By MAINE PUBLIC STAFF
Stories of fake news continue to make headlines, get spread by political leaders, and raise questions about what and whom to believe. Advances in technology now make it easy to create fake images and videos, a trend that raises alarms as we enter election season. We’ll discuss what more we’ve learned about identifying and combatting fake news, and what are some practical ways to counterbalance its impact on society.
Jennifer Rooks, narrator: The growing sophistication of fake news. “Fake news” became a household phrase during the last presidential election as stories with absolutely no basis in fact began to explode in popularity on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. In the years since, the phrase has been used to describe everything from elaborately detailed fake news videos to simple news items that someone in power doesn’t particularly like.
And almost every day, fake news is making real news. In the past week, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign tried to make a point by posting a fake news item on Facebook, claiming in the headline that Mark Zuckerberg was endorsing President Trump. Then there was the fake video showing President Trump slaughtering journalists. I’m Jennifer Rooks. Some fake news is outlandish and easy to spot. Some not so much. Have you ever been tricked?
Fake news – it comes in many forms. False headlines, doctored photos, doctored videos. Today, we’re going to talk about the prevalence and dangerous potential of fake news to influence what people believe. Joining me in the studio – Chet Lunner. He is a former journalist and Maine newspaper editor. He’s also served as a Congressional chief of staff, 9/11 press secretary, Homeland Security intelligence officer, and other positions in the federal government.
And joining us from our Bangor studio is Jeanne Bourgault. She’s president of Internews, a nonprofit international news organization. As always, we want to hear from you. Have you ever fallen for a fake news story? Do you have questions about social media’s role in the dissemination of fake news. Our phone number: 1-800-399-3566. You can send a brief email to email@example.com, tweet @mainecalling, or post to the Maine Calling Facebook page.
Thank you both so much and Chet I think really a good question for this discussion to start with is: What is fake news? And I know that seems like a silly question because it means news that's not real, but we have a president who regularly on Twitter calls all sorts of things “fake news.” What is your definition?
Chet Lunner: Well that's a great place to start and I actually turn it around. I know what news is for sure and I'm actually not fond at all of the term “fake news” – and here's why: There's real news and then there's propaganda, rumor, satire, lies, slander, gossip, talk radio, inuendo, hoaxes, unconfirmed reports, opinion, hearsay, public relations, commentary, rhetoric, and supermarket tabloid headlines, which is where I get a lot of my news (laughs).
Actually, I am really sort of disturbed when I hear it use so cavalierly – that real news is somehow mixed in with those definitions. We should be more precise about what it is and it's no wonder that people have a trouble defining it because it's used way too widely.
Rooks: But for that let's move back then for the purpose of today's discussion. Let's talk about the news that is intentionally generated without any basis in reality, and there does seem to be an explosion of these news stories, mostly in social media but in other places as well, that just are just patently false. The person who created them, not only created them to be patently false, but tried to make them look or feel like a real news story.
Lunner: Well I agree, and you know some of this goes back to third grade and you can recall the latest gossip got everybody excited and interested and whoever was telling it was very popular for the moment. And I think there are human beings who I heard someone describe the other day as a professional attention getter who just can't stand not being in the limelight and they also say anything or write anything or produce anything that keeps them in that position.
There's this, there's this sort of celebrity status that comes with being the source of these things all the time, even though fake news, which generally has intentionally misleading information for some third purpose…even though that's clearly not reliable, people do it because it makes them in a sense very popular.
Rooks: Jeanne Bourgault, I want to bring you into the conversation. This is not a US problem. This is an international problem yes?
Jeanne Bourgault: That's absolutely correct and, in fact, misinformation, disinformation mal-information – these terms we've been using for a long time in much of the world. And I would say that the implications and impact for much of the world is dramatically worse than what we're facing the United States.
If you look at a place like Myanmar where deliberate disinformation campaigns have led to the Rohingya crisis and an exodus of a people from a country, and some are people are calling it a genocide. And it is directly rooted in deliberate disinformation campaigns.
Rooks: You remain an optimist though. A lot of us feel overwhelmed, frustrated, just so discouraged by the proliferation of this. Especially those of us who work in legitimate journalism operation outfits. Why are you optimistic that fake news is kind of not going to continue to cause such horrible disruption?
