At a cocktail party in Toronto last month, a fund manager challenged me with the following question: 'Do you believe in objective truth?'
"I do," I said.
He eyed me quizzically, as if to scoff, 'oh, come on...' He’s not alone in thinking of objective truth as quaint. "Post-truth" is a word that gets tossed around a lot lately, and some commentators argue with a straight face that there's no such thing anymore as an objective fact.
But here's my view. There are facts. And it’s precisely the role of journalism to sift through competing narratives and bring you the version that most closely hews to the facts.
The job is more and more difficult faced with massive, concerted campaigns to push fake news onto the public. Whether or not you personally fall for fake news stories, people around you are being taken in, unravelling the fabric that knits our society together.
You're the target. The weapon is social media.
Fake news is the term used to describe the rapidly growing category of fictional digital content used by conspiracy theorists and propagandists to intentionally confuse the public. And a study just released by the Knight Foundation shows that, despite all the claims from social media CEOs, the situation has not improved much since the information apocalypse of President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
The study looked at Twitter and found 6.6 million tweets linking to fake and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 election.
And here’s the kicker: “Most of the accounts that linked repeatedly to fake and conspiracy news during the election are still active, and have not been deleted.”
In the world of the post-apocalyptic information age, you're the target. The weapon is social media. But the warfighting isn’t really digital, it’s about sowing chaos in the real world.
Mass shootings these days are fodder for false news reports about the alleged suspect. Some falsely suggest the shooter was politically motivated. Studies show people often enjoy these made-up stories more than they enjoy stories based on verifiable facts.
"Hundreds of websites that publish such content have sprung up in recent years, and false stories have spread quickly and widely through social media. False news stories claiming that Hillary Clinton ordered the murder of an FBI agent, or participated in a satanic child abuse ring in a Washington pizza parlor, were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media on the eve of the 2016 election," writes the Knight Foundation.
Fast forward beyond the U.S. election and the study found 4.0 million tweets linked to fake and conspiracy news publishers in just one 30-day period from mid-March to mid-April 2017.
Here are more of the study’s findings:
Fake news during the 2016 election did not just adopt conservative or Republican-leaning frames—though it has become more ostensibly Republican since.
There are structural changes in the role of Russian-aligned clusters of accounts postelection that indicate that international conspiracy-focused accounts have become more important as brokers of fake news.
One case study suggests that concerted action against non credible outlets can drastically reduce their audience.
The ‘mysterious glue’
As Yuval Noah Harari writes, human beings are bound by 'a mysterious glue' that allows us to form groups and cooperate and this is how we rose to the top of the food chain. This “mysterious glue," he writes, "is made of stories, not genes."
In today’s world of information we have to make doubly sure that our love of a good narrative doesn’t bind us together as fools.
As editor-in-chief of National Observer, I encourage reporters not only to write with accuracy and fairness, but to tell a good story. We can't just be assemblers of facts. Our managing editor, Mike De Souza, keeps the bar high on all of our editorial, insisting reporters call multiple sources on stories and give subjects the opportunity to comment. Then our stories are fact-checked. Sometimes they go through a legal review as well. This is all so important and it makes for excellent journalism. But we also work hard to ensure that we have well-written ledes that pull readers in like a dramatic novel so that people want to read and be informed. Being interested in the news means becoming more aware and engaged in the larger world, so our job as reporters is to ask hard questions, verify facts and write well, to keep our stories both interesting and real.
The news stories I aim for are built on facts and compelling like fiction. But they aren't actually fiction. They're stories about the lives of people in the communities we live in, about you and me and someone down the street. They're archives of 'who, what, when, why and where,' that reveal and inform and inspire.
But our sources for truthful stories are declining right at the same moment that orchestrated fake news campaigns are proliferating. Data from the Poynter Institute shows that news reporting in at least 900 communities across the U.S. has gone dry since 2004. The situation is no better in Canada, with more than 250 local newspapers closed in the last ten years, according to data collected by the Local News Research Project.
The fake news epidemic is taking place amid the flight of ad dollars from news media companies. As is well documented, ad dollars now flow towards a small handful of giant American social media platforms, leaving news media to chase clicks in order to get some of those ad dollars back, and to navigate an ever-changing landscape of algorithms. That’s what it takes to keep and build audiences, but in this landscape, those of us in Canada, are watching America’s democracy crumbling and wondering what of this is seeping into Canada.
"USAReally" is a particularly creepy example of everything that's wrong. Posing as an "objective and independent information" source for American democracy, the site is based in Moscow and the 'news' posted on the site is "designed to foment racial division, harden feelings over immigration, gun control and police brutality, and undermine social cohesion."
Thanks to sites like USAReally, in the last week, we’ve seen the fake news weaponized against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Watching Dr. Ford get digitally violated has been horrific. If you're missing it, lucky you. But here’s an example.
Back to that conversation in Toronto…. it is not unusual for me to be asked that question: do you really believe in objective facts?
The question usually comes from people who seem to want to appear edgy and smart, not to be rigidly old-school and boxed in by antiquated notions of "truth."
Sometimes I hear it from a nihilistic twenty-something. Sometimes from a world-weary fifty year-old. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me of what is broken. And like people shell shocked in the aftermath of an explosion, we can only wander around looking for temporary respite.
It’s good that the Trudeau government is seeking to strengthen a bill aimed at preventing foreign interference in Canada's federal election by forcing more transparency on social media platforms.
As The Canadian Press reported, the feds are "sponsoring an amendment that would require online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to create a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties during the pre-writ and writ periods and to ensure they remain visible to the public for two years." This is a start. It's important for us to take concrete first steps and to do what we can.
Another positive note is that more citizens are becoming alive to the importance and vital urgency of real news stories in their lives. Subscriptions are growing at news publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post and here at National Observer, providing a lifeline for journalism that is factual, verified, investigative and in the public interest.
However, the truth about lies is that they can feel very real. The truth about facts is that they are real. I know, this seems simplistic. But it needs to be said and reinforced over and over, as headlines whip around the internet propelled by bots and automated accounts, or written by Moscow trolls, like lies in the wind. The wild fictions posing as news may capture our imaginations and they do too often when the yarn they spin resonates with our values. It's touching and tragic that our love of stories has been the upending of so much we hold dear. I encourage you to arm yourself for the information war by reading the Knight Foundation's study here.