Tag Archives: voting

Did fake news on social media sway the election?

No U.S. election has ever been so highly swayed by news and ‘fake news’ filtered through online social media. The New York Times documented the many instances of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day — arising from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as printed fliers and inaccurate election guides sent to voters. Media companies have been slow to rise to this challenge.

I predicted this Echo Chamber Effect long ago, in my novel Earth (1989): “The problem wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special -interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.”

An analysis by Buzzfeed news found that viral fake news stories outperformed real news, resulting in more engagement of readers on Facebook than election news from nineteen major news sites combined. Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars has compiled a list of fake or misleading news sites that warrant caution. Some are merely click-bait; some unreliable or biased; a few may even be satire. The toxic Infowars by the ever-angry Alex Jones is an obvious offender.

John Pavley, Sr. Vice President at Viacom, takes this thought farther in his posting: Trolls Are USA, talking about how these new media are causing social breakdowns. moreover, this lobotomization is familiar, from history.

fake-news-electionRemember, the first effect of the printing press was to exacerbate intolerance… till printed books later empowered people to fight against it. Or ponder the way 1930s radio first wrought fanaticism and horror before it fostered empathy. Likewise, Pavley talks about how monsters are using the new media more effectively, before they can increase our reasoning ability and empathy:

“The broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed. Then came the public internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members.

“Here the troll was born…. Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice, you are the troll.”

trump-facebookMax Read argues in New York Magazine that our ‘echo chamber’ mentality, to gather in likeminded swarms online, may have been a crucial factor this year. Polemically fervid-uniform ’nuremberg rallies”… and there are (yes) some on the left, too.

“All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle.”

Yes to much of that. Fretful over how social media are being blamed for the Echo Chamber Effect, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a response to accusations that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, and helped Donald Trump to win. On NPR, Aarti Shahani points out a fundamental discrepancy: “He (Zuckerberg) and his team have made a very complex set of contradictory rules — a bias toward restricted speech for regular users, and toward free speech for “news” (real or fake).”

Faced with increasing criticism, both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their oversight of fake news sites. Google said that it would prohibit fake news sites from using its online advertising service. Similarly Facebook recently updated its policy about placing ads on sites that display misleading content. In a The New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg writes, “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” And of course, you get what you pay for.

For modern journalism is being undermined by one flaw in today’s internet. By the net’s astonishing over-reliance on advertising to pay the bills. By sucking away the revenue source of old-fashioned, fact-centered investigative news media, this business model has harmed us all. In a series on Evonomics, I’ve made out a case for a micropayment system to effectively fund online content: Advertising Cannot Maintain the Internet and the follow-up: Beyond Advertising: Will Micropayments Sustain the New Internet?

We live in a tsunami of information. The problem is to avoid drowning in it. As citizens, we need to hone our skeptical skills to better sort truth from dross. And we need reliable methods to ensure accountability and trustworthiness for our news sources.

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Why the Candidates Should (But Won’t) Stipulate

Stipulate-electionIt’s been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career — at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or flattering voters. One chance to tell the truth.

All right, it’s rare. Many politicians hurry through a revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms. Still, it can be colorful when a few spill their hearts.

Take the day in 1992 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas made headlines declaring that everybody was at fault for the country’s fiscal condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the democrat-controlled Congress, to the American people. Responsible economists later credited Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

Around the same time, retired senator and conservative eminence gris Barry Goldwater denounced the followers of émigré philosopher Leo Strauss – so-called “neocons” – for hijacking Goldwater’s beloved movement over cliffs of romantic delusion. A more recent example of post retirement candor came When G.W. Bush’s ex-Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, revealed a swamp of backroom dealings and ineptitude, explaining that he was “old and rich” and unafraid to speak his mind. On the other side, some claim that Senator Joe Lieberman really came into his own when he ran as an independent, shrugging off party discipline (if such a thing exists, among democrats.)

Alas, under our electoral system candor is punished. Folks on both sides of the lamentably oversimplifying “left-right axis” yearn for the best and most sincere people on the other side to wise up!  To eject radicals from control over the other party’s agenda. Too bad we rarely ponder the way crimes like gerrymandering have been used by our own side, with terrible effects upon the radicalization of politics.    (Elsewhere I describe one time that party self-reform actually happened.)

== A Modest Proposal ==

Let me offer here a proposal that I’ve made every presidential election for decades. Throughout the campaign we’ll learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. And platitudes, what they think voters want to hear.

Logically, there must be a third category — areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but fear to speak  first.  But consider: there’s no political cost to telling voters what you really believe… if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

What’s wrong with two leaders finding patches of consensus amid a sea of discord? It has a name – stipulation… as when attorneys in a case agree to agree about a set of points, so the trial can focus on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics? Given the intensity of partisanship in recent American political life, can we dream? Bear with me for a “what-if” thought experiment.

Suppose, amidst the 2012 campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to meet for an afternoon. Staffs would cover debate rules, and maybe how to prevent spirals of mudslinging and people would applaud just seeing them talk to each other like adults.

Only then — they go for a walk, alone. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don’t dismiss it too readily. For all his faults, the last GOP nominee – John McCain did this sort of thing before. So did Senators Clinton and Obama, amid their primary fights in 2008.  In fact, the only ones to object would be extremes in both parties.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other’s mind concerning major divisions. But here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America’s future. Surely there’d be some overlap? Things that both of them feel that we, as a nation, should do.

Imagine a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they make public simultaneously their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law “X”, or repeal restriction “Y”. Further, they agree – neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, folks might say — “Gosh, if both say the country needs this strong medicine, let’s give it thought.”

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something rarely seen… leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

=== Is This Impossible? ===

Well, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy. Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR’s request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited — Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines in memory.

How might today’s politics differ if two adults — each the standard bearer of a major party — agreed to let it be known how they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform…

… or the biggest candidate for such a declaration?  The obvious of course. The topic that neither side dares to raise first.  The failed Drug War.

== How it could happen ==

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today’s opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2012 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for two decades, overshadowing any national good.

Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates become so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling. And note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this kind of stipulation process, and the other refused… well, there might be benefits there, as well.

Indeed, imagine if a third party candidate – say the Libertarian Party’s unusually reasonable/interesting Gary Johnson – were to join one of this year’s presidential debates. (Okay, so I think that would devastate one of the major candidates, offering sane, libertarian-minded conservatives a place to escape their party’s current madness.)  Johnson’s natural move would be to pounce on obvious things like the drug war. Ironically, this could offer one of the other guys cover to step forward, partially agreeing with Johnson while remaining moderate/skeptical. Good positioning, politically speaking.  And as a result, we all benefit when the topic itself (changing the drug war) moves up in peoples’ minds.

All right.  It won’t happen. Not this time around. But it could.  And maybe someday it will.

Shatter the barriers against candor!

CANDOROnce upon a time, it was just a glimmer in a few eyes to imagine that debates would be standard in elections.  Now it’s normal.

Might the Candidates’ Post-Convention Summit and Letter of Stipulation also become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October?

Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation — awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically savvy, but what is simply wise.

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