Tag Archives: fake news

Pink Slime

I hadn’t heard the term “pink slime”applied to the media before reading the following report in Talking Points Memo.

This is the tale of a fake news story, widely shared by a lot of smart people who so badly wanted it to be true that they didn’t care that it wasn’t. It is also the tale of the decline of local news in America, the wave of pink slime that is replacing it, feeding destructive partisan narratives about public institutions.

The story–which was written to sound like one of those overzealous efforts to compensate for structural racism–was that administrators at two Chicago suburban high schools would be requiring teachers to “adjust”their  classroom grading scales in the upcoming year. The adjustments were supposedly going to “account for the skin color or ethnicity of the students”. The story (from a rightwing outlet masquerading as a local news source) explained that the directive was an effort “to equalize test scores among racial groups.” Teachers would be told

to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.

To suggest that people were outraged would be a considerable understatement. Had the story been true, the outrage would have been appropriate, but of course, it wasn’t. Not even close. No new policies had been adopted. A committee on grading and assessment had submitted an initial report, but it contained no mention of race-based grading or plans to grade students using different standards according to race.

This is where “pink slime” comes in. “Pink slime” is the product of a partisan propaganda platform well-disguised as a “local” news outlet. It’s named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler—in other words, it looks like meat but isn’t.

When Talking Points Memo reporters looked for the source of the story–which you couldn’t even characterize as distorted, since it was pretty much invented out of whole cloth–they traced it to something called Local Government Information Services.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) is the publisher of lots of local news media in Illinois, with titles like “Southern Illinois News” and “SW Illinois news.” LGIS is part of a much larger network of local news in multiple states. As local news media has disappeared “pink slime” outlets like LGIS have taken their place, relying on low-cost or automated content repeated across sites, and eschewing basic journalistic practices.

Just how big and how connected these local news outlets are is difficult to discern. In 2020, the New York Times counted about 1,200 connected local news outlets that had arisen in just 10 years.

Behind this empire of pink slime is Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and former journalist with a record of plagiarism and fabrication. It is not just that his media has an ideological outlook, or that it frequently uses deceptive practices such as the story detailed here. They are also directly funded by conservative advocates, a fact that is rarely disclosed to readers. At least $1.7 million could be traced going from Republican campaigns to Timpone’s companies, but the actual number is unknown given the shadowy nature of the flow of political money and the obtuse structure of these networks.

The rise of LGIS and similar “news sources” has been facilitated by the near-death of local journalism and the closing of hundreds of newspapers that adhered to the norms of ethical news gathering. The fact that so much false “news” goes viral tells us that the supply of propaganda continues to grow, with phony “news” sources extruding a steady stream of propaganda masquerading as news–pink slime, pretending to be meat.

Local journalists with a sense of responsibility to journalistic ethics, their personal reputation, and the community they live in have been replaced by anonymous for-hire freelancers paid crumbs to feed the motivated reasoning beast.

As the report notes, people want to believe that these stories aren’t just true, but typical.

“But of course,” they type, and retweet. Even after they have been corrected, they might think to themselves, “Well, maybe this specific piece was exaggerated, but it is representative of a broader trend.”

The episode is indeed representative and telling, but of something that has gone wrong in our media landscape. When you give the benefit of the doubt to partisan fake news rather than professional educators, it is hard to take the whole “I’m here to defend education” bit too seriously. Our looming crisis in education is not runaway wokeness, which local school boards can police, but the willingness of those who should know better to reflexively denigrate the teaching profession.

America’s problems almost all come back to partisan, deeply dishonest media.

 

 

 

 

The Right Problem

Sometimes, unrelated “factoids” converge to tell a story. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across stories that seemed initially to be unconnected, but come together to illustrate a troubling aspect of contemporary political life.

Factoid #1: Recent polls show that a third of Americans do not believe the Nazis killed six million Jews.Thirty-one percent of the Americans surveyed, and 41 percent of millennials within that group, do not believe that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and think the real death toll is at least 2 million lower. (Eleven percent said it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.)

