People really believe this stuff. The NY Times didn’t realize that…

I started the site Doubtful News in 2011 with the premise that science-based, skeptically-minded coverage of news stories that you shouldn’t believe on face value was sorely needed. There was good reason to doubt the news headlines and fantastic anecdotes passed off as news even then. I lamented there were not enough hours in the day.

Here we are in 2016 and the idea of “fake news” – whatever the definition of that is – is ubiquitous. The Washington Post posted yesterday:

Fake news can refer to deliberately fabricated stories, often with the purpose of making money for the creators. (Think of those Macedonian teenagers looking to strike it rich on the gullibility of American audiences reading about politics.) It can also refer to comedy or satirical news, faked for the purposes of entertainment. Both of these types of stories are often shared across social media — and are taken as true by some readers.

FAKE rubber stamp. Part of a rubber stamp series.

Back in 2011, it was clear that people really believed this stuff : Guatemala pig alien born after ufos seen in the sky, Jesus seen in a cloud, Month of birth may suggest what career a baby will have, John Travolta was a time-traveller based on an old photograph. These posts came mostly from UK tabloids but it didn’t take long for them to be spread and then get picked up in all their stinky ridiculousness, to be click bait for what people once assumed were reliable news sites, like Yahoo News, CNN and the local news channel web pages. At some point around 2010, the border between backchannel Internet forums and mainstream news became very porous and incredible tabloid fodder became “news”.

Today, I wrote this piece about Breitbart and climate change propaganda, Breitbart was a  main proponent of spiking mainstream news with stories that had a kernel of truth but were rotten in the interior. These stories were meant to destabilize the decisions between truth and fiction. People read the headlines, they shared, the pseudo news became the news. It’s not like we had no warning that society was threatened by this trend, just 9-11 conspiracies, alien disclosure, reptilian overlords, and Sandy Hook crisis actors claims.

The guest on Fresh Air recorded yesterday was The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. My mouth dropped open when he admitted he had no idea that “fake news” was a thing until it was too late.

When did you become aware of the fake news that’s all over the internet now and the impact that it’s having?

BAQUET: You know, not early enough, not early enough, to be honest. I bet most editors would say that. I think it was only near the end – I mean, I would get stuff myself in my email and on my Facebook feed with outlandish allegations about the Clintons and outlandish allegations about other people. I guess I thought at the time that it was just sort of part of the traffic of the internet and that – and we could ignore it and that people were ignoring it. I think – I’m not convinced that it had impact on the presidential election, by the way.

Emphasis above added by me. He was this ignorant? Was he that detached from the pulse of the internet? Apparently so. He continues:

But I think that probably I wish I had paid more attention to it earlier than I did. I bet every news organization is saying that now. We wrote about it, but I wish we had paid more attention to it. I just thought some of it was so outlandish. I mean, even the – I mean, the most outlandish one that’s come into the news in recent days that the Clintons ran a child porn ring out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. I guess I thought nobody would believe that. I thought that was so outlandish a claim.

GROSS: Yes, until a man walked in with an assault weapon and started shooting.

BAQUET: That’s right. And until we learn that the son of a future Cabinet member sort of was retweeting it.

Welcome to the real world.

PEOPLE REALLY BELIEVE THIS STUFF!!! 

Some days I banged my head on the wall because my website had provided evidence that a story was blatantly false three days ahead of it making mainstream news as true. DoubtfulNews.com was getting a few thousand clicks while sites spouting complete nonsense were getting millions of views. My work got little to no support, where creators of the other sites were getting thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue. Snopes.com was inundated with urban legends to debunk that they hired professional writers. Caitlyn Dewey could only keep her “What was wrong on the Internet this week” column up for about a year. There was NO excuse to have been surprised at how this phenomenon affected the what the public believed. It was not just the fringe; this stuff was discussed by everyone. There were multiple gigantic red flags no self-respecting journalists should have missed that fake news was a major problem we needed to address.

But big name media sources did nothing and rolled along as usual. We got the bamboozler-in-chief we deserved. Now America is one big reality TV drama fest. It was inevitable.

Dear NYT and WaPo: I’m available for consultation. You need assistance. It’s a whole new world out there.

