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Jan Hillard: Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it (Jonathan Swift)

An inventory by the Washington Post finds more than 18,000 untruths told by President Trump since he took office in 2016. Several campaign ads by Vice President Biden include facts not supported by the record. Fact-checking has become a cottage industry with no shortage of work from Republican and Democratic elected officials and candidates. And while misinformation has always crept into American politics, this is unprecedented.

These are dangerous times for the health of a democracy that thrives on transparency and the truth and dies in the dark of lying and propaganda.

In early June the social media outlet Twitter made a decision to fact-check the President’s tweets that number in the tens of thousands over the past 3 1/2 years. Twitter implemented a policy that they would begin to flag the President’s tweets that included suspicious or untruthful claims, offering the reader sources of vetted countervailing information and data.

Alerting readers to suspicious or falsified information is not new. It has been an ethical tenant of the media for decades. The Twitter case is distinctive as a result of flagging statements with immediacy, its international scope of readership, and its direct confrontation with the President.

Fake news is a slippery concept accompanied by competing claims of reality. While pinpointing what is real falls under the realm of philosophy, empirical evidence gathered via the principles of valid observation constitutes what we agree upon as fact. These are the rules of evidence.

Unfortunately, the fake news is not accompanied by sources, the basis of truthful reporting.

Confusion swirls around what is fake news, what impact it has on us, and how to combat it. In March 2018, MIT produced the most comprehensive study of fact news to date. A summary of the MIT study was published in the Atlantic in 2018. The study analyzed 126,000 stories tweeted by over 3 million users over 10 years. Each story was reviewed by teams of researchers following the method of inter-rater reliability. The major finding of this massive study is that falsehoods beat out the truth as “fake news reaches more people, penetrates deeper into the social network and spreads much faster than accurate stories.” (Atlantic, 2018)

The MIT study points to human nature as responsible for the triumph of falsehood over fact. The study finds that falsehood reaches many more people, 6x faster than true stories. It appears that people are psychologically drawn to sharing falsehoods. The study also finds that fake news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted by individuals and not bots. The fake news tweets were retweeted 4.5 million times, while evidence-based tweets generated on average 1,000 retweets. We are fascinated with what is different and sensational. We want to share it with others, with immediacy and lustfulness. Falsehoods thrive and truths wither. Emotion rules our actions, and reason trails the pack.

Documenting false news has been a traditional function of newspapers. Yet fact-checking is an expensive undertaking, one that unfortunately few newspapers can now afford. As a result, routine fact-checking has fallen to national newspapers such as the Washington Post and to nonprofit organizations such as FactCheck, Politifact, Snopes and Propublica.

These operations advocate nonpartisanship, consumer awareness, and evidence-based scholarship in their mission statements. Many of these organizations are affiliated with schools of journalism.

FactCheck is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The information sources used by FactCheck include: social media posts, TV programs, campaign ads, C-SPAN, Presidential remarks (including Tweets), and Congressional Quarterly transcripts.

FactCheck solicits comments from researchers and presents its methodology, maximizing transparency. FactCheck relies on primary sources of information, including independent government agencies (i.e. Federal Reserve Board, Library of Congress), as well as vetted academic studies and refereed academic publications.

Facts that are found not to be truthful go through multiple layers of internal review before being published. FactCheck follows the ethical guidelines of the International Fact-Checking Network.

The IFCN provides routine accreditations of fact-checking organizations to assure strict vetting processes. FactCheck’s research appears on its website, www.FactCheck.org.

The findings by FactCheck, document falsehoods from both Democrats and Republican sources, at all levels of government. Indeed, the impact of falsehood stretches across the political spectrum, impacting virtually all engaged citizens. Fake news, regardless of its source, is difficult to spot.

However, there are actions we can take to recognize and bring it to light. These steps are at the core of responsible journalism. First, look for sources. The absence of sources is a huge red flag. Second, distinguish between legitimate journalism and advertising. Third, recognize that search engines such as Google and Bing do not filter out fake news. Fourth, look to see if the suspicious story is well-written. Does it contain spelling errors and is it coherent?

James Madison was skeptical of direct democracy as a result of the burden it placed on citizens. Direct democracy requires that each citizen become fully informed. Fulfilling this obligation requires effort and daily commitment.

Historically, competing newspapers have eased this citizen burden. If we are to mitigate fake news, we cannot be passive consumers of the information spectacle. We are instead called to action. To emerge from our collective distrust and disenchantment requires listening, reading, questioning, and conversing with our fellow citizens.

Perhaps we can prove Madison wrong.

We will see.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor for the NKyTribune and retired Faculty Emerti of Northern Kentucky University.

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