Fake news: the medium is not the message

AA study of fake news on Twitter Facebook has found that the biggest propagators are Republicans over 65. No surprises there. Unfortunately, the researchers muddy the waters by suggesting that this group is prone to believing and spreading lies because they are “digital immigrants”, rather than “digital natives”, a distinction I thought had disappeared.

,A moment’s thought should have suggested a different interpretation. The same group, after all constitutes the primary audience for Fox News and (globally) the core readership of the Murdoch press. Even before the emergence of a distinctively partisan rightwing media, evangelicals eagerly spread fake news by word of mouth.

And this study defined fake news in the narrow sense covering reports that Obama is a lizardoid Muslim and similar. A more accurate definition, encompassing deliberate denial of overwhelming evidence, would encompass the entire rightwing media universe, going beyond the Murdoch press to include the output of thinktanks like AEI, Cato, Heritage and Heartland. The extreme cases studied on Twitter are the core of an onion wrapped in multiple layers of denial and defense mechanisms.

Until recently, the most obvious case was that of climate change, but now they have Trump. It’s now impossible to survive on the right without giving Trump a pass for his thousands of glaring lies. In these circumstances, it’s scarcely surprising that Republican activists who have been steeped in this environment for decades. see it as virtuous to circulate talking points regardless of their truth or falsity. Far from misleading this cohort, Twitter Facebook simply provided them with an amplifier.

16 thoughts on “Fake news: the medium is not the message

  1. “Never trust anybody over 30.” That is one variant of the saying originated by Jack Weinberg in 1964. Another saying in the late 1960s and 1970s was “It’s the system” or “Don’t trust the system.”

    Both sayings have a lot of truth in them. By about age 30, most people have got jobs, spouses and mortgages. They have bought into the system. Thereafter, it becomes the case illustrated by Upton Sinclair. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” For almost all of us, our wages, salaries and ways of life depended on us not understanding the gravity of the ecological and climate destruction we were wreaking on the biosphere.

    “It’s the system” is of course trivially true, by definition, from a complex systems science and philosophy perspective. We run a system and the problems we face are all systemic; intrinsic to the system we have created. A key question is whether we possess “civilizational agency”, that is the ability to choose the direction of our civilization. So far, it appears we do not have the ability to choose that direction. The system chooses for us. As I have written before, we choose the system, then the system chooses the direction for us.We are failing to change the system. That is our key failure.

  2. Surely a variation of this was what occurred in Victoria.
    They completely deny the major problem was units in coal powered power station which regularly breakdown in very high temperatures and blames renewables

  3. Lying ,unreality and wild conspiracy are standard features of Fascist politics. The digital world is just another tool . Divide and rule has been basic mainstream Conservative tactics for generations, anything but class solidarity across race ,religion or ethnicity – union busting is standard Fascism too. Isolated ,scared, selfish individuals are ideal targets for Fascists. Because of inequality in the West the lid has been blown off the delicate high stakes game Conservatives were playing and Fascists are on the march worldwide. Something had to give but the 1% prefer Fascism to Socialism even though Fascists usually promise to restrict the supply of cheap labour (immigration) and might restrict trade a bit too. However ,Fascist politics is more of a way of gaining power than of governing ,so the 1% can usually do well anyway. Fascists rail against elites but cant touch financial elites, they need their help. Trump used to tell his rallies about fat cat bankers ,not anymore.

    Iko; There is some evidence that Aboriginal cultures may have had a sustainable system ,that they were not aggressive and did not automatically seek to fully exploit their neighbours or the natural world, that their cultures were remarkably stable and peaceful. They remained that way even after some (possibly most) adopted relatively sedentary agrarian lifestyles, living in permanent dwellings etc, – something possibly no other people anywhere else seems to have managed. They did not move to monotheism at that point either ,as normally happened. Tasmanian Aborigines were separated from mainland ones for 10,000 years (because the sea rose ) but they remained strikingly similar culturally- now that is stability , we will be lucky to last another 100.

  4. The study definition of fake news is certain “largely pro-trump” domain names. That the people sharing them are largely republican and elderly seems likely to be a direct implication of their definition of fake news than anything meaningful.

    (Perhaps there really are no anti-trump fake news websites, but this still leaves the actual “who shares” finding as following more from their definition of fake news, than anything meaningful about shares.)

  5. I know this is only tangentially related, but I just answered another scam phone call telling me that my phone service is going to be cut off now that the NBN is available in my area – it’s not, but I can understand how this might work on elderly residents who have had no communication about what’s planned. I find it interesting that the (seemingly boundless) incompetence of the government coupled with poorly conceived technology has created such a neat space for scammers. Fakery seems to be a growing industry that the government wants to foster.

