Dan Corkery: Is it true that fake news is an overblown story?

Dan Corkery: Is it true that fake news is an overblown story?

I just read that the dollar bill will be redesigned, with Barack Obama replacing George Washington.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson — you know, the really-good-looking actor and wrestler with the perfect teeth and shaved head — will be running for president in 2020.

And get this: Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, when he was attending an incredibly expensive Jesuit high school in Washington during the 1980s, founded a club called "Facism Forever."

False 3, Truth 0.

Fake news is all around us.

We might read false or misleading news through a relative's email, from a stranger's Twitter link or, most likely, from a friend's Facebook posting.

Last year's election season seemed to be awash in fake news.

The pope endorses Donald Trump.

Clinton Foundation buys illegal arms worth $137 million.

Celebrity drag queen RuPaul says Trump mistook him for a woman and groped him at a party.

But if fake news is easily found on the internet and quickly promulgated on social media, is it reaching most news consumers? And does it have the power to alter election results?

According to new research, the answer to both questions appears to be "no."

Jacob Nelson, a Ph.D. student in journalism research at Northwestern University, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last week that compared with large, mainstream news sites (e.g., New York Times, Fox, CNN, Buzzfeed), fake news sites attract substantially smaller audiences. Examining a year's worth of web traffic, the mainstream news sites attracted 10 times more readers on average than the fake news ones.

Last month, economists Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University published "Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election."

They looked at how important social media was to voters as a news source (14 percent said it was their "most important" source of election news), how widely false news stories were shared, and how many of those stories people actually remembered and believed (not many).

Their conclusion: "For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads."

My take-away: Fake news is an annoying problem, but so far it hasn't defeated healthy skepticism and common sense.

One of the problems in examining fake news is trying to define it. Is it limited to intentionally false reporting, or does it include satire, misleading headlines and sloppy reporting?

"Fake news can be incredibly difficult to define," Nelson told me last week.

The list of "fake news" sites he used in his research was compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a media professor at Merrimack College, and included the Drudge Report. While that site has a political bias, it does not appear to traffic in intentionally false reporting.

In the story examples above, fake news can be intentionally false (pope endorsing Trump), while others are wishful thinking (The Rock running for president) or shallow reporting (Gorsuch founding a facism club).

Investigative sites such as Snopes.com and Politifact.com are good antidotes to all forms of false, misleading and bad reporting.

If fakes news has a limited reach and doesn't appear to be changing many people's opinions, is it harmless?

At some level, it harms. Our republic does not thrive on misinformed voters.

To the readers who visit fake-news sites, "they believe the fake news they are seeing," Nelson said.

"Even if this is a small group of people compared to the rest of the population," he said, "these are people who bought in to a totally false set of stories about how the world is working."

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com, and his phone is 217-351-5218.

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David Prochaska wrote on February 07, 2017 at 9:02 am

This should be a story asking the question: “Is it true that fake news at the News Gazette is an overblown story?”

Instead, we get an editorial column in the Sunday Commentary section written to read as if it is a news analysis, a news story.

There are so many things wrong with this that it is hard to know where to begin.

Begin with ‘fake news.’

Corkery takes a stab at defining fake news only in the last third of the column, despite his beginning headine.

I define ‘fake news’ very narrowly as ‘making stuff up,’ “deliberately false stories concocted by trolls.”

--‘PizzaGate.’ “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/edgar-welch-comet-pizza-fake-news.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&src=trending&module=Ribbon&version=origin®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Trending&pgtype=article

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/edgar-welch-comet-pizza-fake-news.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&src=trending&module=Ribbon&version=origin®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Trending&pgtype=article

--‘Buses of paid anti-Trump protestors’ (not). http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html

--“Fraudulent Clinton ballots found in Ohio warehouse” (not) “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html?ribbon-ad-idx=8&src=trending&module=Ribbon&version=context®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Trending&pgtype=article&_r=0

A close second to ‘making stuff up’ is the ‘intentionally false reporting’ that the alt-rt so-called ‘press’ does. (Why don’t you talk about the fact that there is not a comparable alt-left phenomenon?)