Bourgault: Even though it's really really complicated, there are solutions to it as well that are growing and proliferating around the world and that's what makes me an optimist. My organization…we're not actually a news organization, but we support news organizations all over the world so they can achieve their maximum potential for the communities that they're serving.
And so, we're really trying to build the skills for them to do a better job with it. We see four solutions to the disinformation, fake news problem. One piece…a giant reason it has become such a huge issue is because of the new social media platforms. Obviously, they have just such a giant amplification effect and research has shown that a piece of disinformation can reach 1,500 people six times faster than a piece of accurate information. It is just more popular, as Chet was saying.
So those platforms have an accountability issue that the governments can help hold them accountable, but they themselves can hold themselves accountable. People can hold them accountable. So tech platform accountability. Training in critical thinking at the school level and at many many different levels. Starving the fake news – a lot of it is based on trolls and there's a whole market out there and people aren't doing it just for political reasons, but they're doing it to make money. and they can but we can starve those trolls. And the most important one and the one that I think Chet would totally agree with is invest in real news, invest in real trusted news. That's the most critical element to solve this problem.
Lunner: And when Jeanne talks about the problem showing up in worse results overseas, I'm sure she understands or might have been thinking about the situations in India. She mentioned Myanmar where the fake news doesn't just make people uncomfortable or tilt the political scale. People are killed, they die as a result of the mobs that form around these rapidly spreading rumors. And that's a very serious problem in places where people don't have alternatives. In these developing countries, there are no existing newspapers or other news sources, so whatever shows up on your phone is gospel and people act on it in very violent, very extreme ways.
Rooks: I read this morning that we're going to be seeing, during this next election cycle, videos that don't look doctored, that look real. That that's where technology is now and that it's going to be almost impossible to distinguish what's a real piece of video and what's fake. Chet, have you seen this already?
Lunner: Yeah, I think that's where the term “deep fakes” first came about. It's the video version of fake news…there was one currently in the headlines that shows a scene from a movie where there's a mass shooting of people in a church and it superimposes Donald Trump's head on it. Now this isn't designed…this is to carry that message, not necessarily, you know it's one step short of actually where you'd swear it was Trump doing it. Or in another recent case, former President Obama making a statement that he never made – you'd swear it was real. I mean the technology is just getting scary.
Rooks: Jeanne, what is your advice, yeah go ahead.
Bourgault: I was going to say to prove that again internationally, this is sometimes a lot worse. Already, in the country of Gabon, disputed deep fake video contributed to an attempted coup in that country. So exactly the Obama example – it happened to go on led to an attempted coup.
Rooks: What tools, Jeanne, would you say that those of us having this conversation today, people listening to this conversation, might have in helping them figure out what's real and what's fake?
Bourgault: The issue of investing in critical thinking by the consumers of information is really complicated. There are lots of different pilot projects and different attempts to capture this. A real solid way is certainly education at the school level, weaving these types of critical thinking into your broadest curricula but that's a really long-term approach. And we see that a lot of the problems actually end up coming from people who are newly coming online, which is often elderly populations and things like that.
So, the long-term educational solution has some limited impact. There's a lot of fact-checking going on. Lots of fact-checking organizations out there. Again, it's a little bit unproven about how effective they are and one of the challenges with that is that people…rumors and lies reinforce your own preconceived notions of things. And so even if somebody's saying hey that's not true if you think it's true, it's going to deepen your conviction that it's true.
And so there, I would say, there aren't easy solutions. There's lots of experimentation going on and that's where we're putting our money on is that experimentation with the fact-checking, with the deeply embedding in curricula, and then reaching some of these populations that you're not really thinking about who really really need it, particularly people newly coming online.
Lunner: And I would add to that my little slogan on this topic: it's the answer is in the classroom, not the newsroom. That people as young as possible need to start learning there are civic duties: A) as Americans become and stay aware as knowledgeable citizens. You really have a sort of a civic responsibility to do that that I'm not sure is emphasized much in schools anymore. And then to sharpen our ability to serve the kids, develop media literacy where you can…there are ways to spot it if you're trained to do it.
