I’m frequently discouraged by how often and quickly people who value “critical thinking” send barbs towards others with the same goals using unwarranted accusations and mischaracterizations. It’s too common. A few weeks ago, I was accused on a Facebook friend’s page of only writing about “low hanging fruit” and that my website Doubtful News was limited to applying skepticism to “paranormal, conspiracies and alt med”. A rude and ignorant commenter who favors ad hominem insults says he “begged” me to cover issues that really hurt people like “computer scams, phishing”. That might be a blatant lie or it just might be an exaggeration, I can’t remember anyone contacting me about that at all. Regardless, it was absurd. As with pseudoscience, it’s hard to unpack such trumped-up claims. The writers’ goals were to support their efforts to make a feel-good social judgment upon me. They weren’t interested in facts, just emotions. The facts are this: my platform has LONG BEEN application of science and skepticism to all appropriate subject areas – the circle can certainly grow!
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.
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.
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.
I posted this story on Doubtful News 3 days ago: UFO hoaxer fuels worry about an attack on Turkey
Since then, it was shared by several UFO-news-related sites bringing a certain vocal audience in to comment. I observed that this subsection of the audience didn’t actual understand what the story was about but instead created a straw man argument from me (and another contributor Scott). They assumed that our position is: UFOs are not real, UFOs are not alien craft, aliens aren’t real, humans are the only life in the universe, we know everything, all these claims are hoaxes, and so on…
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.
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.
- 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.
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 »
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 »
“Hello, Ms. Hill,” said the man at the registration desk before I had a chance to give my name. “We’re glad to have you here.”
So much for flying under the radar. I’m the skeptical one at the Fringe New Jersey one-day conference. I’m used to this, though, having gone to several paranormal-themed events. Why do I attend? As I said in this review of an academic parapsychological conference, I came to learn and explore evidence and ideas from new points of view. It’s always interesting. Listening to those who don’t think the same way you do is the key to understanding the bigger broad view regarding why we believe and why it matters. I don’t have to talk, just be part of the audience eager to hear what the invited speakers have to say.
There were five presenters this day. Each got to speak for an hour which is rather nice. They all had long, complex stories to tell, so the extended time accommodated this. Each story had a tone and purpose, contained information put forward as supporting evidence, and had a conclusion. Stories with arcs like these are not typical of scientific conferences or even skeptical conferences. For those, the audience is walked through information about a specific concept or hears a proposal with an argument, supporting evidence, and findings in an objective, usually detached, tone. The emotive story is clearly more appealing to a general audience. But, it can be trying to those listening who find your story to be a bunch of BS. I disagreed with many of the fringe ideas presented but I still learned a great deal and was entertained.