How To Detect Fake News

Obama Whitehouse family portrait, Easter 2016.

Obama White House family portrait, Easter 2016.

I swear I’d just finished reading an article about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to ban so-called fake news from Facebook when wouldn’t you know it’s a YouTube video popped up in my Facebook feed proclaiming President Barack Obama to be gay, First Lady Michelle Obama to be transsexual and daughters Malik and Sasha to be adopted.

Obviously fake news, right? Not that there would be anything wrong with the president being gay and the first lady being transgender and the kids being adopted. It just seems like we’d know that by now.

Nevertheless, I’ve been reading similar remarks in the comment sections of Alt-Right websites for months. I had chalked it up to the infantile, blatantly racist humor that permeates the more deplorable regions of the Alt-Right, and here was an hour-long video promising nope, it’s the truth, on the world’s most popular social media network.

I’m not going to link to the video, because it is an exemplary example of what I consider to be fake news, and as a responsible journalist, I can’t endorse it and won’t spread it.

At the same time, considering the First Amendment, I recognize that regulating news or any content for truth is fraught with difficulty, and solving the problem in the current cultural climate isn’t going to be easy.

All I can do is show you how I analyzed this video for what Stephen Colbert might call truthiness.

Like many effective fake news pieces, the video contains several elements of truth. Yes, a man named Larry Sinclair claimed in 2008 that he did cocaine and had sex with Obama in 1999, when the latter was an Illinois state senator. Yes, comedian Joan Rivers, in an off-the-cuff remark made in 2014 shortly before her death, said Obama was the first gay president and Michelle was transgender and that the entire establishment knows it. No, the makers of the video couldn’t find any Malik and Sasha baby pictures online.

The video narrator’s frequent use of the word “Illuminati” should provide most viewers with the information they need to tune out (but if you want to go down the Illuminati rabbit hole, be my guest). I went a little further. The video coverage of Sinclair making his declaration before the National Press Club in 2008 seemed credible, until I read Politico’s background check on the many-times-convicted career criminal fraudster.

Just about zero truthiness, in other words.

Searching further than you need to go, I discovered Sinclair’s story has never been corroborated, although a number of  journalists have devoted considerable effort searching for the Obama “gay” connection. They remind me why my favorite fictional private eyes don’t do divorce work. What difference does it make now, and why is it appearing in my Facebook feed?

To be honest, it’s my feed so it’s partly my fault. I lowered my standards during the election and started following everybody. I unblocked old enemies. I made questionable new friends. Even so, my feed has been mainly dominated by upset Hillary Clinton supporters, some of whom have taken to blaming fake news on social media for their candidate’s defeat.

The Washington Post has gone so far to say that fake news, strategically deployed on social media networks by Russian intelligence, threw the election to Trump. Apparently Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post and Amazon, where you can buy Larry Sinclair’s book, allegedly a true story, for a premium price, has a muted sense of irony.

The truth is, if the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times want to blame fake news for the election results, then they only need look in the mirror.

I say this as a journalist who spent the first half of his career working for lefty alternative newsweeklies whose existence depended on countering the establishment media’s narrative. It’s not lost on me that the alternative narrative I once helped craft has been consumed by the establishment media and regurgitated as what it is now derivatively called political correctness, or PC.

Nowhere is this more true than the issue of religion and race, two of the three Rs you’re not supposed to discuss during the holidays (no one does math). For me, it’s a matter of tone, and I might not have noticed it as much if I hadn’t moved to mostly-white Shasta County three years ago. Maybe the establishment tone rings true in the big cities, but here in Red California, it falls on deaf ears.

White privilege? What’s that mean in Shasta County, where the vast majority is white? Or at least almost everyone on Shasta County’s Most Wanted list? White people are persecuted here, especially those with facial tattoos. Maybe the mainstream narrative is wrong. Maybe it’s the same way everywhere, regardless of demographics. What if the economy really is that bad?

Then there’s a war on Christianity, a major component of the PC narrative, and while I don’t consider myself a devout believer, I understand why the mainstream media’s anti-Christian crusade has raised half the county’s hackles. The Old  Testament may be outdated, but you can’t force people to stop believing in it.

Fake news stories like the video that is the subject of this report are targeted to a specific audience—in this case, white Christians who have become suspicious of the mainstream narrative. What better confirmation that the country’s gone to hell than to promulgate such malicious speculation, with so far total impunity?