You and I could certainly as having been in the business long enough. You know you're just suspicious about something. we have to teach people how to do that. There are curriculum offered that are free and online from places like the Newseum in Washington DC or the Poynter Institute or, and if that fails, then there's also a new effort by Steven Brill and some others to operate this thing called News Guard which puts a red, yellow, green rating on anything that they see online that that will validate the trustworthiness of that information. So there are things available off-the-shelf right now.
Rooks: That's true and we need to, of course, reach children, but the reality is that this is all flying around right now instantly and, you know, I think both of you probably know people – I have friends on social media who are intelligent thoughtful people who have shared fake news. Just in the last 24-hour cycle, someone I know shared an article that said Nancy Pelosi had taken money from Social Security to pay for the impeachment inquiry. Another friend of this person debunked it, but his response was it could have been true.
And so, isn't that part of the problem – that there's confirmation bias going on and if something, depending on what your political leanings are or what your life experience is, seems like it could be true, maybe your guard is down a little bit.
Lunner: There is a psychological element to this and the confirmation bias you speak of is certainly in play. And many of these things because they're not provable because, you know, when I was a reporter, the standard for writing something in a story was not only that it was true, but it was provably true. So you can't even…even if you believed it and it looked obvious, you had to get back-up information. That's not happening and we need to go back to those standards.
Bourgault: Yeah, I was going to say – what happens is sometimes deliberate disinformation becomes more casual misinformation because people share it so much. So, they may not be deliberately trying to share a lie, but they just believe it and so they're sharing it and that's where we get that giant amplification effect on social media. And it affects things not just politics, but it affects things like health outcomes. If you think about some of the vaccine debates in the Philippines for example. In 2015 about 95% of the population supported vaccination and in just two years due to just misinformation – people putting out, not deliberately doing this, but just sharing misinformation, it's gone down to 32 percent of kids are getting vaccinated now in the Philippines. And that's another area besides politics where the devastation of this is real and affects lives every day.
Rooks: We're talking about fake news on Maine Calling. We invite you to join the conversation. Our phone number: 1-800-399-3566. You can send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @Mainecalling or post to our Facebook page.
I want to start with this interesting post on Facebook from Dan. Dan writes, “there needs to be legislation against spreading disinformation – penalties both for individuals and corporations.” On its face, Chet, that may seem like a good idea but there's a big problem with legislation isn't there?
Lunner: Yeah. We've traditionally stayed away from those people as much as possible for the separation of…you hear about the separation of church and state…but the separation of newspapers and news media and state is also pretty important.
But there is a way to do it and I was just reading this morning about a settlement that someone has received of close to a half a million dollars for the people who…against the people who had claimed the Sandy Hook kids were actors and there was a fake conspiracy surrounding the Sandy Hook massacre. And so they sued them civically not criminally, but in civil court and I would like to see more of that and I'm surprised there hasn't been more…
Rooks: Sued them for slander?
Lunner: I assume it was libel or slander…or the effect that it had on their lives.
Rooks: And Jeanne, I want to ask you – you know, here in the United States there won't likely be legislation because of the First Amendment. What are we seeing around the world?
Bourgault: It has again another devastating effect around the world amplified all the greater. I totally agree with Chet that government regulation is really problematic because it tends to lead to a rise in censorship. And there's a lot of countries around the world that love any excuse to censor. And so even our conversations about fake news – that term has become an international term and governments all around the world are saying, “hey it's fake news we're shutting it down.” And that's what we're seeing; that's how it's how it's playing out around the world.
So, we are fans of platform accountability: the platform's themselves taking more accountable control over their content; that public pressure as Chet was describing even through the courts. Those are much better paths.
Lunner: And it's no accident in the history of revolutions around the world that the first thing that the new government wants to do is take over the radio stations and shut down the newspaper so they can control that information. The flow of information is critical to us. We sort of take it for granted but you can see it in those examples.
Rooks: Well let's talk about the social, you know, the pressure on social media platforms because just last week Facebook announced a change in advertising policies to exempt politicians and political parties from rules banning misinformation. Because of that, we saw Elizabeth Warren's campaign post a false headline as a challenge saying Facebook ought not be profiting over, you know, from fake news, profiting from lies.