Trust No One: All news is doubtful – Doubtful ~ Sharon Hill

American society ignores learning how to think critically – it’s hardly surprising where we ended up

Several pieces have come out in the media since the election regarding the real people behind fake news. They say they didn’t affect the election, they don’t support Trump, they did it to show how easy it was to fool people, they don’t feel responsible or badly about it.

Sure, they don’t. They are greedy, unethical people who made a ton of money off of people’s naïveté and strong emotions and are now justifying it to themselves. I have no sympathy for such scum. I liken them to drug dealers – those who make poison and market it to the people who eat it up. If there were no drug dealers, it would be far more difficult to get drugs and people generally would be less likely to suffer from that. So, yes, you, fake-news dealers, you bear some responsibility for peppering the online communities with this blight.

But it’s not that simple, obviously. The deeper blame lies with the education system, American values, and parents who fail to teach their kids about how the real world works.

Many factors came into play to get us to the state of misinformation (and the current president-elect) we have now. It will be difficult to fix the problem that about half of the public can’t readily tell fact from fiction and they may not care. The problem seems far worse for those who identify with the political “right” but it is bad across the board. Liberals, too, fall for nonsense that “feels” good and perpetuate dross.

A piece came out today on a large study of students of various ages and incomes in the US intended to evaluate reactions to internet content – tweets, web articles, and comments – for credibility. The results were appalling.

“Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real” 

I looked at the report that came with it. [PDF]  It’s a snapshot of how kids fail at thinking. THINKING: something that, as a parent, I know is taught very poorly, if at all, in public schools. The researchers are “shocked” at the results. How can kids be so oblivious? I’m not surprised at all. This result was inevitable. Kids are raised on fiction and no where along the line were they told how to judge veracity. HOW CAN THEY NOT BE OBLIVIOUS?

But the report released to the public is missing context. There was no reference to students in past generations who received their information from television. Were those kids better at telling the difference between real and fake “news”? Could they tell the difference between factual documentary shows and fictional? Did they think that stories in the National Enquirer were real? I’d like to know this because I don’t think kids are much different with regards to judging veracity now than they were in my school years. One social difference is that children now have incredible access to content across the spectrum – good, bad, satirical, and utter bilge. (They are also shielded from real explanations about the world from parents who don’t talk to their kids objectively about events in the world and how to make sound decisions informed by reliable knowledge.) With limited time to evaluate what they read, see and hear, and the social pressure to go with the information flow, kids mess up all the time (and so do adults). We could have forecast these results.

The solution proposed by the educators is to deliberately focus on teaching kids how to evaluate information sources. Fine, but that doesn’t go far enough. I would propose all schools REQUIRE a class (or classes) in critical thinking. Evaluations from college-level classes specific to learning about pseudoscience and why it’s faulty show this approach can be effective, at least somewhat. Students learn to recognize why some claims common in society are woo-woo by being shown how to dissect them and think more scientifically. Confronting bogus claims, including misleading information passed off as news or opinion, is a big topic and we encounter the beast every day. This is not just a problem with “fake news”, it’s lack of everyday practical skepticism, which entails employing critical thinking to fix.

The “skepticals”1 in the crowd have been aware of this for decades, even centuries. Sensational tales, fake news, gossip, and urban legends have been around forever! And people always fall for them. I grew up with tabloids and terrible “true” stories on television. I wasn’t always sure what was factual and there was no internet around to fact check. Today, we are pressured more than ever to be aware of what’s hot in world chatter. We hear not just what our immediate family, friends, and neighbors tell us, but we have a global and huge network of people and sources who shoot information at us every single minute, all day and night. It’s an information free-for-all like never before. Everything is news, everyone can be news, anyone can create news. No rules, no editors, no standards, no limits. None of us are prepared to adequately deal with this situation.

Kids of the past generations were not prepared to properly deal with evaluating news or any other kinds of claims, either. There was a good chance they didn’t learn how to think through claims as they got older and grew up to be adults who were uncritical thinkers. They had kids who never learned practical skepticism for themselves and it remained unemphasized and ignored, even discouraged, in schools. Now we are flooded with information and we are “shocked” that kids can’t properly navigate it? It’s no shock, most adults can’t either. Critical thinking is a learned skill. If a person is not taught how to do it, she can’t do it well.

