Written by Kate McCabe

In The News

Clicking ‘share’? Check the facts

American ex-pat Kate McCabe has read more about the problems with clickbait and fake news in the past two weeks than in the past two years. She’s going to keep reading. As should we all.

newspaper collage
In my sophomore year history class (that’s year 11 for you non-Americans), we learned about propaganda. We were studying the early days of Soviet communism and were learning words like Proletariat and Pravda. Our teacher explained that propaganda not only gave the citizenry a false impression around the successes and failures of their government but also impacted the industry, scientific development, and culture of the region.

Of course, this was all applied to the USSR. This would never happen in a place like America. Not where you have a free press. Our press holds politicians accountable. America is the land of Upton Sinclair, Seymour Hersh, and Watergate. You could count on America’s journalists to keep the people informed.

Or… not. As great as it is to throw on a pair of rosy spectacles and think how every news reporter before the 90s was some kind of Nellie Bly figure, our media has never been blemish-free. Sensationalistic and sometimes completely unfounded news stories have been around for ages. It’s that kind of button-pushing rhetoric that sells papers: the detail-twisting, misquoting, hype-building headlines that we see every day of our lives.

But we knew what was what, right? We knew that the NY Post was the shadiest, the NY Daily News was better but still a bit over the top, and that we could always count on The New York Times to be the best, right? No? Thanks for nothing, Jayson Blair. But, still even counting some egregious missteps by our most esteemed sources, they MOSTLY deserved our trust.

“Our current strains of propaganda are much more diverse and divisive, meant to turn us against each other. Who is doing it to us in the West? Who is mangling our facts? There’s not one right answer.”

Those days are long gone and we have not done enough, as citizens, to counter the effects of a freewheeling, meme-building, viral world. It was hard enough to combat the stream of bad information once Fox News came on the scene (which was in itself, a result of the success of the NEVER STOP PANICKING energy of the 24-hour cable TV news cycle).

But now social media is king and we are drowning in the stuff. There are hundreds and hundreds of blogs and pages dedicated to bringing their chosen demographic the ‘news’ stories that will serve their bias and make their blood boil.

The worst thing is our brains want this. We seek out confirmation bias so that we can feel comfortable that we are righteous and moral people.

Trump is perhaps the most high-profile example of confirmation bias in action. Here’s a man who seems constantly to be adjusting his policies, I’m guessing because he’s only now learning actual facts on the go. He’s had to take sharp turns on some of his biggest campaign promises. Listening to him from one day to the next on any issue is like watching a one man re-enactment of the ‘Duck Season! Rabbit Season!’ cartoon.

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Alas, how was Trump to know? He’s a birther who retweets fabricated crime stats from neo-Nazi sites. He’s not a man who does his homework, which is just another reason why WE have to.

In the meantime, while we’re ingesting questionable rhetoric all day long, our President-Elect condemns the mainstream press, accusing them of treating him unfairly and haranguing them into portraying him in a better light. He simply refuses them access if they don’t. All in all, this isn’t a good time for our news industry.

*Citizens’ tip: find a reputable newspaper and PAY for the full-access online version. It’s up to us to keep real journalists in jobs.*

There are differences between the propaganda of old and what we’re dealing with now (in both the US and UK), one of them being the sharp focus. The effort of the old Soviet Union was a government-directed initiative, clear and united in both target and aim.

Our current strains of propaganda are much more diverse and divisive, meant to turn us against each other. Who is doing it to us in the West? Who is mangling our facts? There’s not one right answer.

It starts with one person who stands to make money from clicks.

Or one person who got his/her facts mixed up.

Or one hacker in Russia who wants to influence American politics.

It’s all of these poisonous seeds and more. In a way, the genesis of a fake news article doesn’t matter as much as what you do with it. After all, who cares how that email from a Nigerian prince ended up in your inbox? The important thing is not to click the link or give your bank details. Its power diminishes the less it gets forwarded.

It’s on us now, to resist the urge to automatically share every little thing that serves our narrative… at least until we take the time to fact-check. The rule has to be: if it’s important enough to click ‘share’, it’s important enough to verify.

Mercifully, we have a few allies out there in this modern struggle, because this is going to be exhausting, friends. It’s not just overly choleric websites and news blogs; it’s memes, videos, and satire as well. Luckily there are some heroes back in the States trying to help with this stuff: politifact.com, Snopes.com, and Factcheck.org (who currently have an excellent post on how to spot fake news and bad sources) have all been in the game for a while.

Also, there’s this from professor of media and communication, Melissa Zimdars. For me, this is one of the best new developments because it highlights resources that aren’t just untrustworthy but also those that exist solely to reframe news stories to stoke emotional reactions, which can be just as dangerous as misinformation.

Her official list is currently under review (yes, review – you know, checking its veracity and worthiness… what a wonder!), but, it’s something I’ll be keeping at hand from now on. You can read more about how her post (which was originally authored for her students) went viral here.

Also, here in the UK, there is a petition to demand that newspapers print retractions in a more transparent way.

I’ve read more about the problems with ‘clickbait’ and fake news in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. That’s a good thing. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue.

@katemccabesays

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Written by Kate McCabe

Kate McCabe is an American comic living in Manchester. When not gigging as a standup, she improvises with ComedySportz Manchester, and contributes to local TV and radio including The Gay Agenda on Fab Radio.