In the last few days I was looking around for stories that could illustrate what fake news actually is, and I had a nice collection, but then last night Robert Mueller of all people clarified what exactly fake news is better than I could have. At first the BuzzFeed crew that was caught staring straight into the headlights has a feeble response (what exactly was untrue in our article?), but was silenced by the WaPo of all publications: Mueller’s team said every bit of the article was false.
And still I wonder if people now understand better what fake news is. Which I think has a lot to do whit the fact that the term was monopolized by a section of US media as meaning things that had to do with Trump, more or less exclusively. That way, when Trump accused these same media of publishing fake news, they knew their loyal readers wouldn’t believe him.
But in reality they’ve been at it ever since Trump entered US politics, and they dug in ever deeper into their anti-Donald trenches, first for political reasons, later for profit (nothing sells like Trump in America today). And in the process, especially since they published umpteen pieces a day on the topic, they had to use unproven and biased allegations and innuendo. There was never enough real news to go around to feed the monster they created. That’s how we got Russiagate.
Still, of course, like me, you want to know how fake news is recognized, how ‘experts’ tell it apart from real news. Well, despair no more. An actual professor researched it, and was quoted by the New York Times last week, which doesn’t publish fake news, it says. I got to say, personally, I found this highly enlightening.
The authors were careful in defining “fake news,” a term that has been weaponized by many, including President Trump, to dismiss real news they dislike. “Reasonable people disagree about where to draw the line and we were very conscious of those issues,” Professor Guess said.
As a result, they assembled a limited list of sites that reliably published fake content, based on various sources, including reporting from BuzzFeed News. As best the researchers could tell, the list did not include any websites associated with Russian disinformation efforts, according to Professor Guess. The Facebook and survey data came from a group of about 3,500 people whom the authors tracked during the 2016 election in order to better understand the role social media played in political discourse.
They found that Republicans and those who identified as “very conservative” tended to share the most news from questionable sources. But that tendency may have less to do with ideology and more to do with what those articles said: Users tend to share stories they agree with and the fake news sites were disproportionately pro-Trump, the authors said.
So the researchers distinguish fake news from real news, but they don’t tell us -or the NYT doesn’t- what methods they use to tell the two apart. They do tell us that what Trump calls fake news is merely real news he dislikes. It’s funny how people say that so easily, and never think they themselves might do just that.
“..a limited list of sites that reliably published fake content..” sounds intriguing, but not convincing. That this list partly comes from BuzzFeed is hilarious in view of Mueller’s indictment of BuzzFeed’s article about Trump instructing Michael Cohen to lie. Other than that, the article doesn’t really say much. But luckily Quentin Fottrell, personal finance editor at MarketWatch, elaborates (free advice: Quentin, stick to your trade!)
His article caught my eye because whereas the NYTimes piece talked about older people sharing more fake news, Quentin adds that it’s about Republican older people. And that I find hard to believe. At least without proof; I wouldn’t want to jump to such conclusions based on fake news. Let’s see how far I can get:
So why are Republican baby boomers more likely to share fake news on Facebook? One theory: As they didn’t grow up with technology, they may be more susceptible to being fooled.
That one sentence says a lot about this entire ‘study’. It even sounds fake to me. Because while I can see the “less exposed to tech” issue to an extent, I see no reason why Republican baby boomers would be fooled more easily by technology than their Democrat peers.
[..] Andrew Guess, an associate professor at Princeton University, and his colleagues disseminated an online survey to 3,500 people in three waves throughout the 2016 campaign. Of the respondents, 1,331 in the initial wave agreed to share their Facebook profile data, which allowed researchers to analyze the age and political affiliations of those people who were more likely to spread fake news.
The results showed that 90% of these users actually did not share misleading or fake articles and only 8.5% shared one or more fake news articles. A plurality, 18%, of the Facebook users who shared the fake stories were both self-identified Republicans and over the age of 65, the authors concluded, and these individuals shared nearly seven times as many fake news articles as respondents in the youngest age group, ranging in age from 18 to 29.
I had to look at this a few times. Here’s what I think it says:
They ‘studied’ 3,500 people in 3 waves, of which the initial one was larger than 1,331 people, since that is the segment of the first wave who shared their Facebook data (we assume not all did).
90% of these 1,331, or 1,198 people, shared nothing at all (no fake news).
8.5% of the 1,331, or 114 people, did share fake news stories. 18% of those 114 (so 18% of 8.5%), or 20 people, were self-identified Republicans over the age of 65.
Therefore 20 people out of 3,500, or 0.57%, were older Republicans who shared fake news (as it was defined by the survey). There are probably even more people in that target group suffering from dementia than the 0.57% who shared fake news. So what are we looking at here?
You could argue that it’s really 20 people out of 1,331, but that’s still only 1.5%. Meaningless.