The modern origin of organized skepticism was sparked by belief in astrology, psychics, ghosts and UFOs. We’re in far more treacherous waters these days because society hasn’t emphasized learning how to think about everything, all the information we are presented with as facts, and so news and information about political candidates and global affairs are full of lies and manufactured tales. This inevitably leads to poor decision-making and is a threat to democracy. We’re in deep trouble. 

There are few mechanisms out there to help teachers, school boards, state education agencies and parents teach kids how to think. It should have been a top goal for skeptical organizations to focus on education but aims were inward instead towards those who were already on board with the importance of critical thinking. The general public was ill-served by an entire society who failed to opt-in to thinking about the future.

———-

  1. I am moving away from using the term “skeptics” because of the common different meaning. “Skepticals” means those who have some understanding about applying scientific and practical skepticism to questionable claims.

Shouting into the void about doubtful news since 2011

Excuse my upcoming lament. It’s been a stressful year as I gave up for a while trying to keep a website afloat, and then came back only for it to be the usual situation – be generally ignored and at a loss to do much about it.

There has been so much media attention to news about fake news in the past week. The tone is that it’s worse now than ever, it may have influenced the election, it’s a shame that people are this dumb – really dismal sentiments. I believe you’ll find things are a bit more complicated than that. The saddest part is, though I’m trying to be  positive, I don’t think this surge of interest is doing any good.Read More »

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This story was NOT for you. Learn from it.

Early today on Doubtful News, I posted a story declaring the Michelle Obama photo holding a sign saying “An immigrant is taking my job” to be photoshopped. This produced a flood of repetitive comments to my personal and DN-based Facebook, Twitter, and comment threads alleging that it was OBVIOUS it was fake. Why did I bother to debunk it? Did someone actually think this was true?

Yes, they actually did. This SHOULD NOT have surprised you. Have you NOT been paying attention these many years when countless made up or misleading stories were accepted by the general public? There are simply too many to list as examples. I am frustrated you have not learned from several years of fake news. People REALLY DO believe this stuff. Read More »

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Slenderman on The Folklore Podcast: He’s the “face” of online bullying

For those interested in the more intellectual aspects of ghosts and monsters, I recommend checking out The Folklore Podcast hosted by Mark Norman. The first episode is on Slenderman, a topic I’ve been interested in even before the “Slenderman stabbings” brought the legend into so many peoples’ consciousness. Norman’s guest for this episode was Dr. Andrea Kitta who had some intriguing ideas about what this particular monster represents. Read More »

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Human sacrifice at CERN? It’s not a joke when bizarre claims are taken seriously

Reaction has been varied regarding a video seemingly depicting a human sacrifice on the grounds of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, the location of the Large Hadron Collider and cutting edge particle physics research. Some people are chuckling at the spoof while others see it confirming their dark suspicions and sinister worldview. As a science advocate who knows that people all too readily subscribe to truly outrageous ideas about how the world works, I’m angry at these participants who were clearly CLUELESS about the damage they could do to the beleaguered reputation of big science.

Take a look at the video.Read More »

Add science then stir

25251682A ubiquitous, overly-simplistic idea about science should be put to death. It is that of the public as an empty vessel that awaits filling with scientific facts. Then education will be achieved (level up!) and we can all make smart and informed decisions.

That’s utter tosh (as the British say). Nonsense.

As much as we would like to think learning is as direct as that, the public, which is made up of many people with all kinds of values, is not homogeneous and objective. We don’t just accept facts and then know stuff. Facts have to be applied. A corollary idea is that of linear science-based decision-making. That is, if we know the scientific facts about a problem, we will use that to determine what action should be taken about it. Agreed? Hardly. That’s hilariously naïve. This just does not happen for several reasons: disputed “facts”, different personal and social values, and the complexity of problems (many smaller problems inside an overarching problem) makes a linear approach about as unrealistic as a cartoon diagram of evolution showing arrows from monkeys to man.

Facts will fail

The article that provided the impetus to write this piece was by Sarewicz in 2004 [D. Sarewicz. 2004. How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse. Env Sci & Policy, 7: 385-403] In it, he uses an example of the history-changing Bush v Gore Presidential election of 2000. No matter what “facts” were – that is, the “official” number of votes declared – would that be the basis for general acceptance in such a close contest? I doubt it because there were disputes regarding votes for either candidate. (Remember the hanging chad?) Sarewicz can’t imagine that it would have been quickly solved (and we needed it to be) so a political/judicial decision was accepted instead.Read More »