Factoid #2: An October poll by Axios found barely a majority of Americans affirming faith in democracy. Just 51% of Americans said they have faith in the country’s democracy, and 37% say they have lost faith in democracy.

Factoid #3: The people most apt to share “fake news“–to be taken in by conspiracy theories, spin and propaganda– aren’t defined by political ideology, but by age (although age does correlate with political philosophy). Research published by the journal Science Advances, found that older Americans — especially those over 65 — were much more likely to share fake news than younger ones, and conservatives and Republicans were more likely to share fake news than were liberals and Democrats.

There are several disheartening conclusions to be drawn from these disparate items. The most obvious is that Americans are woefully ignorant of history. Another is that the pace of social change has been most upsetting to older Americans, who find themselves attracted to “alternative facts” when their settled views are  challenged. Still another is that Americans are disappointed with the direction the nation is taking, and draw the conclusion that democracy hasn’t worked.

But beneath those fairly superficial conclusions, I think there is a state of bewilderment. As our media has fragmented, as the availability of widely-trusted news sources has diminished and the number of politicized, highly partisan outlets has increased,  thoughtful Americans–those who don’t automatically accept the spin from one “true believer” cult or another– no longer know what to believe.

Did you read that six million Jews were murdered? Well, maybe. Where did you read that?  Did you read that Trump lies constantly? Well, that was from the Washington Post; this article from Breitbart attributes the accusation to the Post’s “liberal bias.” I’m not sure who’s right.

An article for the Guardian profiled David Neiwert, who has written about the contribution of the alt-right to our current situation.

For several decades following the Great Depression, when capitalism and liberal democracy teetered on the brink, Republicans and Democrats “agreed to defend democracy, and defend the values of democracy because it benefited them all by following basically FDR’s program. Now, we’ve lost that because conservatives have decided they are no longer willing to submit to any kind of government run by liberals,” Neiwert says. “The current conservative movement has decided it no longer wishes to be part of a liberal democracy.”…

Neiwert has focused on the media environment.

In his 2009 book The Eliminationists, Neiwert explained how this post-9/11 authoritarianism was fuelled by increasingly lurid fantasies in conservative media of destroying liberals, Muslims and other perceived enemies. These bubbled away throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, himself the subject of endless conspiracy theorising. Trump, of course, became the principal pusher of the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the US. His subsequent presidential campaign was powered by authoritarian and conspiratorial fantasy. And so, Alt-America has its president.

But can the problems Neiwert points to actually be remedied? “I’m not optimistic,” he says. “I believe that we’ve dug ourselves a really deep hole and we have a really long way to dig up.” He believes that while Trump is likely to lose in 2020, the movement, and the party, that propelled him to power will continue to have a malign effect.

One important step to challenge this would be media reform. He says that the internet and corporate ownership of local media have “basically gutted the ability of local newspapers to cover local news, gutted the ability of larger newspapers to do consumer and investigative reporting”. Social media, a paradise for conspiracy theorists, is filling the gap.

Without trusted and trustworthy journalism,  reasonable citizens don’t know what they can believe, and that uncertainty paralyzes them.

Unreasonable citizens believe what they want to believe, and alt-right propagandists are happy to oblige.

Whose Fake News?

Psychiatrists define “projection” as a defense mechanism employed by people who are having trouble coping with difficult emotions. They project their feelings of inadequacy or remorse over shameful behaviors onto someone else–accusing other people of undesirable or reprehensible actions of which the accuser is actually guilty.

For example, Donald Trump and “fake news.”

I’m not referring to Trump’s constant misstatements and inaccuracies (latest favorite: Trump said Harley-Davidson had lost sales because Americans were reacting negatively to the company’s impending move overseas. The company announced that move two weeks ago. Trump’s cited “evidence” was from 2017.)

He gets his facts wrong so often he could open an “Inaccurate-R-Us” franchise, but frequently, that’s simply because he is jaw-droppingly ignorant. His constant whining about “fake news,” however, is different. When he accuses reporters of manufacturing stories, he’s projecting, but he’s also playing to his base.

