Save Yourself From (Everyone’s) Fake News

I didn’t expect my mother to be the one to bring it up.

“A lot of these groups have really misleading names,” she told me over lunch. “It’s kind of frightening.”

She meant the ways that PACs and astroturf campaigns mislead people by giving themselves vague and completely wrong names… for example “Americans for Progressive Action” which had connections to Karl Rove and Michele Bachman. Add in PACs that actively scam people by claiming to support a group or cause but then pocket large chunks of the money they raise and it’s hard to know who supports what.

Her words echoed in my head as I heard a scare ad this morning warning people to not sign a petition, because China.

As the narrator speaks, images of marching soldiers and President Xi Jinping flash across the screen. It ends with a warning: “Don’t sign the petition allowing China to control Ohio’s power.”

While it’s undeniable that both China and Russia have (and continue to) try to influence American politics, it’s not clear that this is the case here. Not at ll.

Trying to find out the truth of this ad – or the forces behind it – isn’t easy. It’s all about two lobbying groups – “Ohioans for Energy Security” and “Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts”. At stake is a lot of money and the direction that energy production takes in Ohio. The actual issue isn’t my point, so I won’t go into it here, but MSN has background and as clear a description as you’re going to get on this issue. Here’s the point:

Ohioans for Energy Security and Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts are each LLCs, meaning they aren’t required to disclose who’s funding them. Both groups have declined to reveal their donors.

And this isn’t the first time that secretive groups – sometimes with ties to lawmakers themselves – tried to influence Ohioans about this issue:

During the legislative debate over HB6, a dark-money group called Generation Now (found to have ties to an adviser to Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, perhaps the most prominent supporter of HB6) blanketed Ohio’s airwaves with ads asking people to contact their lawmaker to urge support for the bill.

Sure, but that’s ads, right? Not just. This is all the more terrifying when you have the companies owning news companies forcing their anchors to read the same script. Remember that?

And while you’ve probably heard of state-level actors trying to force their own story about protests in Hong Kong, similar issues happen with the coverage – or lack thereof – of protests and activism in the United States as well.

And with a fearmongering fool shouting lies from his bully pulpit, it’s clear that making people uncertain is exactly the desired result.

It’s especially harmful to science – because uncertainty and revising our understanding of science when we get new information is literally part of the scientific method. This effect is amplified by the mistaken impulse to be “fair and balanced”, giving equal time to discredited and ill-informed people as to those who know what they’re talking about. Climate change deniers, for example, have been using this tactic for a long time now.

...You people don't know what the truth is! It's there, just under their bullshit, but you never look! That's what I hate most about this fucking city -- lies are news and truth is obsolete!

So what do we do? There’s sources to help us try to sort fact from fiction – Politifact, Media Bias Fact Check, and Snopes – but it’s time for us to start changing the way we look at the information we get… and the misinformation machine may have given us the key.

We need to stop trusting.

Right now we (tend to) believe what we see and are told without question, and react. Aziz Ansari skewers this brilliantly in his latest comedy special.

Instead of blind or centralized trust, we should start with a web of trust.

It’s a concept that came about with cryptography, but the concept is simple. I choose to trust Sally. When she tells me something, there’s a good likelihood that it’s true. Then, when Mark tells me something, I’m skeptical. But if Sally vouches for John, and I trust Sally, then by transitive property, I trust John – at least as a default. Both Goofus and John can change how much I trust them by what they say and do – but it helps as a default.

The only thing we have in this world that is utterly and intrinsically ours is our integrity. If we give that away, we might as well stop fighting, because losing that battle is what loses the war.

That helps on the social and individual scale, but what about the big news sources? We already have the tools to do this – again, Politifact, Snopes, and so on. We can also examine our news sources against lists like this one from MediaBiasFactCheck and – ironically, from a top ten site with unreliable clickbait ads, but the list itself checks out – this one.

Nobody is going to do this for you.

Believe me, I understand how little time there is in the day. I often first look at Nuzzle as a quick summary before reading RSS feeds. So that it’s not just a clickbait headline, I try to share at least a pull quote or pertinent paragraph when I share news articles, to provide a little context.

But it all still boils down to this: You have a choice. Be misled by lies, or spend a little more time determining what the truth actually is.

Given a choice between life and death, choose life. Given a choice between right and wrong, choose what's right. And given a choice between a terrible truth and a beautiful lie, choose the truth every time.

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