Remember when social media was still a baby? So cute! You could connect with Aunt Esther back in Ohio and even follow every bit of Ashton Kutcher's day. The dream of the 2000s was alive on social media, where people could right a wrong — like KONY 2012 — and share a great idea — like the Ice Bucket Challenge. What a tool for human progress!
Then social media grew up to become... a bratty adolescent — still charming at times, but oh so contrarian. Celebrities started getting fat-shamed on Twitter, and Facebook veered into TMI territory when you found out that Aunt Esther is kinda racist. It became a place for trolls to lurk, waiting to pounce. The dream of the 2000s turned into a bummer.
Then we held an election, and some of those trolls started impersonating journalists, pumping out fake news reports that were taken as real. Clickbait like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump was literally too crazy to be true, — and it took off like the Zika virus. The correction that followed? Not so much.
Perhaps one Trump supporter put it best after the election when he said that the choice was between the newspaper article and the comments section. The comments won.
So we just witnessed the vandalizing of our democracy with this stew of fake news coming from all corners of the internet — some motivated by politics, some by money. In recent weeks, real journalists have been documenting the worst offenders.
• During the election, Trump and his team retweeted fake headlines from Prntly.com, a fake-news site. When the Washington Post dug in, it found its proprietor to be one Alex Portelli, an ex-con who told them, "People sign up and write pretty much whatever they want." And when Google was embarrassed as its top "final election results" search directed readers to a link from a website claiming that Trump won the popular vote, the Post said the source "looks an awful lot like Prntly."
• Social media turns out to be fertile ground for Cold War-style propaganda, the RAND Corporation reports, calling Russian backing of hundreds of fake-news websites "a firehose of falsehood." RAND linked the behavior to the same tactics deployed to dull international outrage over Crimea and Syria. Meanwhile, many foreign policy experts say that Vladimir Putin has received a four-year pass with Trump's election.
• Then there's Paul Horner, a supposed Hillary Clinton supporter who told the Washington Post that "I think Trump is in the White House because of me." Horner comes off as a just-to-see-what-would-happen doofus, but he also admitted that by sending Facebook links back to his anti-Hillary, fake-news websites, with Google ads placed there, he was earning $10,000 a month. "Nobody fact-checks anything anymore," he said.
I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism — the first in the world, founded in 1908 by Walter Williams, whose Journalist's Creed still guides graduates. Three of his tenets are worth a fresh listen:
• "I believe that the public journal is a public trust... all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public...
• "...a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.
• "...the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service."
Consider that phrase — "the public journal." Today, 108 years later, that certainly describes Facebook and Twitter — public spaces where the public good is debated and consensus is reached.
I do partially blame Facebook, Google and Twitter. They inserted themselves into the public journal, but they didn't accept any of the responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he does not believe Facebook is a media company, and that he doesn't want to be censor-in-chief.
To be fair, both Google and Facebook have announced reforms to take away the financial incentives that Paul Horner fed off, but that's not enough. As others have pointed out, Facebook needs a team of human editors to separate the truth from the lies. That's not censorship. One group of students offered an easy solution: mark every item posing as news as either "verified" or "not verified."
This falls to all of us to confront — newspaper readers, computer users, iPhone addicts, journalists, educators, elected officials. We need to be more suspicious about things that don't sound right. But we need the big boys' help. Behemoths like Facebook and Google have outsized influence, and like all media companies, they must embrace a higher responsibility than profit.
Here at the Inlander, we have a motto that we think captures this moment: You Are What You Read. If you eat too much junk food, you're not going to be very healthy. If you consume fake news, you're not going to be very rational. ♦