Three Reasons Why We Believe Lies (and the Fake News They Pollute)

I lied to my wife last night.

After movies with a friend, I told her I had stayed true to our no-sugar pact rather than admit to the M&Ms I had guiltily enjoyed.

Guilt and enjoyment, bedfellows in the act of lying.

A little lie. A white lie. That’s what people do, all the time, for all sorts of reasons. To make ourselves look good. To protect others from being hurt.

Or for bigger, more selfish reasons like making money, gaining an advantage or masking our own less-than-noble behavior.

In this case, my wife believed me because a) she wanted to, b) it fit her view of me and c) she’s accustomed to believing me.

We’ll return shortly to those three factors in a larger context.

We learn over the course of our lives the signals to watch for, the questions to ask, the scepticism to bring to the situation to judge for ourselves what’s true and what isn’t, to decide where on the lying scale, if you will, a certain person or situation belongs (from 0 – “never lie” – to 10 – “always lie”), and then to respond accordingly.

We expect to get smarter and wiser as we grow older and amass experience of dealing particularly with liars who register on the upper end of that scale.

What happens, though, when lies grow into something more insidious?

When they evolve into the currency for public policy and decision-making?

When they become the foundation on which politicians run for office or exercise power when they win?

That can happen when people stop caring that they’re being lied to. And that’s where we are now, one reason why this moment is so anxiety-inducing to so many people whatever their political affiliation and country of origin or residence.

I conceived VitalBriefing in 2011 because businesspeople I respected were complaining of two problems: a) They couldn’t swim through the information tsunami to find what mattered and b) they lacked the tools to separate fact from fiction.









Fact versus Fiction in a World of Fake News

These days, I’m thinking a lot about that second issue. Separating fact from fiction, real from unreal masquerading as real, genuine from the disingenuous is not only core to the success of my company. It’s also at the center of our global future.

In short, facts matter. Lies damage.

One of the principal drivers of my work and that of my colleagues over many decades of my career as a journalist covering the world at all levels — local, national, foreign and global — has been to ferret out the facts in any given situation and to assemble them into stories that could be counted on as much as humanly possible to present an objective version of the truth.

In one way or another, facts lie at the heart of every story in every legitimate newspaper, magazine and news operation. It’s what we strive for as journalists – that a particular story will have a particular impact because of the facts beating at its center.

And therein lies the question I’m grappling with: What does it mean when “alternative facts” – a euphemism for lies first posed by Donald Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway – become legitimate currency, and vast numbers of people are willing to make important decisions based on lies they know are lies?

In speeches, I’ve often used a clip of President Obama declaring his faith that “the American people, they’ve got good judgement. They’ve got good instincts. As long as they get good information.”

I wanted to believe him. I no longer do. Good information is no longer enough.









Minding the Facts





Despite the ongoing collapse of traditional, mainstream news media due to changing economics and the continuing loss of outlets and jobs for trained, professional journalists, editors, fact-checkers and photographers, there still are many legitimate sources of fact-based reporting and responsible journalism.

Yet, think about what we saw with the appalling outcome of the impeachment trial of President Trump in the US Senate: All but one Republican senator backing the multiple, documented lies of the president and those closest to him.

Ultimately, facts don’t carry weight these days.





“Think about what is now required for a Republican politician to be considered a party member in good standing. He or she must pledge allegiance to policy doctrines that are demonstrably false; he or she must, in effect, reject the very idea of paying attention to evidence.”

Paul Krugman, The New York Times




That quote from Nobel prizewinning economist Paul Krugman truly worries me.

Recent research on this subject focus on three explanations, which can be linked, as to why people are willing to ignore facts in their process of making judgements.

#1: Motivated Reasoning

The first is “motivated reasoning,” identified by social scientists as selectively choosing evidence to fit into the preferred conclusion.

In an article for Fast Company, Adrian Bardon, author of The Truth about Denial, says “this very human tendency applies to all kinds of facts about the physical world, economic history and current events.”

Bardon says motivated reasoning explains why a person’s “political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicised issue.”





#2: Confirmation Bias

That characteristic leads to the second factor: “confirmation bias,” by which people disregard information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs while latching on to that which reinforces what they already believe.

In their book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his daughter, public health expert Sara Gorman, identify a physiological aspect to this tendency which seems, on the surface, to be self-destructive.





“It feels good to ‘stick’ to our guns’ even if we are wrong,”

Jack and Sara Gorman




They point to research indicating there’s a burst of dopamine that triggers genuine pleasure when people absorb information that buttresses their existing views.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer prizewinning staff writer for The New Yorker, calls confirmation bias “among the best catalogued…of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified.”

