesson back into our schools? A bit overdue, don’t you think?”

Commentator BillyAl also reminisces, “This was part of my DC area private school education, except back then it was about printed news.”

It seems to these readers, the solution rests in restoring shelved curriculum subject matter (critical thinking) which was taught in the past, but not now.

4 affirming commentators (approximately 24% of those who were positive commentators) felt that the curriculum would provide students with the appropriate critical thinking skills needed to discern “fake news.”

Green4T2ude offers, “Good, critical thinking should be a part of a normal curriculum.”

Another comments, “Obviously, schools need to teach critical thinking. Rather than just how to succeed at tests, which seems to be the current national obsession.”

EvilSpoke suggests, “Everyone needs a BS detector. Of course, this is the role of the schools.”

These commentators appear to support the curriculum and believe it should implemented as an important segment of a school’s required instruction.

Just under 18% (3 commentators) thought it was simply a good idea.

Ohthepain, “Thanks for this, good for CA.”  Forestfromtrees, “This sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach.”  And AbstractThought, “This is a fantastic idea.”

These guys feel the idea is just plain good without having to offer any reason as to why. Their comments were brief (to say the least) and they offered no reasons for their opinion other than to say they just thought it was needed.

As for me, I feel anything we can teach our children which will assist them in ascertaining truth and avoiding illusion and falsehood would be the least we could do for them.  We are admonished by our founding fathers to nurture all methods of “forming a more perfect union.”  Giving our progeny the skills with which to discern fact from fiction provides them with a solid foundation for dealing with differences of opinions among our citizenry.  Understanding, compromising and building bridges cannot go forward if falsehoods stand as the major means of supporting an issue.

Excellent Perspective: A Rhetorical Analysis of Scott Shane’s, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”

From zero to viral in a flash, widespread fake news emerges from almost nowhere as if by spontaneous generation and propagates throughout social media at light speed.  For most of us, fake news, like the type that proliferated our Facebook pages during the last election, is a relatively new phenomenon.
But where does fake news come from?  How does it progress from conception to viral?  Award-winning New York Time’s columnist, Scott Shane, examines a recent notorious example of fake news,
Cameron Harris’ “Fraudulent Ballots for Hillary Clinton Found in Ohio Warehouse,” from inception to dissemination, in his January 2017 article, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece.” In it, he expertly introduces us to the life cycle of this fake news article (and indirectly many more), as if it were the pinnacle creation of one fake news’ more prolific budding artists.

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Cameron Harris in his home office (Image from NYTimes.com)

Prolific in his own right, Scott Shane has worked for The New York Times, as a Washington Bureau reporter since 2004.  He writes about a variety of topics but primality on national security related issues.  He was recently awarded the Lionel Gelber Prize, for his book, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President and the Rise of the Drone.”  Prior to the New York Times, Shane worked as a reporter for
The Baltimore Sun starting in 1983 and was a correspondent in Moscow 1988 – 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  His book about the demise of the USSR, “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union,” was lauded by the Los Angeles Times as one of the fundamental works on the subject.

In this article, Shane exposes us to the nature and lifespan of fake news by taking us through the life cycle of Harris’ famously successful fake news meme.  Setting the stage for his story using a callback to Trump’s August 2016 Columbus Ohio campaign speech (where the candidate alludes to possible Hillary-initiated election fraud), Shane starts at this Trump inspired spark that gave birth to Harris’ idea for the fake news meme. Shane then leads us down the path Harris used to conceptualize, produce, publish and distribute this (and most of his) fake news. Beginning with the spark and the fake news headline it inspired, to the media material needed to produce the fake posting, the website that hosted it and the Facebook accounts that helped share and spread it, Shane explains to us to the methods and tools Harris (and most likely many fake news purveyors) used to create his masterpiece.

 

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Cameron Harris’ ChristianTimesNewspaper.com Fake News Meme about Hilary Clinton (Image from NYTimes.com)

With every production phase he discusses, Shane shows what Harris does and how the effects of his methods, whether intentional or fortuitous, elevate this particular fake story to a masterpiece level.

 

Shane’s familiarity and insight of the methods Harris used to produce his story originate from Harris himself.  He contacted Harris and spoke with him about his fake article.  Shane’s recollection and analysis of the conversation provide us with the detail that only a meme creator, such as Harris, can provide.  We get to see things as Harris saw them and discover the fake news production process straight from the horse’s mouth, so to say.  An interesting perspective indeed.

