Hillary Clinton may have lost the presidential election but it appears the real casualty in the partisan wars was the truth, which during the presidential campaign took quite a drubbing — not only among the candidates themselves but in what passes for political discourse in the social media echo chamber. Or if you’re picking winners instead of losers, listen to my colleague Barth Keck, who says the grand victor was confirmation bias.
The biggest culprit in the propaganda wars has been the proliferation of so-called fake news sites, along with the mindless sharing of slogan-filled graphics otherwise known as memes.
In the last few months alone, I’ve personally witnessed dozens of instances of the fake news sites fooling otherwise intelligent people — including seasoned journalists who should know better but evidently dropped their studied skepticism when confronted with “facts” they wanted to believe.
One celebrated example from this year came from a site apparently based in South America and designed to look like ABC News. The site reported in May that the retired basketball superstar Michael Jordan had threatened to move the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA franchise he partially owns, from North Carolina unless the state repealed a law barring transgender persons from using the bathroom corresponding to the sex they identify with.
The story quickly spread to other legitimate news organizations, some of which later had to apologize for being so gullible. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist even used the false claim to thunder against the bathroom law.
The most embarrassing aspect of hoaxes like these is that they can easily be avoided. The fake ABC News site features a crudely duplicated corporate logo. Anyone paying attention can see that. And the URL for the site is suspicious: abcnews.com.co. The extension “.co” suggests the site originates in Colombia. Last time I checked, ABC was based in New York, unless the button-down corporation decided to move to the land of the Medellín Cartel.
But the proliferation of fake news sites and dopey memes seemed to have accelerated during the recent presidential campaign. Perhaps the most dogged critic of the these platforms is CNN media analyst Brian Stelter.
Stelter says — and I agree with him — that there are three types of sites to be wary of: 1) Completely false sites with news headlines created out of whole cloth in an effort to deceive you; 2) Hyperpartisan sites that aren’t necessarily lying by commission but by omission, only publishing facts that are damaging to the opposition (Infowars is a good example), and; 3) Sites that are a mix of the first two. All are known in the trade as “click bait.”
And it’s not just journalists and regular people who get fooled by this stuff. Last month, Trump’s son Eric tweeted out a fabricated story from the aforementioned fake ABC News website with the headline “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.’”
“Finally, the truth comes out,” the younger Trump tweeted, along with a link to the bogus story.
The mindless memes are just as destructive and just as easily disproved. One particularly disturbing meme may actually have been an attempt at voter suppression. It told unsuspecting Twitter users all they needed to do to vote for Hillary was text her name to a number: “Save Time, Avoid The Line,” it read. Shockingly, Twitter’s initial response was that such chicanery did not violate its terms of service, though the company did eventually remove the original tweets containing the meme.
There were plenty of other examples of bogus claims and half truths circulating on social media and in email chains. My favorite claimed that Trump told People magazine in 1998 that if he ever ran for president, he’d do it as a Republican because “they’re the dumbest group of voters in the country” and that he “could lie and they’d still eat it up?”
While it did sound like something Trump would say, Snopes.com quickly debunked the meme. But that didn’t stop a friend of mine from sharing it. His response when I showed him it was false — and I am paraphrasing here: I’m sure he has said it in private anyway.
I’m reminded me of something my father once told me: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do not forward or share something just because it makes you feel good to do it. Use Snopes, FactCheck.org or an old fashioned Google search as social filters to save you from your worst impulses. I know it’s hard, but guard against confirmation bias. Be just as critical of content you agree with as content that makes your blood boil.
Exercising due diligence will prevent you from getting egg on your face. And it just might be good for democracy.
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