She cites researchers who argue that this tendency actually works against our interests; that it’s a human “design flaw” that could harm us by leading people to disregard danger or proof of threats.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber liken confirmation bias to a mouse setting out to prove its conviction there are no cats around…and ending up as dinner. As such, humans logically should have evolved to reject this bias.

They attack the issue in The Enigma of Reason, further honing confirmation bias to “myside bias.” They argue that humans don’t believe ‘just anything.’ We’re good at identifying flaws in others’ arguments, but not our own.

They say humans evolved to win arguments rather than to show logical consistency in their reasoning which, they say, is why reason seems to lose out in the world of fake news, Twitter, Facebook and fabricated research.

“This is one of the many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up,” they write.

In fact, confirmation bias is also part of the explanation of the power of fake news, smack in the middle of a “clickbait culture” where the most provocative headline draws audience into stories that will reinforce their existing views based on any material that supports them, actual facts be damned.





#3: Illusory Truth Effect

The third explanation is called the “illusory truth effect,” the notion first raised in 1977 that we all hold multiple beliefs that simply aren’t true, a conclusion that has been confirmed in many experiments since then — including a 2012 study concluding that “repeating false claims will not only increase their believability but may also result in source monitoring errors.”

In a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Gordan Pennycook of the University of Regina, Tyrone Cannon of Yale and David G. Rand of MIT find that “fluency via prior exposure” makes a significant difference:





“Using actual fake news headlines presented as they were seen on Facebook, we show that even a single exposure increases subsequent perceptions of accuracy, both within the same session and after a week.”

Journal of Experimental Psychology




But here’s the real bottom line on that one: “Although extreme implausibility is a boundary condition of the illusory truth effect, only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy.”

In other words, the more times you read, hear or watch a story, the more you believe it’s true. 









What it all means





Combine these three factors and you land at a single conclusion:

If it could be true and it fits your existing belief, the more you hear it, the more you’ll believe it (and you’ll feel good spreading it to others who think like you).

And it offers one explanation for how lies and false information can be recast as “news” – real fake news – by humans who then can use all the tools at their fingertips, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to bots to any social media platform in these days of everyone’s-a-publisher to broadcast these targeted “stories” to hundreds of millions of people who are likely to believe them.

As we well know by now, the single technological factor that bears the most blame for the “weaponization of content” is indeed social media and the platforms that enable global transmission of any content, including unverified, unchecked and unreliable.

Donald Trump himself has mused that without social media – specifically Twitter – he likely would not be occupying the Oval Office.

Just ask those Russian disinformation specialists who during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made:

  • 61,500 phony Facebook posts that reached some 126 million Americans (half the number of eligible voters)
  • 116,000 Instagram posts
  • 10.4 million tweets

All appeared as if they were posted by genuine users. (And that’s just a percentage of the false social media related to the election).

So, start adding up the damage since the election and what was a minor brushfire a few years ago is now a major conflagration of post-fact-based stories that propel badly-founded decisions.

Disregarding overwhelming evidence to the contrary, substantial numbers of people believe that crime in America has worsened since 2008, childhood vaccinations are dangerous and that owning a handgun makes one safer.





“The information we consume is like the food we eat. If it’s junk, our thinking will reflect that.”

Farnam Street




In fact, a group of MIT researchers documented in a 2018 study published in Science, that false news spread further and faster on social media.

Indeed, they found that the truth took six times as long to get to 1,500 people as a falsehood – and that fake news stories were 70% more likely than actual, true stories to be retweeted.

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they concluded.

But Jack and Sara Gorman, bent on trying to correct the way we misinform ourselves, run up against this brick wall: Even when people are given accurate information, they won’t necessarily change their minds. Instead, they discard information that doesn’t fit their belief system.





“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth. Truth is no longer dictated by authorities but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine




In 2017, BBC Future Now assembled 50 experts for a discussion of the 21st century’s greatest challenges. Many of the experts identified the breakdown of trusted information sources among them.

“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

In this world of information pollution, it becomes a tremendous challenge to tease out the real from the fake. The more we take in, the harder it is to evaluate its value.

As Greg Swanson, CEO of digital media consultancy ITZ Media puts it, “the sorting of reliable versus fake news requires a trusted referee.”









What you can do





Slammed by news from all directions, there are steps you can take to reduce and maybe even eliminate the fake news that pollutes your personal environment:

  • Consume less.
  • Be very selective in the news you consume.
  • Check out the sources you choose. Do they adhere to genuine journalistic practices? If they have biases, are they clearly stated and presented? Do they present multiple sides to the story, but not necessarily giving them all equal weight? Are their conclusions based on responsible reporting?
  • Be wary of sites that don’t clearly present the sources of their revenue.
  • Avoid sources displayed in your social media feeds that you can’t verify and/or lack legitimate expertise in the subject matter.
  • Don’t rely solely on breaking news. Seek out more in-depth stories and analyses to inform your opinions and decisions.

