There’s Something Worse Than Fake News

All of us are bound to feel offended from time to time. It’s part of being human. What happens, though, when being offended is a permanent or chronic condition? We’ve heard a lot about fake news in recent days, but I’ve noticed something that concerns me at least as much if not more: fake controversies.

If fake news pollutes the public discourse with falsehoods and confusion, fake controversies pollute it by manipulating emotions and fanning the flame of people’s offendedness.

Maybe you’ve heard, for example, about NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s commercial for Popeye’s Chicken? In it he wore a “taste-mask” comprised partly of a drumstick rotating in front of his mouth. Along came the headlines inciting people to be offended. “Jerry just set black people back 437 years,” wrote one man in response. “Thanks, Jerry. We’re slaves again.”

Then there was the tweet by Jerry Seinfeld, giving a quick shout-out for an upcoming episode of his internet series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld made a pun on the name of his guest Lewis Black by tweeting “Black’s life matters.” Another headline was born, with purportedly outraged readers calling it “offensive” and “lame.”

I’m not suggesting that legitimate controversies don’t exist, or that there is nothing to which a person might rightly take offense. I am distinguishing real controversies from fake ones. In a certain context, a black man wearing a fried-chicken-enhanced helmet could certainly be seen as a mean-spirited kind of stereotyping. But that is clearly not the case with the Popeye’s advertisement. Popeye’s just happens to specialize in fried chicken, and their celebrity pitchman happens to be black.

This is non-controversial, unless you are searching diligently for material from which you can craft an inflammatory headline.

These fake controversies can be worse than fake news partly because they are more insulting to our intelligence. Their headlines are sensationalized to lead you to believe that somebody must have really “stepped in it.” Typically, however — if I may pay homage to the aforementioned Mr. Seinfeld — the story turns out a controversy about nothing.

It isn’t hard to figure out what’s behind this trend. These stories are click-bait to lure readers to a website. Anything salacious enough to catch the eye will do. People can’t resist reading about what famous personalities have done to get in trouble.

These stories do not need fact-checkers, for the facts are not at issue. Fake controversies are not a matter of false information. Their manipulations are more sinister and subtle. The writers want to persuade you that you ought to take offense at what you’re reading.

Purveyors of fake controversy are shameless enough to exploit any situation. Just after the death of actress Carrie Fisher, a writer for the Huffington Post invented a controversy about a tweet by actor Steve Martin. He had written, “When I was a young man, Carrie Fisher was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She turned out to be witty and bright as well.” The article’s subheading called this a “sexist tweet,” and Martin soon deleted it.

The game is so easy, even the most untalented and unoriginal writers can play. Famous tweeters supply enough material to work with every day. All you need is to isolate one that could have the slightest potential to offend. In such a huge population of followers it is statistically likely you’ll find someone taking offense. This allows you to talk about there being a “backlash” or “controversy.”

The famous targets or victims of fake controversies are partly their enablers. Fear of political incorrectness robs them of the fortitude to stand up to those pretending to be offended. It’s easier to match fake outrage with fake apologies. Once you appease the petty gods, you hope quietly to move on.

What a strange ritual. We build offensive straw men so that the public can experience the brief emotional high of pretended outrage. This is unhealthy for the public mind. It skews our perspective by tempting us to waste emotional energy on fake controversies. It can blind us to more substantive matters, or make us fail to notice and address genuinely terrible offenses against humanity taking place in the world.

We should stand up to this and call it what it is. We should identify it as shallow, petty, banal and manipulative. We can and must be better than the manufacturers of fake controversies think we are. (For more from the author of “There’s Something Worse Than Fake News” please click HERE)

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‘Fake News’ Is Far More Pervasive Than We Realize

Speaking on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Hillary Clinton warned of “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.” Coming from a very different perspective, Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke claimed on Fox News that “fake news” was created by the liberal media, beginning with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” propaganda in the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Clarke pointed directly to the New York Times and the Washington Post in allegedly spreading this “fake news.”

In reality, I believe that “fake news” is far more pervasive than we realize, for the following reasons.

1. Headlines are often fake.

I used to assume (wrongly so) that a headline was simply a short (even if sensational) summary of an important news item, but in many cases today, headlines now put a slant (often a misleading slant) on the news being reported.