  6. @rdk. That seems a sound comment. Most of the sites do see to push a trash news line (I could not access all) and they are mostly pro-Trump. I think the inference that Republicans are more gullible than the rest might be correct but this study does not show this. It does show that, in the main, foolish Republicans patronise pro-Republican web sites that promulgate fake news.

  7. Fake news… it’s such a new phenomenon… NOT!

    The little demons in the cartoon are;

    Garbled News, Bad Pictures, Cheap Sensations, Paid Puffery, Scandal, Boasting Lies, Suggestiveness, Objectionable Ad’s (complete with superfluous apostrophe), Hypocrisy, Abuse of Rivals, Personal Journalism, Criminal News.

    There’s nothing new under the sun. Even the superfluous apostrophe is old hat. Tories and Capitalists have been lying and manipulating the media for about 200 years. Before the Tories it was the Whigs. Before the Whigs, the monarchy. Before the monarchy the barons. Before the barons, the chiefs. Before the chiefs, the patriarch.

    Before the Internet, the TV. Before the TV the newspapers. Before the newspapers the broadsheets. Before the broadsheets the pamphlets. Before the pamphlets, the town crier. Before the town crier, the chanter. Before the chanter, the witch-doctor.

    Humans don’t change… except for evolution, which is kinda slow compared to a human life-span or even to an empire’s life-span.

  8. “Never trust anybody over 30.” That is one variant of the saying originated by Jack Weinberg in 1964.

    I remember seeing a sticker on a school case at primary school saying ‘Never trust anybody over 10.’

  9. News Danger! Lies faster than…
    Agreed the medium is centainly not the message. The megaphone does effect the ease of messaging. The op states “Even before the emergence of a distinctively partisan rightwing media,” everyone including evangelicals spread information by word of mouth. Including me. Yet as can be seen in the comments in the linked ‘thinkchristian’ article, any information, even from a trusted person makes the opinion the work of the devil; “because my son informed me that he researched this subject and found it to be false. I was instantly outraged. ”

    Out Rage and a megaphone make the spread of fake news easy with comments showing it was posted and reported in Brazil. Without the megaphone, Brazil would have had this fake news in the past so rapidly. Fbook is almost global surpassing even press barons. 

    But the papers’ missing metric;
    “(We note that we have no measure as to whether or not respondents know that what they are sharing is fake news )” concerns me. The researchers know this: “We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. ”

    … and 50% respondents shared data so it seems with little effort they were able to determine if ‘they’ knew if it was fake or not. Yet they didn’t and the >65 fox news crowd don’t care. Confirmation bias does not need a comparison of facts. 

    They are ‘digitally literate’ enough to create an account, read and repost. They are ‘election literate’ so anything to help y’all. Even though les than 60% of them vote ( still can’t understand why 40% don’t vote).

    They ‘root for the team’ and as they are not pundits the best they can do is throw mud and as mud sticks it builds a wall ( not that wall ) or slow opposition: read truth. What percentage of the 35% of rusted tribal gop / trump are the >65s?

    They know what they are doing even if the longer term implications are lost on them. “Win. The. Race. 

    These census stats are from  Facts for Features: Older Americans Month: May 2017

    82.8%  percent of the population age 65 and older in 2015 who had completed high school or higher education.

    July 2015 there were 47.8 million >65 and 35.3 million: “age 65 and older who reported living in homes with computers in 2015. 

    There is hope! By 2060 the current 25 yr olds will; “Projected number of U.S. residents 65 years and older. 98.2 million in 2060. People in this age group will comprise nearly one in four U.S. residents.”

    I hope the 25 yr olds now (>65 in 40 yrs) can effect a “measure as to whether or not respondents know that what they are sharing is fake news”, as this problem, barring the fbook megaphone, has, is and will continue unless they change totally human nature regarding rumours / fake news. A big ask. As Ikon says “We are failing to change the system. That is our key failure.”

    “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”
    Lord Northcliffe

    “”The job of Northcliffe and his newspapers was to keep the realities of war away from the British public. They were not interested in truth. The prevailing mentality was to make the war seem palatable and righteously necessary.
    World War I was the first time people began to realise that newspapers did not necessarily tell the truth. Lieutenant Ulrich Burke of the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment wrote in 1916: “When we did read the newspapers it made us angry … [Y]ou’d read in the newspapers, ‘No action on the Western Front’. It didn’t seem to warrant, when you’d lost fifty men killed and an equal number wounded, a mention … It used to annoy everybody terribly.”

    It seems apposite to end with the now infamous quote from Lloyd George, who in conversation in 1916 with CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, said:

    If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.””