As for me, I’ve learned my lesson about lying. I promised my wife that next time, I’ll tell her the truth about those M&Ms.

How We Decided to Make our 2020 Holiday Donation

We’ve been discussing at VitalBriefing where to make a corporate donation for the holidays.

In part because I’m obsessed with a world that increasingly devalues the critical importance of fact-based information and in part because we’re a business based on journalistic principles, I set the parameters: Our contribution should be directed at an organisation dedicated to freedom of the press and/or safety of journalists and/or fighting censorship.

In my view, the issue of “information you can trust” and its impact on just and democratic governance, together with climate change, are two of the most urgent concerns for every person on the planet. And never in our lifetimes have the dangers been greater or the stakes higher.

According to the group we chose, nearly half the world’s population is denied access to free information, “knowledge that is essential for managing their lives…they are prevented from living in pluralist political systems in which factual truth serves as the basis for individual and collective choices.”

The candidate short-list was impressive:

The Committee to Protect Journalists: An invaluable, New York-based organisation with which I have many personal connections. It’s a wonderful group with a blue-chip board that has included David Schlesinger, the distinguished former editor-in-chief of Thomson Reuters and the current chairman of VitalBriefing’s International Advisory Board.

For more than three decades, CPJ has been defending and fighting for press freedom, shining the light on attacks on journalists and reporting on violations of press freedom around the world. It’s arguably the most influential voice defending the cause of essential journalism.

Index on Censorship: A young non-profit centred in London that “campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide,” publishing work by censored writers and artists and monitoring threats to free speech. Again, the personal connection was at work here: David Schlesinger is a trustee and the patrons include legendary figures such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Palin, Sir Tom Stoppard and Steve Coogan.

The group works in partnership with Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Pen International, among others, and is a founding member of a global network that monitors censorship worldwide while defending writers and journalists and those persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. As David told me: “We are one of the only voices fighting for pure freedom of expression in the face of severe encroachments including in our beloved EU.”

Reporters without Borders: Based in Paris, this NGO maintains correspondents in 130 countries able to take on governments over media and internet statutes and standards, defending freedom of information and publishing a World Press Freedom Index used as an evaluation and advocacy tool by the World Bank and the UN Refugee Agency in allocating aid.

From a marketing perspective, I also admire the shrewd and effective video they launched in November with a simple, straightforward and pointed message: “Without independent journalism, this would be the news.” Take a look, and you’ll have the answer to why I used Kim Jong Un’s photo for this piece.

All these groups – and many others such as ProPublica and PolitiFact do vital work and are worthy of all the support they can get. In the end, our decision was based on a laughably practical criterion: Which group had branded holiday cards at the ready that we could use to send to our clients and friends to solicit support for a cause we consider indispensable? Surprisingly, only Reporters met that need.

Next year, for sure we’ll move earlier and send our own cards and share our modest wealth with another of these worthy groups. I hope you’ll consider doing the same now and in future. Given the results of Brexit, the lies, distortions, real fake news and misinformation driving Trumpublicanism, and attacks on honest journalism and journalists around the world, the need will become only more urgent.

Defend Truth Against “Truthiness”

Way back in 2005, long before Donald Trump was a glimmer in the eye of the voting public, the American late-night TV host Stephen Colbert came up with a wonderful concept. He called it “truthiness,” defined as “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support.”

Watch the clip and while you’ll see that the notion of anti-fact long pre-dates the current American president, during his campaign he raised the conveyance of lies, misinformation, disinformation and disproved conspiracy theories to a crude, highly effective art form — so much so that around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” as its Word of the Year, echoing Colbert with its definition as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” 

The idea, it added, relates “to or denot(es) circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

From his insistence that Barack Obama had been born outside the United States and thus an illegally-seated president to his constant and repeated tarring of opponents based on false information, Trump literally built his campaign, and now his presidency on lies — as many as 13, 435 – an average of 13 lies per day – as of October 9, Day 993 according to the Washington Post, with the pace of his lies ever-faster in recent weeks.


Source: MSNBC/WashingtonPost


When lying is institutionalized

Why dwell on Trump and his lying? As journalists whose business is delivering “anti-fake news” for private- and public-sector clients who rely on us to ferret out the accurate from the inaccurate, the reliable from the unreliable and the truthful from the untruthful, Trump’s brazen contempt for actual fact is a constant affront, in addition to posing a real and present danger to the global economy, world peace and democracy. 