Yet the establishment media has proven just as adept at such methods, which are targeted at a much wider audience. Witness the dozen or so alleged Trump sexual assault survivors paraded before the electorate at the last minute by every single mainstream media outlet, without a shred of corroborating evidence.

Maybe President-elect Donald Trump is correct that we need to reexamine our laws for slander and libel in this new digital age. I’ve watched the video mentioned here twice, and can’t believe YouTube’s user guidelines permit such unsubstantiated, volatile charges against a sitting president of the United States to exist on its platform.

But … YouTube is a private business, it can do what it wants, and apparently that’s what it wants. Facebook is a private business, it can do what it wants, and this video popped up in my feed even as Zuckerberg was declaring war against it.

Somehow, I don’t think fake news is going away anytime soon. It’s hard to see the future Trump administration, which apparently owes its existence to fake news, doing anything about it in the near future. If anything, I think it’s going to become more prevalent. To which I can only say, read carefully and question everything.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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28 Responses

  1. cheyenne says:

    Good article R.V.  I read WaPo because I want to get a idea of how the eastern liberals think.  I read the Prescott Courier for conservative replies.  I never click on blogs that post a link to Fox News because my computer freezes up.  A lot of the news today, even mainstream, is like reading the comics and just as reliable.  If you really want to get a laugh click on Craiglists rants section.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      It was interesting watching FOX News this election cycle. Only Hannity was pro-Trump, so the rest of them actually had to work for a change. They were almost a real news network for a second there. I do go to Craiglist rants and raves too, to find out how “the people” are feeling.

  2. Beverly Stafford says:

    And when one of these ludicrous pieces appears in the Inbox of someone who believes that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true, he forwards it to all 159 people in his address book, and they, in turn, forward it to all 340 of their nearest and dearest and on and on.  Trust but verify?  What happened to the verify part?

    • Virginia says:

      Too true!

      Trust, but verify.  If one is smart enough, no matter the political leanings, they can spot phony “news”.   If it is just suspicious, use Snopes or Fact or Fiction to verify.  And, then send the link of verification to the “send all” reply stating such.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I have friends who still email articles out that way, but just a few. That’s really old school these days!

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    The trouble with Facebook is that Zuckerberg thought he was creating a socializing platform, and instead it’s become the world’s largest news media/advertising platform.  I don’t think he knows how to run a news medium—in particular, how to establish standards to ensure that the news is objectively true most of the time.  Fox News and CNN have such standards, even as they devote large chunks of program time to commentators who spin the news wildly.

    One of the things progressives are supposed to stop doing in the wake of Trump’s win is saying that the white working class people who voted for him are stupid.  I’m fully on board with that……right up to the point where one of my white, working-class friends forwards a viral “fake news” item to me, or posts it on their Facebook page, at which point I am often feel compelled to point out how painfully stupid and obviously false it is.

    The response is often: “You just don’t get it.”  Over time, I’ve come to understand what that response means. Objective, verifiable truth isn’t the point.  How fake news feels is what it’s all about.  Truthiness, indeed.

    Finally, I reject the idea that there’s a war on Christianity.  Count me among those who believe that the Founders* intended a separation of government and religion.  On the other side of the ball, there are those who believe that this nation was founded on Christianity, and that our government’s functions should reflect and advance “Kingdom principles.”  I’m fine with people being religious—I just reject that our nation was founded on a platform of giving primacy to a particular religion, and that this one religion should influence our government at every level.  I reject that for all religions.  It’s a war for maintaining separation of church and state, not a war against Christianity.

    *To read the journals and letters of our most intellectual and influential Founders on matters of religion is eye-opening.  Were they around today, their leaked opinions would ensure that none of them could be elected President.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      Yes, Colbert really hit it on the head with truthiness. Of course he was referring to mainstream media news, now anyone can be their own news channel. One reason I chose this video was that it’s obviously fake–even though, for some reason, it’s trending on Illuminati websites at the moment. When a story has more truthiness to it, it’s harder to tell if its fake or maybe an actual story. As crazy and off the wall as Andrew Breitbart he hit paydirt every now and then–Anthony Weiner!

      As for the war on Christianity I referred to, politically correct secularism (promoted by both news and entertainment media) goes way beyond the separation of church and state and in my opinion has strayed into the realm of denying freedom of conscience (also in the First Amendment) to Christians on any number of important cultural issues, from prayer in schools to abortion to gay marriage. That’s how many Christians say they feel about it anyway, and as you note, today’s wars are all about the feels, which is why Trump got the Jesus vote.