A recent example is this July 3d tweet

Just out that the Obama Administration granted citizenship, during the terrible Iran Deal negotiation, to 2,500 Iranians – including to government officials. How big (and bad) is that?”

Trump is absolutely obsessed with Obama (presumably because he can’t bear the fact that a black guy is infinitely smarter and classier than he is) and invents “facts” about him constantly. In response to the tweet, the Washington Post’s fact checker gave the allegation  Four Pinocchios.

As embarrassing as it is to have a President who lies whenever his lips are moving, Trump’s truly despicable use of fake news is in service of his bigotry, especially when it comes to immigration. These are “lies with purpose”–messages intended to keep his base terrified of those lawless and dangerous brown people coming over the southern border.

The view from that southern border is radically different from the stories Trump is peddling.

As a resident of that border recently wrote

The news over the past few weeks might make you think that places such as my hometown — McAllen, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley — are under siege from waves of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, a crisis of lawlessness so extreme that drastic measures are needed. Tearing children from their parents, or, when that proves too unpopular, corralling families in tent cities. Then there’s the $25 billion wall that’s needed to safeguard the United States from the threat of being overrun.

The view from down here is different. In a 2018 rating of the 100 most dangerous cities in the United States based on FBI data, no border cities — not San Diego, not Texas cities such as Brownsville, Laredo or El Paso — appeared even in the top 60. McAllen’s crime rate was lower than Houston’s or Dallas’s, according to Texas Monthly in 2015. The Cato Institute’s research consistently shows that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are markedly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

And as Kevin Sullivan recently wrote, in a story in the Washington Post, the town of McAllen is profoundly uncomfortable with Trump’s policy, and irate about the rhetoric he uses to defend it.

The policy is seen as unwanted and unfair in this border city of 142,000 whose population is 90 percent Hispanic and so fully bilingual that roadside anti-littering signs say “No dumping basura” (trash).

Far from being the criminal hell-hole described by Trump, McAllen is a thriving community, with an economy that is heavily dependent upon trade with its Mexican neighbors. Businesses welcome the customers who come over the border, and the town raises more sales tax per capita than almost any other Texas city — about $60 million last year, greater than its property tax revenue. Crime in the city is at a 33-year low.

There is a “crisis” at the border, but it is a humanitarian crisis entirely of Trump’s making.

Facts, evidence, accuracy, fairness–none of those things matter to this profoundly unstable and insecure man, so he evidently assumes that they don’t mean anything to anyone else, either. He projects his own dishonesty on others; he may even believe that everyone is as  pathetically self-aggrandizing as he is. He clearly doesn’t realize how obvious his lies and inadequacies are to everyone outside the small, devoted base that desperately wants to see itself as superior to black and brown people.

He would be an object of pity if he weren’t in a position to do so much damage.

 

Why Trust Matters

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style. In it, I looked at the issue of trust through the lens of social capital scholarship. Trust and reciprocity are essential to social capital–and especially to the creation of “bridging” social capital, the relationships that allow us to connect with and value people different from ourselves.

I didn’t address an issue that I now see as critical: the intentional production of distrust.

Today’s propagandists learned a valuable tactic from Big Tobacco. For many years, as health professionals insisted that smoking was harmful, Big Tobacco responded brilliantly. Rather than flatly disputing the validity of the claim, a response that would have invited people to take sides and decide who they trusted, their doctors or tobacco manufacturers,  they trotted out their own well-paid “scientists” to claim that the research was still inconclusive, that “we just don’t know what medical science will ultimately conclude.”

In other words, they sowed confusion–while giving people who didn’t want to believe that smoking was harmful something to hang their hat on. If “we don’t really know…,” then why  stop smoking? Just wait for a definitive answer.

It is a tactic that has since been adopted by several interest groups, most notably the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing that– as ice shelves melted and oceans rose– few would believe a flat denial that climate change is real and occurring, they focused their disinformation efforts on creating confusion about what was causing the globe to warm. Thus their insistence that the scientific “jury” was still out, that the changes visible to everyone might be part of natural historical cycles, and especially that there wasn’t really consensus among climate scientists. (Ninety-seven percent isn’t everyone!)