His contempt as well for accurate reporting and honest media outlets in the service of his own vanity, incompetence and immorality — reflected as well by his direct associates and his entire administration including his acting Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, various spokespeople and personal attorney —  has made it still more acceptable for autocrats around the world to traffic in phony information (see, for example: Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Orban, and Turkey’s Erdogan).

And let’s not forget one of the most egregious examples of the destructive power of fake news and false information: the 2016 Brexit referendum, whose supporters relied significantly on indisputably erroneous facts to help make their case.

While it’s not news that politicians lie, Trump has made it mainstream in his sheer, brazen disregard for the truth – over and over and over, despite being disproved over and over and over. 

Certainly, lying and politics have always been bedfellows. But two recent factors have combined to make this era different than any before it. Call it the Double Whammy of Misinformation: the decline of mainstream news organisations and the rise of social media. 

Nobody appreciates that damaging marriage more than the US president: “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Trump told Fox Business News in 2017. 


Tweet, tweet, tweet

When Trump says social media, he’s really talking about Twitter, which he uses like a club that he wields over the heads of the frightened, many of them politicians from his own party — when he’s not pounding them with it, as he confirmed to a broadcast medium: “Tweeting is like a typewriter – when I put it out, you put it immediately on your show. When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never be able to get the word out.”

Twitter and other social media represent one aspect of the problem, enabling anyone with a social media account, a digital device and an internet connection to become a publisher. He or she can make any information look “real” by skinning it to appear to be real news in or from a real publication.

For you as an information consumer, though, it’s like buying cooked food from a kitchen you’ve never seen, with no ingredients on the package — or no guarantee that the ingredients on the label are really there at all.

That other factor — the decline of mainstream media — is actually the collapse of the traditional advertising-based business model for newspapers and magazines. The rise of digital media + the fragmentation of audiences + the demise of older print media consumers has translated into the rapid weakening and, in many cases, disappearance of the kind of responsible journalism — with fact-checking at its core — that once acted as a filter to weed out the erroneous.

In other words, the quality control once inherent in mainstream media has rapidly diminished and is disappearing.


Protect yourself

All that said, there are steps you can take at least to better ensure the information you take in both personally and professionally is as accurate and trustworthy as possible. (At VitalBriefing, we talk incessantly and write frequently about this issue. No surprise as trustworthy, accurate and timely information is our bread and butter and what we serve our clients).

Start with this video, then consider these tips:


Source: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

Here’s a handy tool, courtesy of California State University at Chico, to help you evaluate whatever you’re following. You have to love it for the name alone: The CRAAP Test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose)

Another American college, Mount Allison University, has assembled a helpful reference page.

Finally, keep an eye on the authoritative debunkers of fake news, among them FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

It’s virtually become a civic responsibility to ensure that the factual material you’re reading, watching and sharing is accurate and truthful – no matter your side of any issue. Just know that it’s critical to our democratic way of life, as well as the health of your business or organisation, to make your judgements based on good information.

Don’t be fooled: Curing the fake news epidemic, one story at a time



Over the last several years, the world has succumbed to an epidemic of fake news. While disinformation has circulated for as long as people have created news, the internet, social media and changes in the way in which we consume information have turned fake news into an uncontrollable global virus with massive repercussions across politics, business and society.

Stories that on the surface may seem accurate but instead are misleading or downright false can have serious consequences once – to adopt the social media phraseology – they go ‘viral.’

Fake news stories have been absorbed and spread by millions of people, enticed by the click-bait headlines plaguing social media feeds – feeds originally designed to ease the sharing of content rather than to encourage the dissemination of untruth. On occasion, such as in the run-up to the 2016 US election or the Brexit referendum, this has resulted in a viral storm of sound bites that can trap people in a ‘filter bubble’ of disinformation, impacting how they vote, who they connect with socially and which companies they buy from.

While the mainstream media is certainly not innocent of embellishing the news to attract readers, of making mistakes or of inaccurate reporting, more alarmingly, the phrase ‘fake news’ is now deliberately being used by politicians and business leaders around the world as a weapon against legitimate news reporting, to mislead their constituencies and as an excuse to censor free speech.

In the business world, being tarnished with fake news that sticks can be disastrous, impacting public sentiment and your brand reputation with after-effects that can be hard – even impossible – to shake off.

No global vaccine exists for inoculating against the fake news epidemic, but VitalBriefing, as specialists in media and brand monitoring, has developed tools and techniques to filter fact from fiction, enhanced by our team of highly skilled and experienced journalists.

Here are six tips and tricks you can apply today when you read the news online or browse your social media feed:

  • Is the publisher credible?

Simply because a website is popular, does not mean it is accurate – especially if it appears on social media or automated news aggregation services where clicks and computer algorithms decide what leads. Be wary, for example, of unusual domain names or websites imitating legitimate news publications. Check the ‘About Us’ section to get an idea of what and who is behind the publication.