  4. Rod says:

    Fake news is an old tactic employed by multiple species. The people generated type is so easy now.  People want to trust their sources because those other people are usually wrong.

    My dear old sweet Grandma repeatedly proclaimed…..”Don’t believe anything you hear and believe only half of what you see.”  She passed away pre-digital.  I doubt she would find Facebook believable half the time, if indeed ever at all.  My learned lesson was basic—People tell lies because they like to.  Truthiness lags in pleasure.

    The Facebook Style Of Truth, being a recent invention, avoids real truth because time is too valuable to waste.  How do you fact check without the internet? How do you know anything until you confirm on the internet?

    The hole we’re digging ourselves into surely will grow unchecked.  Unless we unplug, I don’t see that happening.

     

  5. Grammy says:

    Wow now I know I am totally out of touch with the modern world.  I do not read my news on Facebook or Google.  I read it with the Daily Mail web site, Record Searchlight, and the Sac Bee.  Daily Mail often times having local news the same time as RS.  But the site includes all the photos and all the info that the local often leaves off.

    Case in point was the fire three years ago that started on Cloverdale.  I was down taking care of the GKs when Hubby called to tell me that it was headed right towards Placer.  Then the winds changed.  Went to DM and it had all the photos as they became available.  The downside is that you can spend all day reading the site.

    Kind of like Craigs List, if it sounds to good to be true it is a fake.  Trolls will do anything to grip you into their web.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      That’s crazy the Daily Mail covered that fire. I noticed they are covering the Papini case. I read the Daily Mail, interesting blend of news and entertainment.

  6. A. Jacoby says:

    Steve, you need to repeat your last two paragraphs IN CAPS! The separation of church and state is NOT a war on Christianity. Separation refers to ANY and ALL religions.

    Can I get an AMEN?

  7. A. Jacoby says:

    Oh, and THANK YOU R.V. for a well thought out and timely article!

  8. Carla says:

    A. Jacoby, you get an AMEN from me!

  9. Christian Gardinier says:

    This is the story: “Twenty six percent of American’s believe the sun revolves around the earth…” Check it out. That came from NPR and many other well known sources. It’s like Trump saying he won the majority vote by a landslide if you consiter the massive voter fraud this election and I’ll bet most republicans actually believe him! The meda amps this up on the left because it’s so absurd and on the right because that talk serves their agenda of shrinking voter rights and the voter base. They know damn well that if everyone voted this election Trump would have lost. But, Russia knows that Americans are easily duped! WE believe Trump even when we believe he is lying! Education. education education. That’s why the republicans will try very hard to gut and dumb down our education system even further that it is. WAKE UP AMERICA!

     

     

  10. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    NPR tracked down one of the biggest Facebook producers of fake news, and the guy’s story is pretty fascinating.  His company is called “Disinfomedia.” Turns out he’s a liberal who lives in a beach bungalow in Los Angeles.  He says his motives are partly political, but I think he’s doing it primarily for the $30k per month of advertising revenue that his pages generate.  He also says he’s tried to create fake news for liberals, but they just don’t rise to the fly (which means there’s no money in it).

    He credits Sarah Palin with launching the alt.right’s affinity for “post-factual” news.

    So much for my theory that most FB fake news and memes are produced by right-wing think tanks as a way to manipulate conservatives who desire “truthiness” more than truth.  It’s just nerds filling a market niche.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      Call me ethical, but there’s no way I’m doing something like that, just because I can make 30 K per month. It’s wrong.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I can’t even call what I’ve seen of late on network news ethical.

        I suppose he can justify it to himself by calling it “entertainment,” though it seems almost entirely like a malicious form of self-entertainment.  As an amusement, tricking the rubes seems an awful lot like pulling the wings off of flies.

  11. Christian Gardinier says:

    Disinfomedia is a diss on the media, a joke but he can do it legally I quess, free speech and all. But 30K a month…. well I’ll bet Fox rakes in about  30K a second!

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      $30k a month is pretty good walking-around money for a glorified web master/content provider.   There are a lot of people out there putting up websites for cheap and others providing content for free.  Of course, he didn’t say he’s netting 30k per month—you’d think he has at least a little overhead, and there’s mention of a staff of writers (but no mention of what he’s paying them, if anything).

      • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

        And he was probably lying about his income (more fake news). There are too many independent websites out there with real journalists that put out great material but struggle by on reader donations for $30 K per year! Content is king–unless it costs money to make the content, and real journalism costs money.

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