Jan Hillard: Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it (Jonathan Swift)July 7, 2020
An inventory by the Washington Post finds more than 1,800 untruths told by President Trump since he took office in 2016. Several campaign ads by Vice President Biden include facts not supported by the record. Fact-checking has become a cottage industry with no shortage of work from Republican and Democratic elected officials and candidates. And while misinformation has always crept into American politics, this is unprecedented.
These are dangerous times for the health of a democracy that thrives on transparency and the truth and dies in the dark of lying and propaganda.
In early June the social media outlet Twitter made a decision to fact-check the President’s tweets that number in the tens of thousands over the past 3 1/2 years. Twitter implemented a policy that they would begin to flag the President’s tweets that included suspicious or untruthful claims, offering the reader sources of vetted countervailing information and data.
Alerting readers to suspicious or falsified information is not new. It has been an ethical tenant of the media for decades. The Twitter case is distinctive as a result of flagging statements with immediacy, its international scope of readership, and its direct confrontation with the President.
Fake news is a slippery concept accompanied by competing claims of reality. While pinpointing what is real falls under the realm of philosophy, empirical evidence gathered via the principles of valid observation constitutes what we agree upon as fact. These are the rules of evidence.
Unfortunately, the fake news is not accompanied by sources, the basis of truthful reporting.
Confusion swirls around what is fake news, what impact it has on us, and how to combat it. In March 2018, MIT produced the most comprehensive study of fact news to date. A summary of the MIT study was published in the Atlantic in 2018. The study analyzed 126,000 stories tweeted by over 3 million users over 10 years. Each story was reviewed by teams of researchers following the method of inter-rater reliability. The major finding of this massive study is that falsehoods beat out the truth as “fake news reaches more people, penetrates deeper into the social network and spreads much faster than accurate stories.” (Atlantic, 2018)
The MIT study points to human nature as responsible for the triumph of falsehood over fact. The study finds that falsehood reaches many more people, 6x faster than true stories. It appears that people are psychologically drawn to sharing falsehoods. The study also finds that fake news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted by individuals and not bots. The fake news tweets were retweeted 4.5 million times, while evidence-based tweets generated on average 1,000 retweets. We are fascinated with what is different and sensational. We want to share it with others, with immediacy and lustfulness. Falsehoods thrive and truths wither. Emotion rules our actions, and reason trails the pack.