  • Is the writer credible? 

Check authors’ by-lines: Have they published anything else? Are they real writers, commentators or experts in their field or – as is often the case with fake news stories – simply a fictitious pseudonym?

  • Is the story credible?

Has the information been published on other websites, especially on authoritative ones such as noted mainstream media publications or specialist news outlets? If there’s no coverage elsewhere, it’s not a certainty that the news is fake, but it’s a strong warning sign that other verification methods need to be applied, especially if it’s not published by a legitimate news organisation.

  • Who’s in the story? 

If a person or organisation is quoted, perform a reverse search to check the original source of the quote. Is the attribution accurate? Is it being taken out of context? If there are no quotes or contributing sources, consider it another red flag.

  • How timely is the information?

Checking other sources can reveal a common indicator of fake news: the recycling of older information, dragged out of context, and made to appear as fresh news.

  • How’s the quality of the writing? 

Poor grammar and spelling is not necessarily indicative of a disreputable publication – automated or poor-quality translations are common on non-native language news sites, for example – but it should be a cause for scepticism, necessitating cross-checking the accuracy of the information. 

VitalBriefing applies all of the above and more when searching, filtering and curating information for your organisation, culling fake news to supply accurate business intelligence with journalistic integrity.

How to cherry-pick business intelligence

To bake the best cherry pie you need the best cherries – but how do you identify them? Two obvious solutions: Ask your grocer or ask Google. Of course, ask Google and you get – literally – three million results.

But what if you could combine the grocer’s knowledge and experience with the best information on the internet?

Search filtration, curation and analysis does just that – whether you’re looking for information about fruit or seeking actionable intelligence for your business.

Creative Commons – Matt McGee

Ask Google about “Global Finance Trends,” for example, and you get three million results. That’s right – 3,000,000. The information you seek is in there somewhere. But where?

Search engines’ algorithms – their “secret sauce” that the rest of us can only guess at – analyse and rank results based on complex calculations related to relevancy, popularity and even your geographic location in order to return the most pertinent information. At least, that’s the theory. The reality is the 3,000,000 results.

How can you be sure that the first link, or even the second or 10th, is the cherry on the cake you need?

At the moment, the success of your search is now fully on your shoulders. You must wade through the list of results, filter for the most relevant – and hope you find the information you want. The clock ticks and your work piles up as you scroll through outdated information and repeated stories, while stumbling across irrelevant articles – and suffering the spreading plague of dreaded “fake news” that has managed to elude the search engine’s filter and ranking algorithms.

Can you afford to waste your time?

 

Why human filters matters

With data being generated at lightning speed across every sector and industry in today’s digital landscape, the need for precise filtration and analysis has never been greater. Efficient search algorithms are a significant foundation, but they must underlie human knowledge and experience – the skilled cherry-picker.

Because technology alone doesn’t solve the problem, we created VitalBriefing, our global network of professional journalists and editors working directly with clients to review and evaluate all digitally-available news and research materials served up by search engines and databases to produce actionable, easy-to-digest, business intelligence on their schedule and to their specifications.

The human layer makes the difference: Our staff know what matters to our clients, reviewing, summarising and fact-checking the information to ensure the veracity of the business intelligence we provide.

We believe the best value is delivered by merging the best technology and journalistic skills. While search-only and artificial intelligence-based solutions get results, they often lack relevance, and leave users wondering if something is missing, either from the overall coverage or within the news itself.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own use of search more efficient and useful. In upcoming posts, I will peel back the technology to discuss how our search capabilities work on external sources to pull in the information relevant to your business. I will also address how analysing internal data enables us to refine results and understand the value of news to clients.

In short, I’ll share our “secret sauce” so that you can be more efficient in your work.

 

Why fake news is a threat to us all

INTERVIEW PUBLISHED IN LUXEMBOURGER WORT – 23 MAY 2019

Q: How do you define fake news? And is fake news really adequate to describe this phenomenon?

A: I would define it as information that is not verified or corroborated, well documented, verifiable, credible. Various factors go into defining what’s real news and what’s not real, or what’s fake news – or even anti-news, if I can use the expression. Because “real fake news” is often used to manipulate the audience, it could be considered anti-news.

I don’t remember the history of the expression “fake news.” It certainly wasn’t in common usage before Trump started really popularizing, then it went viral among certain kinds of populist leaders around the world, who used it and still do in the same way that Trump does. Or they saw it as an open invitation to use the expression and the concept to manipulate the public. So no, I don’t think it’s completely adequate. 

Q: I hear expressions such as “deliberate disinformation” or “information pollution”.

