Las Vegas Sun

July 19, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Americans are increasingly aware of threat posed by false news stories

Americans are recognizing the serious threat posed by fringe websites promulgating conspiracies and unfounded accusations, partisan hack commentators who ignore facts or lie to advance their political causes, and others who are spreading weaponized disinformation.

That was made clear recently when Pew Research released a poll in which the majority of respondents listed falsified news as a more serious problem than such issues as violent crime, climate change, racism and terrorism.

Exactly where the problem ranks may be a matter of opinion, but the poll respondents were certainly correct in listing it among the most troubling issues facing our nation.

The spread of Infowars-type stories about entirely fictional scandals (Pizzagate, “crisis actors” at Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla., etc.), reckless extremism masquerading as political commentary and the like have helped fuel partisan disagreements between Americans and deepened political polarization as they are published on websites and are shared in siloed social media communities.

Fueling the fire is a president who has worked to make Americans even more confused about what’s fact and what’s fabrication. President Donald Trump began using the term “fake news” to distract from legitimate news stories about bogus information being spread by Russian operatives about Hillary Clinton. It’s a core technique for Trump: take any criticism and turn it around against the accuser by using the same term, only louder, more vehemently and more consistently.

A potentially troubling outcome of all of this is that 43 percent of the Pew poll respondents said they’d reduced their news intake because of the problem. That’s not necessarily a problem if the reduction is happening because Americans are weeding out unreliable sources from their daily diet of news, but it would be harmful if people are simply tuning out the news. Our democracy thrives when well-informed citizens take part.

The good news about the poll is that it reflects some positive changes in the way Americans are consuming news. They’re bringing a healthy skepticism to what they read, see and hear, as shown by 78 percent of respondents saying they’ve done independent fact-checking on stories and 63 percent indicating they’d stopped getting news from sites that had posted false information. In addition, slightly more than half said they have changed their habits in sharing content on social media.

Those steps will help reduce the spread of destructive information. Although most Americans aren’t hanging out on extremist sites, this is an insidious problem in which a relatively small percentage of conspiracy theory consumers craft and promote nonsense that can lead others to think it might be real. That being the case, it’s a plus to see Americans considering the source of their news.

Meanwhile, the poll also indicated that Americans are largely looking to legitimate media organizations like the Las Vegas Sun to curb the problem. The Sun and others are working to do just that by providing news content that has been produced and vetted by our team of professional reporters and editors. It’s our responsibility to serve our readers by providing them with information they can trust, and we take it seriously.

Along those same lines, we encourage readers to do their own fact-checking of any content they see online, including ours. Here are some tips for spotting fabricated news from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions:

• Check URLs carefully. Phony news providers have posted stories using variations of legitimate news media websites, such as using .org or .net instead of .com. On any story from an unfamiliar source it’s advisable to click into the site and get information about its mission, staff and ownership.

• Vet authors of stories. If there’s no contact information for writers, be especially wary of the story.

• Follow any links to related content to see if that supporting material comes from trustworthy sources and has been referred to accurately in the story.

• Check publication dates of stories. Old, outdated information often gets posted and shared, clouding the facts.

• Before sharing a story, read well beyond the headline. The story may be satire or have come from a disreputable source.

• Vet stories by using fact-checking sites or, for those who would like to go analog, contacting a librarian.

• Don’t trust news organizations that don’t publish corrections. Legitimate players take ownership of their mistakes, and correct them.

A lot is at stake here. The spread of disinformation and deepfake videos gives bad actors an opportunity to weaken our democracy by sowing mistrust among Americans, sabotaging the careers of political leaders and candidates, and undermining confidence in our institutions.

It’s also given rise to a president who, while flying the false flag of “fake news,” lies constantly — so much that when his administration says Iran has attacked a tanker, no one knows whether the White House can be believed.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that will be with us for a while, and stands to get worse before it gets better. During a congressional hearing last week on doctored videos, lawmakers learned that advances in machine learning and the speed of computers are making it increasingly difficult to detect footage that has been altered.

This is a creature with a great many tentacles, including hostile foreign governments, dirty politicians, social media sites that have been slow or reluctant to take responsibility, and a U.S. president who has all too often been part of the problem instead of the solution.

The Pew poll was encouraging in that it showed that Americans are recognizing the severity of the problem and many are taking actions on their own to obtain sound information. It’s an issue that can’t be solved by the government or the media alone — it’s something we’ll all have to tackle together.