Throughout this work, Shane takes an interesting direction and allows Harris to explain himself and his role in this controversial practice.  Most would think fake news is generally viewed as a bad thing and the people who traffic in it might typically be presented in a negative light.  Yet, Shane offers no obvious criticism or praise of Harris.  He allows Harris to define himself and tell his own narrative to us.  This allows us to read between the lines of Harris’ conversation and gain a more in-depth understanding of him and his actions.  It’s this perspective of Harris and his role as an unexpected human face to this less popular side of the fake news phenomenon that allows us to concentrate less on him and more on the life of his Hillary meme

Harris is rather candid with Shane and that permits Shane to give us a unique perspective of the fake news phenomenon, specifically from the “perpetrator’s” point of view.  Yet, as he is doing this he is also offering us a broader glimpse into the relative ease with which almost anyone can create and disseminate fake news for whatever purpose or gain they hope to achieve. Maybe with this informative and excellent perspective, we can understand and recognize fake items more readily and react to them more calmly and intelligently.  Or perhaps, on the other hand, we can all start making our own fake news stories now.

Why the Interest in Fake News?

The term, “fake news,” is one of our latest buzz phrases. It was brought to the forefront of public interest because of its large presence in this last presidential (general) election. Indeed, the near ubiquity of fake news on social media may very well have had some type of influence on the election’s outcome. Considering the prominence of fake news today and its potential impact in our lives, it would be prudent and beneficial to examine the meaning, nature, and effect of fake news in detail.

I think most people would have an interest in knowing more about fake news. Given its association with social media and our last election, it is certain to remain a topical subject for the next few months.

But just what is fake news?  The most recognizable forms of fake news are the satirical ones.  TV shows as NBC’s Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and websites like the Onion purposely skew or make up stories that have the appearance of the news to make people laugh.

However, the fake news we have all been hearing about lately is primarily internet driven and can be an article written or a meme created to mislead viewers into believing whatever it is promoting, often to get clicks as is described by Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown’s New York Times Article, “Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News.

If anything, we are at just the beginning of a long debate over fake news. Just last week, our newly inaugurated president accused the New York Times and negative poll results of being fake news. Less than three weeks into his presidency and he’s drawn his line in the sand. We will certainly be hearing more of fake news and it is going to become necessary to learn how to recognize and understand just what fake news is.

 

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Edgar Welch being arrested after shooting at the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria (Image from NYTimes.com)

Fake news can have dangerous consequences.  At the beginning of last December (2016), a 28-year-old man (Edgar Welch) drove up from North Carolina to Washington DC.  His intention was to go to the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria.  He had read online that children Hillary Clinton had hidden children she was sex trafficking there and was on his way to make sure any children concealed there were freed.  He brought guns with him and made some shots when he entered the pizzeria.  No one was killed or injured.  And no sex traffic children were found sequestered in the non-existent basement of the restaurant.

 

Fake news has worldwide reach and recognition of the potentially serious repercussions of fake news isn’t restricted solely to this country and its political process. February 1, 2017, the New York Times published an article informing readers that at the beginning of this month (February 2017), the chief Muslim clerical council of Indonesia, the Ulema Council, announced it will be issuing a fatwa regarding the spread of fake news. The council is troubled that fake news is stoking ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. According to the article, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population (by country) and one of the highest number of social media users. Maaruf Amin, chairman of the council, states that the edict would be issued soon as the matter is problematic. Although not legally binding, Amin hopes the fatwa would persuade Muslims to steer clear of fake news. It globally affects us all.

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Fake Donald Trump Quote (Image from Inquisitr.com)

I would hope that most everyone would be able to spot fake news. I thought I could. I must admit that I am guilty of “innocently” sharing fake news with my Facebook friends.  I have, many times, shared and passed along the meme of a younger Donald Trump with the false quote about the dumb Republican Party.

To prevent becoming unwilling participants in the advancement of fake news, we need to discover and embrace a more refined understanding of it. Just what is fake news? I’ll explore how it’s defined and what it means to different people. How long has fake news been used? We’ll discover if fake news is a fresh phenomenon or if it has been around for a while. Who creates and benefits from fake news and how does it spread so fast? One discussion will investigate who originates and profits from fake news, while another will examine the speed at which fake news can be disseminated. I’m sure that many other equally interesting facets of the fake news phenomenon exist. My analysis of the all pertinent aspects of fake news will be presented through postings here. Please join me in this exploration.