A: Exactly. Information pollution, you could argue, is information overload – a lot of information in which truth and untruth are mixed. The other term, deliberate disinformation, is exactly what Trump does. He’s a master of deliberate disinformation. He and his administration traffic in deliberate disinformation, and we saw this in the Brexit referendum campaign as well. That was a very conscious use of deliberate disinformation, as was well documented during and after the referendum.

Q: Does Trump discredit the press deliberately, knowing full well what the actual truth is? Or is it just ignorance on his part?

Both. I think he is a very ignorant person. On one hand, he’s ignorant of history, he’s ignorant about many subjects in depth. My sense is that he skates on the surface, and I think he very deliberately disinforms. He misinforms and disinforms as a practice – or as a “dark art.” And that’s been shown throughout the course of his career, long before he was in politics – as a businessperson, as a human being. He’s made it clear repeatedly himself – he’s talked about stretching the truth, bending the truth, shaping the truth. If he has a true talent for anything, it’s using “alternative facts” to create an alternative reality that will allow him and his people to do what they want to do. 

Q: Are there different types of fake news?

A: You could argue there are “slightly” alternative facts, “somewhat” alternative facts and “completely” alternative facts. Trump and his people traffic in shades of the truth to meet their immediate goal or the goal in the particular situation they’re in. Individuals in this administration, in various positions of authority, use facts and truths and news that they will shape in different ways, depending on the situation, who they’re talking with and what their goal is. We see 

examples where Trump will say something to somebody and say the opposite to somebody else. That kind of thing comes up all the time. 

Q: Why is it impossible to confront members of this administration with the truth?

A: Because they don’t care, nor does their political base. They’re focused on their goals. Whether you agree with those goals or not is one question, how they reach those goals is another. In my view, most of the time they don’t act according to smart governance, good public policy, the greater good, the general good. We have seen this with various members of this administration. We certainly saw it in the UK during the Brexit campaign. These characters will say and do whatever they think will get them to where they want to go, with little or no regard for what’s actually true, what the facts are, or what is best for the general public – or even what’s best for their constituency.

We see this in what the Trump administration is doing in the US. People voted for him because he made certain promises, but not only has he not delivered on these promises, what he and his people are delivering actually hurts or will hurt those people in the future. You see it economically, in health care, in what they are doing with natural resources and the environment. You see it in the denial of climate change, which to me is a perfect metaphor for the entire situation. It’s 2019 – are we really still arguing whether climate change is man-made, whether it is really damaging our environment? We’re taking huge steps backwards.

Going back to your earlier question: Is Trump ignorant, or does he know what he’s doing? I think there is a tremendous ignorance in all of this. He and the people around him generally do not reflect a sense or knowledge of history, do not understand or care about good governance. It’s really horrifying when you look at what is actually happening within federal agencies in the US.

Q: Is fake news a recent phenomenon, or is it historic? 

A: It’s historic and you can trace it back centuries. I think you came to me because I sat on stage recently with Tom Glocer, a friend and former CEO of Thomson Reuters, who had an example from ancient Greece. Manipulation of information goes back to the dawn of people talking to each other, so it’s not a new phenomenon. When I was a newspaper bureau chief in Mexico, a ridiculous rumour swept the country that people were kidnapping Mexican babies to murder them, harvest their organs and sell them to desperate rich parents in the US. It was a rumour that had started and had been picked up by some publication in Paraguay, I think, then it spread throughout Latin America. The Soviet Union grabbed it, and its very active disinformation unit spread it all over the place. That was back in the early 1990s.

I’ve seen examples of fake news throughout my career. To be fair, legitimate news organisations make mistakes, get things wrong. As a reporter, I have made mistakes in my reporting. But one of the differences between purveyors of fake news and responsible journalists is that real journalists and responsible media acknowledge their mistakes, and broadcast or print a correction. You let your audience know: I’m human, I report, I work hard but I make errors. I made a mistake in my story, and I want you to understand what that mistake was and I want to correct it.

In this time of fake news, when everybody is a publisher, that doesn’t happen very often. But it’s one of the definitions by which you distinguish somebody who’s purveying fake news from a legitimate news organisation or source – the latter will correct their mistakes. 

Q: Why do false stories have greater traction than the truth? 

A: Because generally they play on people’s emotions, which are always more powerful than rational thinking or intellect. Again, that’s why the Brexit advocates and the Trump campaigners traffic so much in fake news, because that’s where their genius lies. They understand people’s emotions, and right now the dominant emotion globally is fear. They’re very good at using fake news to play on people’s fears. And it’s a very effective way to win power and to hold power. And of course people have short memories, which works in their favour. 