    Does this remind us of a current press baron? “Beaverbrook, the first baron of Fleet Street, was often denounced as excessively powerful because his newspapers supposedly could make or break almost anyone.”  wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Aitken,_1st_Baron_Beaverbrook

    Start with the barons and get the metric for knowing fake vs fact and embed in all curricula from kindy taught like stranger danger. News Danger. 

    And robots it seems share fake and real news at the same rate! Yet “We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. 
    “Lies spread faster than the truth” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146

  10. As serendipity would have it, in smh today – “STEM focus leaves kids vulnerable to ‘dark arts’ of fake news: expert”

    No it doesn’t if they are taught critical reasoning and humanities. I thought that is what we do.

    This article has two perspectives with the headline used as a trigger and no wonder experts are under appreciated. The US presenter is singular and expert yet the Australian seems left out but for balance at end of article. ” But Associate Professor Matt Bower, an expert in classroom digital technology from Macquarie University, said there was no evidence to suggest an over-emphasis on STEM.”

    The words ‘dark arts’ appear in evangelical circles and refer to harry potter etal. and practices of the devil. The headline above is part of the press barons dark arts.

  11. In the spirit of JQ’s generational discussion, I wonder if these groups shared fake news more often because it was fake news built specifically for their demographic.

    If you only had enough resources to influence one group of people in an election with fake news, who would you choose?

  12. I’m confused… I thought the “Fake News” thing was about main stream media basically taking any story and making it Anti Trump?

    I thought the Facebook thing was about Russian bots convincing everyone to not vote for Hillary?

  13. While googling about indigenous Australians and Australia Day, I found this disturbing (but not unexpected) example of the Left (or at least those pander to Left sensibilities) introducing Fake News into history books:

    PUBLISHERS in the 1980s and 1990s sanitised Aboriginal history by censoring accounts of violence, including sexual abuse and infanticide.
    Award-winning historical author Susanna de Vries has revealed that her books on early colonial life, based on the memoirs of pioneer women, were allegedly toned down so as not to upset Aboriginal sensibilities.

    De Vries said the memoirs of one woman, Louisa Meredith, were allegedly censored by Queensland publishing house Michael White Publishers to remove references to infanticide, tribal warfare, and the rape and removal of women.

    The memoirs of the first Aboriginal justice of the peace, Ella Simon, were similarly sanitised by Sydney publishers Millennium Books in the late 1990s so that a baby “stuffed head-first down a rabbit hole and left to die after it fell ill on walkabout” was allegedly edited to read “left under a tree to die”.

    Both publishers have since gone out of business but de Vries’s revelations have raised questions about how widespread the practice was at the time.


    On balance, the Murdoch rags are atrocious and full of propaganda and we’d be better off without them. On the other hand, if you limit your reading to fuzzy left wing sources, such as The Guardian, you will be fed a diet of fake news and fake history. It will not be fake because of the lies but because of the omissions and distortions.

  14. This Is Your Brain Off Facebook
    “”Although four in 10 Facebook users say they have taken long breaks from it, the digital platform keeps growing. A recent study found that the average user would have to be paid $1,000 to $2,000 to be pried away for a year.

    So what happens if you actually do quit? A new study, the most comprehensive to date, offers a preview.

    Expect the consequences to be fairly immediate: More in-person time with friends and family. Less political knowledge, but also less partisan fever. A small bump in one’s daily moods and life satisfaction. And, for the average Facebook user, an extra hour a day of downtime.””

    How much is social media worth? Estimating the value of Facebook by paying users to stop using it

    Echo Chambers on Facebook Do echo chambers actually exist on social media?
    “By focusing on how both Italian and US Facebook users relate to two distinct narratives (involving conspiracy theories and science), we offer quantitative evidence that they do. The explanation involves users’ tendency to promote their favored narratives and hence to form polarized groups. Confirmation bias helps to account for users’ decisions about whether to spread content, thus creating informational cascades within identifiable communities. At the same time, aggregation of favored information within those communities reinforces selective exposure and group polarization. We provide empirical evidence that because they focus on their preferred narratives, users tend to assimilate only confirming claims and to ignore apparent refutations.”

  15. Sane comments from KT2.

    Also, Hugo asks a fair question: where do you go when the main alternative is Murdoch and channel 9.

    Is it confirmation bias to leave the Australian alone after decades of reading it for the same result, when you can go online and suss out limitless, variant sources for a more complete picture of what goes on in the world?.

    Mainstream media can whinge all little likes, A monopoly msm, including the dreadful, infantile level of coverage from ABC24 news I only need so much of. Now there is a cyber-ternative and they don’t like it?

    Well, hard cheese.

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