The goal was to sow doubt among all us non-scientists. Who and what should we believe?

Now, as information about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election is emerging, it is becoming apparent that Russian operatives, too, made effective use of that strategy. In addition to exacerbating American racial and religious divisions, Russian bots relentlessly cast doubt on the accuracy of traditional media reporting. Taking a cue from Sarah Palin and her ilk, they portrayed the “lamestream” media as a cesspool of liberal bias.

In fact, the GOP’s right wing has been employing this tactic for years–through Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh and a variety of others, the Republican party has engaged in a steady attack on the very notion of objective fact. That attack reached its apogee with Donald Trump’s insistence that any reporting he doesn’t like is “Fake News.”

Both the Republican and Democratic bases have embraced the belief that inconvenient facts are simply untrue, that reality is whatever they choose to believe. (Granted, this is far more prevalent on the Right, but there’s plenty of evidence that the fringe Left does the same thing.)

The rest of us are left in an uncomfortable gray area, increasingly unsure of the veracity of the items that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s bad enough that years of Republican propaganda have convinced the GOP base that credible outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have “libtard agendas,” but thanks to the explosion of new media outlets made possible by the Internet, even those of us who are trying to access accurate, objective reporting are inundated with “news” from unfamiliar sources, many of which are reliable and many of which are not. The result is insecurity–is this true? Has that been report verified? By whom? What should I believe? Who can I trust?

Zealots don’t worry about the accuracy of the information they act on, but rational people who distrust their facts tend to be paralyzed.

And that, of course, is the goal.

 

 

 

Fake News and the Big Lie

A few days ago, Vox reported that

Attacks on the “fake news” media have become a staple of the Trump administration — and nearly half of voters, including the vast majority of Republicans, believe the president when he claims that the media is making up stories about him.

Forty-six percent of voters believe that major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump, while 37 percent do not and 17 percent are undecided, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Note that the question was focused on “major” news organizations–journalism outlets with institutional commitments to verification and accuracy. The questions weren’t about dubious websites or partisan outlets.

A study by an organization called Study Soup, with which I am unfamiliar, found that Limbaugh, Breitbart and Fox News–rather than traditional media– were seen as the biggest purveyors of “fake news.” This particular study asked people whether they’d been personally duped; I suppose it is plausible that people who recognize that they’ve been fooled by dubious reporting would subsequently be less trusting of all media.

Americans across the political spectrum, led by Republicans, admit they have been duped by “fake news,” or partisan propaganda and outright fabrications, a new national study has found.

“In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same,” said the analysis accompanying the survey of 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup.com.

The study did find that Trump’s constant calling-out of specific media sources affected public perceptions of the accuracy of those sources. That shouldn’t surprise us. There is a famous Joseph Goebbels quote, describing the propaganda tactic known as “The Big Lie.”

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The Big Lie is an all-purpose propaganda technique. According to Wikipedia,

The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Use of the technique isn’t limited to politics. Back in 2011, Joseph Nocera demonstrated how politically convenient myths about the collapse of the housing bubble had been promulgated.

 

So this is how the Big Lie works.

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views…

The success of the Big Lie rests on two characteristics of human nature. First, people have a tendency to believe a big lie more easily than a little one; most of us are familiar with”little white lies,” but we find it hard to believe that someone would invent an enormous (and more easily refuted) fiction. Second, if you repeat even a ridiculous lie frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

So–accuse respected journalists of “fake” news.

Does media bias exist? Of course–although the bias is usually toward conflict, not ideology. (Conflict, after all, is what makes something newsworthy, or at least interesting.) And reporters are human–they see things through their own “lenses,” no matter how hard they try for total objectivity.

Credible journalists do not, however, simply fabricate stories.

That so many Americans believe mainstream news outlets are manufacturing reports out of whole cloth is disquieting, to put it mildly. It’s one thing to be leery of conspiracy websites and partisan propaganda. When people don’t believe anything, from any source, there is no civic common ground. Without agreed-upon facts, we become uneasy; we can’t communicate.

That distrust creates an environment conducive to authoritarianism. Which is, of course, the point.