A study I saw showed that even in situations when people know something isn’t true, when they know it’s fake, when they understand they are being fed “alternative” rather than real facts – if it could be true, that’s good enough. If I’m already a believer in Brexit or in Trump’s promises, and they say something that I know is ridiculous – “the wall with Mexico is going to stop the flow of migrants”- you think about it, you look at the facts and you reasonably conclude “it’s not true”. But a wall could stop some people from getting across the border, so it could be good. It plays on people’s fears and what they want to believe in – they’ll adjust the facts to their reality or to what they believe in, even while knowing that it may not be true. 

Q: Which changes in the way we produce and consume news have contributed to the epidemic of fake news?

A: The internet! In the same way that it has destroyed the business model for the mainstream press. Again, it’s the the fact that everybody can be a publisher: a story appears in print somewhere or is displayed in a nice layout on a screen, and friends and family put it in their news feed on Facebook. Because so many people now use Facebook as their main news channel, and the information coming to them is either from sources that are ideologically coherent with their beliefs or from their network, their friends and family, that’s where they get most of their news. If I see a story that fits my world view, even if it’s not based on a legitimate news source but it still looks real, and I put it out, people will accept it as real information. The notion that everybody can be a publisher of any kind of information is in my view a major reason that fake news has become an epidemic.

Q: So it’s not a coincidence that the interest of the public in fact-based reporting has decreased while at the same time there has been a rise in fake news?

A: No, this period is in many ways a perfect storm. I fence this period off because first we had the Brexit referendum, followed by Trump’s election, and everything that’s happened since. It’s no coincidence. Different factors have created this moment. Technological revolution and transition, the aftermath of the 2007-09 global financial meltdown in the US and UK, and in America, the vast demographic underway with the white population shrinking as other demographics grow and the fear that that engenders in the declining older white population.

In the US, there is the hangover of the Obama period, when a strong racist element opposed him and was fearful of the idea that minorities were gaining political power in the US. All that happened at the same time as the collapse of traditional media and its business model, while the purveyors of fake news were getting louder, using platforms like Facebook and the internet in general, as well as broadcast media, which has an enormous impact. In the US much of Fox News’ output is based on alternative facts,  not what I consider legitimate analysis of the news. It’s a perfect storm of all these things, not a coincidence – you can’t tease them apart.

Q: It’s a dangerous situation when so many legitimate journalists have lost their jobs because of the loss of advertising income, at a time when fake news is so popular. 

A: So true. Rarely have we needed real news more urgently than now, because this is such a critical time in the history of the planet. Except maybe world wars, it’s hard to think of a period more sensitive and vital for real, verifiable information to guide people to make the right decisions. On climate change alone, so much needs to happen right now to save the planet, but we’re so far from taking that action. And one of the reasons is that we are flooded with bad information and information that’s manipulated by the economic powers that want to maintain the fossil fuel industry, for instance. It’s a domino effect. 

Q: You tweeted the Washington Post Super Bowl message: “Democracy dies in darkness”. Did you ever think that it would become necessary to advertise fact-based journalism?

A: I was a journalist like you for 23 years, and for 21 of those years I never thought I’d do anything else. I thought I would be a working reporter until the day I died. And I was very happy with that idea. I loved what I did. I do believe journalism is a mission, not just a job. I think it’s God’s work in that sense, it’s so important. And I was proud and happy to be doing that. The collapse of the industry is something I never anticipated. Pre-internet, I figured I would be doing what I do forever, because there would always be a need for it and a platform for it.

So I didn’t anticipate that things would change the way they have. But one of the things I’m proud of with VitalBriefing, this business that we’ve built now, is that we are able to create work for journalists. Hundreds of thousands of us out there have lost their jobs in the past 20 years. At a time when democracy dies in darkness, we’ve never been needed more urgently, certainly in my professional lifetime and arguably since World War II. I don’t think there’s ever been a more urgent need for responsible, in-depth, journalism, good storytelling, knowing how to present stories that are important, entertaining, and meaningful to our audiences. Democracy absolutely lives or dies on the basis of good information. So I worry, I literally lose sleep over it. I believe democracy is really under attack right now.

Q: It’s a different kind of war.

A: Exactly. My family bars me from talking about this stuff anymore because I can be so pessimistic. 

Q: What are the effects of fake news on society?

A: Brexit is one example. It was sold on false information, as the Brexiteers admitted more or less the day after the referendum. Nigel Farage confessed on the BBC that it was “a mistake” to put on the campaign bus that Britain’s National Health Service would get £350 million a week back from the EU. It was a complete lie. You can go through one piece of information after another that was sold to the public to justify Brexit.

I think rational people can believe in Brexit and believe that the UK should pull out of the EU. While I don’t agree, and think it’s a massive, tragic mistake, there are legitimate arguments that can be made. But that’s not generally why people voted as they did. It wasn’t a policy-driven, reasoned discussion that fuelled the Brexit vote, and the fact that the result was so close is a good indication: had it been based on good information, I believe the outcome would have been very different.

