Monday, August 6, 2018


Truth has always been a fragile thing. News outlets worth anything seek to find truth and accuracy first, with ratings, speed, scoops and attention later.  

Despite what our commander in chief and many of his followers think, I still contend most journalists who are professionals want to get the real news and facts out.

But in recent years, and even just the past few months, truth has been a real casualty of a perfect storm combining fame, technology, speed, lies, fear, paranoia and attention. I have long considered the Internet to be a necessary evil. It offers a wealth of information and access for both reporters and news consumers.

Since it really hit in the early 2000s, and more so in just the past few years, the web has surpassed truth with its own version of facts, beliefs and, of course, actual "fake news."

That term that Donald Trump tries to pin on legitimate news outlets is more appropriate for the news sources Trump prefers -- not just Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller, who twist and turn and make up information, but a whole other realm of fake information.

I'm talking about outright phony news sites and web sources that either spew insufficient claims or outright false stories. We've seen this as far back as the "birther" movement that claimed Barack Obama was not born in the United States. This falsity made up out of whole cloth and standing on the shoulders of racism and anti-immigrant hate is still believed by many. 

Trump, of course, caught much of his initial right-wing wind by supporting that claim and never really walking away from it. That led to further lies from the blogosphere: the claims that Hillary Clinton had some kind of brain issue, false speculation that Obamacare included "death panels," and the most outrageous -- the weird accusation that Hillary Clinton was part of some sex trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza place.

That last one focused on Comet Ping Pong, the fun night spot with ties to my former Media Matters for America boss David Brock. We had several holiday parties there during my time at MMFA and nothing close to what was alleged occurred. Zero, nothing, lies. You might as well have said martians landed.

Sadly, what did occur was when one crazy believer in this lie took deadly aim at the place in 2016, resulting in shots fired and fears raised. 

Also unfortunate is that this lie and others have resurfaced under the weird Q Anon conspiracy, which appears to be the belief that some hidden government source has released information to substantiate that and other false claims. Among them: JFK Jr. did not die, Robert Mueller is actually investigating Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and those two and others are wearing ankle bracelets to monitor their actions. 

As NPR reported last week:

For a while, QAnon posts were mostly limited to anonymous Internet message boards, like 4chan and 8chan. But over the past year, "Q" has gained a host of new believers and followers. A popular YouTube video explaining QAnon has racked up nearly 200,000 views, and according to NBC News, a mobile phone application related to the conspiracy theory climbed near the top of the Apple App Store rankings earlier this year.

Q received new attention last week when several people at a Trump rally in Tampa sported Q T-shirts and signs, giving the movement (or perhaps bowel movement) a bigger national platform.

But worse than that attention is the way it adds to the already dangerous ability of news fakers and other perpetrators of lies to spread their word, on the Internet and elsewhere. That is where the truth is most harmed.

Add to that Trump's constant attacks on the press --  the most recent occurring Sunday when he went on a real Twitter tirade that included calling the press "sick" and "dangerous" and capable of starting a war -- and truth is in big trouble.

Anti-press politics and wild conspiracies are nothing new, of course. Presidents as far back as John Adams, who signed the Alien and Sedition Act that outlawed anti-government criticisms, and as recent as Bill Clinton, who ripped press coverage of his affair with Monica Lewinsky after he lied about it, have been critical of press coverage. Although I don't recall any of them accusing vast numbers of respected reporters of extolling "fake news" with no evidence.

As for conspiracies, the flat-earth believers go back centuries, while many still believe we did not land on the moon and that Elvis Presley lives. Still, most of those are considered fringe and with no real broad support.

But what Q and Trump and others who spread these untruths around the web do so dangerously is not only gin up the lies, but combine their belief in them with a disbelief in actual fact. By pushing the fake story and attacking the real news sources, double damage is done.

A 2016 survey commissioned for Buzzfeed found that Americans are fooled by fake news headlines 75 percent of the time and that "people who cite Facebook as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on the platform for news."

A more recent poll in April from Monmouth University revealed that 77 percent of respondents believed "major traditional television and newspaper media outlets report 'fake news.” Politico reported that that was a sharp increase from a similar poll a year earlier that found 63 percent believed so. An Axios study in June revealed that the rate of disbelief was higher among Republicans, at 92 percent.

And at a time when true journalism is more vital than ever -- not only to keep tabs on Trump and the federal government, but also track critical issues from the environment to health to economics and human rights -- this wave of false attacks does the most damage.

The famed satirist Jonathan Swift is credited with saying, "A lie can travel halfway around the world by the time the truth puts on its shoes." With today's Internet and its band of lying believers, that has never been truer.

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