Fake News: The Press Can Stop Extremists

The objective of those that create false information is to find speakers to spread their messages. Papers should think twice before featuring them in their strident opinion pages and fake news.

Twin Falls is a small city in the state of Idaho that seeped into U.S. headlines in June 2016. Two children, ages 7 and 10, had abused a five-year-old girl in a block of apartments and had recorded the assault. The victim was white. Her attackers: refugees from Eritrea and Iraq.

Alerted by a xenophobic activist, a local reporter found a few groups on Facebook where thousands of people spread unfounded rumors and constructed a story with invented details about the assault. They spoke of a rape at knifepoint and said that the perpetrators were Syrian and that their parents had celebrated it with them hours later. These and other malicious lies increased the glaring silence of the authorities, which could not disclose details since those involved were minors and, logically, they needed to protect their privacy.

The rumors that immediately followed spilled over the Facebook groups and inundated extremist publications such as Breitbart News and Infowars. Various pages revealed the address and phone number of the mayor. His wife received threatening phone calls. He was obligated to close his Twitter account, where anonymous users falsely accused him of being an ISIS sympathizer and of raping a woman.

The whirlwind that devastated this Idaho city reflects some of the evils of the public sphere in the United States, consumed by the radicalization of communities, each one more isolated, that are prey to false stories that push them to confuse their prejudices with reality. Donald Trump is not the detonator but rather the product of this phenomenon, which germinated for decades at the hands of commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and channels such as Fox News.

It is possible that technology has accelerated this process during the last decade. But it would be a mistake to label Twitter, YouTube or Facebook as the leading culprit in the deterioration that led to Trump’s election.

As explained by Claire Wardle, expert in disinformation from Harvard University, today many rumors follow a very similar route: they are hatched in anonymous forums such as 4chan, later generate conversations in Facebook or WhatsApp groups and reach Reddit’s and YouTube’s open channels, from which they jump to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. But the diffusion of rumors outside the most radical ghettos does not depend on this embryonic phase but rather on what occurs afterward. The ones that detach from truth are only the ones that attract the attention of accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and those that journalists reproduce in the media.

The objective of those that daily contaminate the public debate is to find public figures to diffuse their messages. This axiom should define our conduct on social media. Criticizing a provocateur helps to spread it. Often, ignoring an extremist is better than responding or making fun of them. A person’s responsibility is directly proportional to the size of their audience. A step toward mistruth can turn an account with millions of followers into a megaphone in the service of radical ideology.

That attitude is even more important in the case of journalists. Social media has democratized access to the public sphere, but big media continues to have an enormous weight when it comes time to define the issues on which citizens focus their attention. Therefore, periodicals should think twice before featuring them in their strident opinion pages and disseminating rumors designed to manipulate public opinion. Reproducing them uncritically is counterproductive. To deny them if they have not reached the greater public is not a good decision. This contention is very difficult when journalists deal with politicians that lie or exaggerate by default.

The linguist George Lakoff has explained how Trump forms problems in the terms that most benefit him and how his critics help him to focus on those terms in the imaginary collective by forming their attacks with the same words as he does. In that environment, details of public politics are irrelevant. Identity prejudices tell more, those which Trump feeds with metaphors, simple concepts and word games that his adversaries enthusiastically propagate, adding a note of sarcasm or fact check.

What happened with Trump has no reason to turn into a global epidemic. What does or does not happen in a country such as Spain depends less on a Facebook algorithm than on the health of public debate and on the media’s attitude.

That is how Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts explain it in their book “Network Propaganda,” the most complete study on the state of the public sphere in the United States. Benkler and his colleagues captured four million published articles by thousands of distinct sources and analyzed how they were shared before and after the 2016 election. Their conclusions confirmed that the false stories took hold more on Facebook than on other platforms but point out that the decisive factor in Trump’s election was not the social network but rather the radicalization of a wide sector of the right, which developed largely before the Internet.

The 2016 campaign shows up to what point a group like that is a threat to a democracy. Those living at the margin of facts are easy prey for propaganda and complicate the efforts of politicians, who do not manage to escape the abyss that separates citizens’ real problems from their paranoid vision of reality. But it would be a mistake to fall into the fatalism of those that think that technology is bringing them forward to liberal democracies. Platforms such as Facebook can be beneficial tools or weapons in authoritarian hands. It is the political culture of a country, with its media and its institutions, that determines if its best or worst aspect is imposed.

Neither academia nor authorities have determined for now the real impact of Russia’s disinformation campaign or of Cambridge Analytica’s alchemy. But presenting Trump’s election as a direct consequence of any one of them does not correspond with investigators’ discoveries and is a gift for the enemies of liberty. The evidence indicates that their intervention was very marginal. “It is difficult to detect Russians, and when those who look for Russians do find them, they are sinister and threatening,” write Benkler and his colleagues. “But our study suggests that when they are … almost always they are spurred by a process completely fabricated in the United States.”*

A good example is what happened in Twin Falls, the small city in Idaho. In plain effervescence of the refugee crisis, a Facebook account with more than 140,000 followers that later turned out to be a Kremlin smokescreen organized a protest in favor of Trump’s hypotheses. Only four people expressed their intention to go. Two years after that commotion, what happened in Twin Falls invites hope. The mayor was re-elected, his councilors approved a resolution in favor of continuing the asylum program, and its inhabitants raised donations for the city’s refugee center. In 2016, radical activist Rick Martin tried to suppress the acceptance of the referendum. He needed 3,843 signatures. He only managed 894.

*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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