This may be said to have begun with Trump channeling alt-rt Obama birther claims.

--Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green massacre” (not) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/business/the-massacre-that-wasnt-and-a-turning-point-for-fake-news.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

--Trump’s retweets of alt-rt falsehoods https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/business/media/trump-fake-news....

“Here’s Where Donald Trump Gets His News” https://www.buzzfeed.com/charliewarzel/trumps-information-universe?utm_t...

“Trolls for Trump. Meet Mike Cernovich, the meme mastermind of the alt-right” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/trolls-for-trump

What Corkery calls here “sloppy reporting” is in fact the refusal of newspapers like the News Gazette to call a lie a lie, to label as allegations evident falsehoods, to question and contextualize alt-rt claims. The result is that the paper uncritically spreads more widely alt-rt views. The New Gazette becomes a stenographer of the alt-rt. In doing so, the paper violates professional journalism standards.

--Tom Kacich let stand without question or context Rodney Davis’s statement, “to call this a Muslim ban is completely false and frankly is dangerous because it fuels the terrorist rhetoric.” http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2017-01-30/davis-throws-support-b...

In a marvelous demagogic move, Davis denies that a Muslim ban is a Muslim ban – whether it is of seven countries or every country with Muslims. And then he attacks those who call it a Muslim ban “because it fuels the terrorist rhetoric,” which is precisely what Davis -- not his critics -- is doing.

Davis demonstrates here that he can lie with the worst.

--Marcus Jackson let stand without question or context Steve Moser’s false allegation. “Moser believes the majority of the protests [against Trump’s anti-Muslim immigrant ban] have been organized by George Soros, the businessman and political activist.” http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2017-01-31/immigration-ban-we-jus...

An online comment sets the record straight. “I knew immediately when I read his statement about believing the protests were organized by Soros that this must be some fake news floating around online, and yes, it is. Breitbart and RT (Russia's state-owned news network) are two pushers of this idea (shocking, I know). “

Moreover, criticism of Soros is a veiled anti-Semitic trope that has circulated on the alt-rt for years, because Soros is the only billionaire Jewish Democratic donor that the alt-rt ever names.

Again, an online comment sets the record straight. “…this weird anti-Semitic idea that protestors are being paid to show up as part of some centrally-controlled conspiracy.”

Corkery also criticizes “misleading headlines.” But have you noticed how these mislead always in a pro-Republican partisan direction?

To headline Trump’s anti-Muslim immigrant ban as “Travel ban” is Orwellian newspeak. http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2017-02-01/travel-ban-dra...

Newspeak is, of course, the fictional language George Orwell used in 1984 that is “created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought and concepts that pose a threat to the regime.”

This is exactly what Dey and the News-Gazette are doing in this editorial.

And they compounded the falsehood on Saturday February 4 with the headline “travel restrictions” on page A-4: “What others are saying about ... Trump’s travel restrictions.”

In short, the News Gazette needs a public editor. If the New York Times has one to help hold it accountable, all the more reason for the News Gazette to have one, too.

As a recent letter to the editor says http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/letters-editor/2017-01-30/need-journ...

“Need journalism now more than ever

Mon, 01/30/2017

Our differing views highlight the absolute necessity of professionally collected information and fact-based, thorough journalism. With daily reports of ‘media blackouts,’ data purging and ‘alternative facts,’ we must all commit to supporting responsible news-gathering, to holding our news outlets to the highest standards and to double-checking our own assumptions about the news we receive.

Professionally trained, responsible journalists are the conduit to the information crucial to our understanding and decision-making.”

The News Gazette should learn from letters to the editor like this one.

And commit to practicing professional journalism, including appointing a public editor. Instead of its tendentious, letting-the-Republicans-off-the-hook editorializing. “Sloppy reporting.” “Misleading headlines.”

Like Corkery’s column.

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