Why fake news is a threat to us all


David Schrieberg interview with Luxembourger Wort on fake news

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.