To cite a recent (and highly relevant) example, on Thursday, the Drudge Report featured as its main story, “BITTER HILLARY BLAMES ‘FAKE NEWS’,” suggesting that Hillary directly blamed her defeat on “fake news.”

The Drudge headline was linked to an article on The Hill titled “Clinton blasts ‘epidemic’ of fake news,” yet nowhere did that article state that a “bitter Hillary” directly blamed fake news for her defeat. Instead, the article quoted her as saying that “it’s now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” also stating, “This isn’t about politics or partisanship … Lives are at risk — lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”

She was apparently referring to an incident this week in which“a gunman entered a pizzeria in Washington that was at the center of a false viral conspiracy theory that alleged it was home to a pedophilia ring operated by Clinton and her inner circle.”

The Hill article did note that “some Democrats have argued the spread of anti-Clinton fake news online contributed to her electoral loss to Donald Trump,” but nowhere did it state that a bitter Hillary blamed this for her defeat, which was clearly implied by Drudge. Yet how many millions of Drudge readers even bothered to read the article carefully, let alone listen to the whole speech?

2. News articles often put their own slant on speeches and events.

During the Republican primaries, Jeb Bush was giving a talk to a small group of supporters, and after making a point he thought was important, he then suggested with a smile that it would be a good moment for applause. I watched the video and thought it was a cute moment — I looked at it through the perspective of a public speaker myself — and I asked my wife Nancy to watch it as well. She too thought it was cute rather than embarrassing.

But quite a few media outlets reported on poor Jeb’s embarrassing moment, supplying their interpretation of the facts rather than simply reporting the news — really, there was nothing to report — meaning that readers who did not watch the video would likely draw a very different conclusion from those who viewed the video for themselves. This too is “fake news.”

3. We are so used to getting our news through biased media outlets and opinion commentaries that we fail to use a good filter.

A few years ago, my radio producer handed me an article during my live, daily talk show, documenting how Ann Coulter had made a comment on a major news network that would be considered extreme even for her. It so caught my attention that I talked about it during my next segment, only to find out that my producer had been duped by a false website (something he is always on the lookout for) and that I had not spotted the deception either.

It’s one thing, though, to be duped by intentionally fake, satirical news sites, like The Onion, which proudly (and facetiously) calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” or the Christian site The Babylon Bee, which bills itself as “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire,” perhaps to help its all-too-gullible Christian readers.

It’s another thing not to realize that the news as reported by Breitbart is often quite different than the news as reported by the Huffington Post (the two websites sometimes appear to be operating in alternative universes) or to fail to remember that many articles on these news sites are often opinion pieces which, by design, offer the commentator’s particular bias.

What this means is that we need a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (to use the phrase of a biblical scholar, meaning, that we ought to read some things with a level of suspicion), doing our best to get our facts in order before repeating them or forming opinions based on them. It also means that we should recognize which websites and news sources tend to be most reliable, giving more weight to what they have to say.

Most of all, it means that in this era of sound bites and memes, we need to learn to think again — that’s right, we need to learn how to engage our brains in focused thinking and reasoning — rather than merely repeating what our favorite website or commentator or reporter has to say.

I can assure you that it’s well worth the effort. (For more from the author of “‘Fake News’ Is Far More Pervasive Than We Realize” please click HERE)

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The Left Condemns ‘Fake News’ People Think Is Real. But What About Real News the Left Makes Fake?

On Sunday, a “fake news” story about a Clinton sex house based in a pizza shop took a serious turn: a man believed the story and fired a shot as he “investigated” the alleged crime. The near-shooting has put liberals in a tizzy over their newest scapegoat for President-elect Donald Trump’s victory: fake news.

This Think Progress blog post spouted crocodile tears with a headline that focused on the possibility of fake news leading to someone actually getting killed, and cited tweets from Trump and other top people surrounding him to criticize Republicans for giving credibility to fake news.

No effort was made in the post to uncover, or inform the reader about, where the “Pizzagate” rumors started. BBC did the work of tracking it back to various “facts” that were collated into a single story on a website nobody’s heard of, before it made the rounds on Reddit and Twitter.

Leftists Turning Real News Fake

For weeks, the left has expressed (sometimes valid) concern about fake news that is taken seriously, all the while ignoring the irony of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart being more popular among young liberals than is the mainstream press. Their expressed concern falls flat, however, given that it is liberals who have purposely taken real news stories and made them dangerously fake.