I like to contrast last fall’s US mid-term election with the election in Luxembourg, which were held more or less around the same time. To me, the Luxembourg election was an example of a great campaign. It wasn’t personality-oriented. You could see the differences between the parties, but for the most part everybody was thinking about what’s best for this country over the long term. It was a boring campaign, and the forums I attended and the debates I watched were boring, which was wonderful. They were about policy: Mobilitéit, digitalisation, space, housing, growth – legitimate issues to be discussed. What does this country want to be, where is it going? Whereas in the US mid-term elections people were screaming at each other, and campaigns were based on false information. Generally there was little focus on policy issues. It did happen in some cases, which I think is one reason why so many incumbents lost and why the Democrats won the House of Representatives. There was legitimate discussion as well. But across the campaign as a whole there was a lot of screaming and personal attacks. 

Q: How can you spot fake news?

A: You have to be very discerning as a consumer of news. You need to think about the source, which most people don’t do. We do it because we’re professionals, but you need to assess for yourself: Who are the sources? Do the sources meet certain criteria, do you generally feel that the reporting is presenting the real facts, not alternative facts? Even if it’s something you don’t agree with, whether you can trust that the reporters are getting the right information in the right way, checking and verifying the information, finding multiple sources, and where possible identifying a paper trail. It should not be just “he said, she said,” but knowing that a verifiable document backs up whatever is being reported. It’s a matter of questioning the sources, making sure you know them, identifying sources you really respect and trust to deliver an accurate account of what’s happening.

Q: How can the media restore the public’s trust?

A: By doing just that – by being responsible, accurate, credible sources of information, by showing that they adhere to those criteria and take care with the information they’re presenting. Major legitimate news sources in the US, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, a number of regional papers, magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic, in broadcast CNN for the most part, are outlets in which you can believe based on their history and their track record in terms of verifying information and correcting mistakes. That’s really important – when you hide mistakes, it’s an indication that you’re not truthful. That’s how you restore faith in the media, which needs to be restored because the media and the news business in general is one of those institutions, a guardrail of democracy, in which people have lost faith, and it’s critical to restore it. It also requires trained journalists who know how to do the craft the way it should be done and have legitimate outlets to publish or broadcast their work. And there are fewer and fewer of those. 

Q: Is the fake news phenomenon an opportunity for the media to reignite interest in fact-based journalism?

A: Yes. As pessimistic as I am, I hope that once we get past this moment – as I remind myself all the time, because my vision has become somewhat short-term – we will come out of this and restore some sanity. The media in general is in a moment of transition in every way, like every industry, because of technology, because of the internet, because of the changing nature of our economies. This industry will find a way past this moment. The pendulum swings and it’s way to the extreme right now – not politically, but in terms of false information. I believe it will swing back as new platforms for legitimate and credible news reporting emerge, with business models that will sustain them.

VitalBriefing is one attempt to do that. We have been able to create a sustainable business model that does practice, I believe, responsible journalism, and there will be more and more media outlets like that, and more and more business models to support them. In the old days, when I was a reporter, we never worried about the business side. We saw them as “the business guys” and stayed away from them because we believed they wanted to influence our reporting to benefit their advertisers. They shouldn’t dare to cross that line, and if they did the reporters would be screaming and fighting, going to their editors or to the publisher. That’s as it should be.

But the business model wasn’t sustainable in the face of technological change. Now we all have to think about the business side. At the same time, there are more tools to support and empower great reporting and news-gathering than ever before. I think about the digital tools available now that would have made my life as a reporter so much easier.

In my last newspaper job, I worked on a project with a partner for a year and we probably could have cut the time down by half to two-thirds using the digital tools we have now. Most of our time was spent going through public records by hand, travelling around the state of California, going into one courthouse after another. All those public records are online now. We could do in days online what took months and a lot of money and travel and expense. The wealth of tools now available turbo-charge the ability to do great reporting, and you see great newspapers and great broadcasters doing that kind of work, finding great stories and creating great journalism.

You need the business model to support it, but it’s coming. And the irony of the past couple of years of Brexit and Trump is that some of the best reporting I’ve seen in my lifetime is happening right now, because of those tools. For example, the New York Times, one of the few newspapers that is financially sustainable, and the Washington Post, have owners who essentially say: You’ve got the resources you need, the money you need, go out and do it. The Guardian is supported by a foundation, an endowment, that financed its great journalism for a long time, although it has become smaller now and they’re searching for a new business model as well. But these outlets are still doing wonderful reporting because of the new tools. So while I’m pessimistic, I’m also very hopeful.