Verbum Ultimum: Our Achey, Fakey News

Fighting fake news is all but impossible — but we have to try.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 1/13/17 12:30am

As if questions of so-called fake news could not get any more lurid and absurdist, on Tuesday night Americans were treated to a report published by Buzzfeed news that, amongst other things, claimed that President-elect Donald Trump paid a slew of Muscovite prostitutes to defile a bed used by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama while Trump watched. Whether the claim is true is, ultimately, relatively immaterial: millions of Americans will hear it and believe it, many millions more will dismiss it as propaganda regardless of its provenance or any process undertaken to confirm or rebut the accusations.

In a Nov. 9, 1710 piece in The Examiner, Jonathan Swift wrote that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” The remark — which spawned more famous and, somewhat ironically, more erroneous attributions to everyone from Mark Twain to Sun Tzu to Winston Churchill — is oft-quoted and has stood the test of time. This election cycle, it is particularly apt. It seems that whether or not news has even a shred of veracity is less important than whether it is clickable and shareable.

Perhaps the most egregious and most notable incident of fake news in the recent past was the so-called “Pizzagate” incident in which a number of right-wing websites claimed to have discovered a child sex ring organized by Democratic operative John Podesta and centered on Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia officially condemned the story as a “fictitious conspiracy theory,” but that wasn’t enough to stop an armed gunman from opening fire at the restaurant and causing severe distress although, fortunately, no one was wounded.

According to police, that man authentically believed that the restaurant housed a child sex ring and that, by going to “investigate,” he might save children’s lives. Wouldn’t any person with a shred of morality — if led to believe that he or she could stop the sexual abuse of children — be obliged to act? Of course. The man fully believed he was doing good — and that’s the biggest problem. For many, there is no way to distinguish between real and fake news. Even the most well-informed readers of the news media may have difficulty in an era where absurd stories may well be true and internet media outlets proliferate, all while a 24-hour news cycle stunts some of the in-depth reporting that was once possible.

It is an impossible situation not only for this country’s journalists but for its people. No newspaper — including, certainly, The Dartmouth, which issues its fair share of corrections and is run by humans who err regularly — or other media outlet can ever fully purge mistakes or misinformation from its pages or screens. But all media outlets have to try, day in and day out, working against time, with — in most cases — ever-shrinking resources to report on ever more complicated stories involving hundreds if not thousands of people.

The dilemma for journalists is often, appallingly, between speed and accuracy. If you delay in getting the scoop published, a less scrupulous reporter will surely beat you to it — or the story will simply lose its relevance thanks to time lost. But if you publish too soon and without an absolutely bulletproof fact-checking process — a process that can easily take days or weeks — you can end up propagating fake news. There is no easy solution and, worldwide, even the most prestigious and revered news organizations are struggling with these issues, although it is in the realm of social media and the blogosphere that the greatest offenses occur, with the sharers of Twitter and Facebook easily spinning a yarn with the loosest base in fact into a story absorbed by millions. And to those who distrust any established media, the insistence by reliable news outlets — of which there remain many dozens — that such a story is false serves only to fuel the fire.

For journalists, errors are inevitable but crushing. For the American public and our political culture, the harm is far worse. We are forced, as human beings, to consider the words of President George Washington in his Farewell Address: “in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.”

Reporters, journalists and pundits can only do their best. And all they can ask of Americans, as readers and fellow citizens, is that they support them in that effort. Read news critically, read it carefully and, most importantly of all, double check everything before making that social media post.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.