These 20 people shared 7 times as many fake news pieces as young people. That may be true, but they also shared more than 99.43% of people their own age. Does this still mean anything at all to you?
Quentin delights us with some more data;
Another possible explanation: Older Americans may have felt particularly passionate and entrenched in their political views and, therefore, ideological. For instance, the most ideological members of Congress shared news stories on their Facebook pages more than twice as often as moderate legislators between Jan. 2, 2015, and July 20, 2017, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, which examined all official Facebook posts created by and for members of Congress in this period.
If you ask me, it’s peculiar to make statements about politics that heap ordinary Americans together with politicians, but at least that paragraph doesn’t say Republicans are more likely than others to [fill in your preference]. But then we’re off to the races again:
[..] What’s more, baby boomers are more likely to be conservative and ideological, according to data crunched by Pew. “In both 2015 and 2016, about one in 10 baby boomers identified as conservative Republicans— the highest percentages dating back to 2000,” researchers Shiva Maniam and Samantha Smith wrote for Pew. “In both years, conservative Republicans made up the largest single partisan and ideological group among boomers.”
Wait. The logic here is that baby boomers are more likely to be conservative and ideological because 1 in 10 baby boomers say they’re conservative Republicans. But that means 9 out of 10 does not. This doesn’t even make a single sliver of sense. Yo, Quentin (and professor Guess), we need some help here.
To be fair, older Republicans share more news in general, and fake news gets caught up in the mix. Members of Congress with very conservative or very liberal voting records both shared news links in about 14% of all their posts, but members with more moderate ideology scores shared links to news stories in just 6% of their posts, Pew found.
That starts out with older Republicans in general and then seamlessly veers into members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, with either very conservative or very liberal voting records. Not fully self-contradictory, but darn close.
There may also be a political explanation: A trickle-down effect from the president’s own remarks about the liberal media. Older Republicans could feel more emboldened by Trump’s comments and, as a result, assume stories that support their causes are accurate.
That’s the first time I explicitly read Quentin saying that fake news is linked to Trump. But other than that, there is no sign that older Democrats don’t feel ’emboldened’ by DNC or Hillary or Pelosi comments just as much as Republicans do by Trump. Quentin and professor Guess only pretend to make a point, but there’s nothing there.
The president has doubled down of late on the view that the mainstream media’s negative coverage of his administration is rooted in bias. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and often times false attacks and stories,” Trump said last year.
“Confirmation bias” helps outlandish theories and reports gain traction on social media. And that, psychologists say, is where fake news comes in.
Since there is nothing that indicates one political side is more prone to confirmation bias than the other, fake news will necessarily also occur on both sides. Why you would have psychologists define fake news I don’t know. Oh, and I think that Trump comment makes a lot of sense.
With so much noise on social media, how can people distinguish between rumor and reality? Psychologists say people develop defense mechanisms to cope with an uncertain world early in life, but this also draws people to information that seems to confirm their own beliefs and world views and to ignore reports or opinions that contradict their perceptions.
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” said Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor of management and information systems in Kent State University’s business school. “In fact, one could say the brain is hard-wired to accept, reject, miss-remember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
Older Americans may be less likely to question authority
However, many people effectively rationalize the irrational in order to avoid going against values and ideas they were taught by their parents. “Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood,” Eve Whitmore said. When people are faced with absurd and conflicting messages, her husband added, “It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”
[..] Ultimately, however, it may come down to our trust in the internet, rather than institutions or belief systems. “People who have grown up with the internet have experienced things that are not necessarily truthful. They have had experiences on social media or they have witnessed friends dealing with false information, which has made them more skeptical about what they read versus the baby boomers who did not grow up with the internet and have, therefore, limited experience.”
Remember, the article’s headline is “Why Republican Baby Boomers Are More Likely To Share #Fakenews On Facebook”. And then it does absolutely nothing to make that point, but instead goes a very long way to proving that ALL baby boomers do that. Either one of which, first of all, you don’t prove by talking 20 people out of a sample of 3,500, but moreover, secondly, your entire article -strongly- appears to deny.
And do we know what fake news is now, are we any closer to that? Not that I can see. And there’s no way I can say it all in one go, so I’ll get back to this topic. But not before thanking Robert Mueller for defining fake news in his own way. It must have cost him, and the FBI and DOJ, some genuine heartache, but in the end he couldn’t let the entire avalanche of media and Democrats run with such an overtly fake piece of ‘news’. There were calls for Congressional investigations based on it, for crying out loud.
Speaking of which, crying out loud might be what you expect BuzzFeed to do now, but don’t count on it: they got a ton of free publicity, and that’s all the entire fake news cycle has been based on from the start. And if it didn’t kill the New York Times or CNN, why would it kill BuzzFeed? It’s a growth industry. And credibility is overrated.