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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. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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