Here are 13 examples:

The fake news: Conservatives, Trump etc. are to blame for promoting fake news. The real news: Many fake news stories have been generated by the Left to fool conservatives. Think Progress and other outlets ignore this in their commentary. The harm: People may think conservatives are responsible for the creation of fake news.

The fake news: Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, backed the #Pizzagate theory. Real news: As Mediaite reports, Flynn has participated in other conspiracy theories and/or fake news promotion. The Washington Post did issue a correction to its story claiming this. The harm: This story spread more distrust about the incoming Trump administration.

The fake news: The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claimed that “In the ten days following the election, there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation,” and “that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his [Trump’s] electoral success.” The real news: Many of SPLC’s 867 alleged incidents of intimidation and harassment can’t be proven. The harm: Convincing Americans that the incoming administration is responsible and/or tied to growing boldness among racist and other bigoted groups.

The fake news: Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because of America’s sexism The real news: There is no evidence of sexism, and there is modest evidence that sexism was not responsible for Clinton’s loss. The harm: Creating discord and distrust among Americans, empowering the violent protests after the election and tying the incoming administration to sexism.

The fake news: Moving on from election-related news, SPLC’s “hate list” decries numerous prominent socially conservative groups as “hate groups.” The real news: Opposing marriage’s redefinition does not make one hateful, or guilty of espousing hatred. The harm: SPLC’s list led an armed man to attack the socially conservative Family Research Council in 2012. Thankfully, nobody was killed when Floyd Corkins opened fire.

The fake news: Michael Brown was surrendering when he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson, thus the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative promoted by Black Lives Matter activists and at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The real news: The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 report proved the narrative to be false, under its first black Attorney General, Eric Holder. Brown was attacking Wilson when he was shot. The harm: Violent protesters are given credibility for their actions, and black Americans may be convinced to further distrust America’s police.

The fake news: The New York Times’ editorial board claimed it was a “fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.” The real news: As noted by the public policy group Just Facts (disclosure: Just Facts is a client of this reporter), this claim lacks credibility on its face. Specifically: “black people represent 14% of the U.S. population, at least 54% of murder offenders, and roughly 33% of the people killed by police.” The harm: As one of America’s most influential newspapers, The New York Times has now given credibility to violent anti-police activists, as well as increased fear among minorities that police do not see them as human beings.

The fake news: Planned Parenthood is banned by federal law from using federal tax dollars for abortion. The real news: As admitted by Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood can and does use federal dollars for abortions. The harm: Taxpayers are paying for Planned Parenthood’s practices, which include providing over 300,000 abortions per year.

The fake news: Unborn children can’t feel pain at 20 weeks’ gestation, and are not human. The real news: Modern science makes it clear that unborn children can indeed feel pain at 20 weeks’ gestation, and are as human at fertilization as any born person. The harm: Women believe that they are aborting clumps of cells, as opposed to their own children.

The fake news: Various claims about “assault rifles” being used in mass shootings and the use of firearms in self-defense. The real news: There are many reasons people are killed in mass shootings, which make up a fraction of the gun deaths in America. Furthermore, suicides make up almost two-thirds of gun deaths in our country. The harm: Gun control advocates’ false claims about firearms can lead to people not having the legal right to defend themselves.

The fake news: Sarah Palin is in part to blame for the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) by Jared Loughner. The real news: Loughner was insane and had an unreasonable hatred of Giffords from a previous incident. The harm: Palin was browbeaten out of the public debate on guns and other issues, and her reputation was unfairly maligned.

The fake news: Influential liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas called conservative Christians the “American Taliban” in his widely praised 2010 book. The real news: The Taliban violently enforces its extremist views of Islam, including through terrorism and not letting women be properly educated. The harm: American Christian conservatives are being compared to terrorists.

The fake news: The Obama administration negotiated the Iran deal only after so-called “moderates” won elections. The real news: An administration official admitted that negotiations began before the elections, and that the elections were a way for the Iran deal to gain credibility. The official also admitted that the media carried water for the administration. The harm: The U.S. has paid enormous sums of money to Iran and lifted some sanctions, yet Iran may still be able to create a nuclear weapon to threaten America, Israel and other nations. (For more from the author of “The Left Condemns ‘Fake News’ People Think Is Real. But What About Real News the Left Makes Fake?” please click HERE)

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