This is something very much up for debate right now. Facebook is clearly, or at least at this point, not feeling the public pressure and saying this is not our job. Chet.
Lunner: Facebook and the other platforms are really struggling with their role. In 1996 there was a there was a law passed – the Communications Act – which granted them immunity from suits. We were just talking about the importance of how powerful a libel lawsuit can be. And that just kept newspaper and TV reporters and radio reporters on their toes for years because you don't, you're responsible for what you publish.
In the case of the Facebooks of the world, the federal law that addresses this was set up so that they had more freedom and flexibility; and you can't sue Facebook for something someone else puts on Facebook. Now as part of this new discussion, like we're having here today, the Congress is looking at how to tweak that and make them more responsible. But the Zuckerbergs of the world do not understand how to be editors in the sense or producers in the sense that we know from traditional media. They're still trying to figure that out, but Congress – I think you'll see them held more accountable.
Rooks: We'll go to John, calling from Portland. Hi John, go ahead. You’re on Maine Calling.
John (caller): Hello. Yes I called basically the mea culpa for yesterday spreading fake news or one of the other terms that your guests would prefer to fake news. But it was it was from traditional media. I saw it first on Twitter and then I found it on the Daily Mail so I thought it must be legitimate. It was the statement that our president called the president of Italy, whose name is Mattarella, that he called him mozzarella. Apparently that isn't true and I repeated it on Twitter. I also called our president a triple nut biscotti and that tweet was retweeted hundreds of times and liked hundreds of times and then I basically came to realize it was most likely false.
Rooks: Well, John I appreciate your candor and your honesty and your mea culpa. It's a funny example and it's not as dangerous as what Jeanne, especially, is describing and I think there are probably lots of people out there who don't have the courage you have to admit that they have done this. But Chet, what John's talking about is just that how quickly things can be magnified.
Lunner: Exactly, and that's what occurred to me when he was speaking. And thank you John for your mea culpa. I wish more people would do that too. Is that the emphasis…one of the big problems with this generally is the emphasis on speed. You know, if I get something on my Twitter, then you want to turn it around and share it as rapidly as possible as far as possible.
In fact, the Pew Research Center has a study that shows unequivocally that misinformation and bad news, which is usually more dramatic than the real news, spreads further and faster than any other sort of information. So this emphasis on speed, which we didn't have in the old days – we had 24 hours to put out another new edition – has really magnified the problem in ways that I don't think people understand.
Rooks: John thanks for your call.
Bourgault: It also highlights… (Rooks: go ahead Jeanne) I was just going to say – it also captures that issue about this current issue with Facebook: that they are uniquely different than traditional media because of exactly that factor. So as they think about allowing false political advertisements to go onto the platform unchecked, they're different than a broadcaster for exactly that reason. And they need to think about it much more critically than a broadcaster.
Rooks: We’ll go to Ellery who's calling from Waterville. Hi Ellery, go ahead.
Ellery (caller): Hello and thank you again for a wonderful wonderful program. A quick story. About 48 years or so ago in a science magazine they put a composite photo on the cover of the magazine and on the cover they profusely apologized for doing so – a composite of a plane and the sky together because plane hadn't flown yet. They didn't have images so they put a fake one on. So anyway, my question is: the fakes have been going on for a long time, practically since the invention of photography, double exposures and whatnot. When did this become…I mean the internet may be enhancing it…but it's been going on for a long time. When did this start becoming acceptable?
Rooks: Chet? I think what Ellery is talking about is the changing images, you know. I remember there was a famous case in National Geographic moving a pyramid to fit into the frame. But there's a big difference here.
Lunner: There is and it wasn't acceptable back in the Dark Ages when I was running a thing called newspapers. I remember people getting into trouble for just flipping the negative, so that the face – you always wanted the face of your subject to look into the print, toward the inside of the newspaper for design reasons – and so sometimes editors would be tempted to flip, you know, a picture of Prince Charles looking at the soccer game so that he fit the page better without altering it in other in any other way whatsoever. Even that was a no-no back in the day. As to when it started getting looser, I don't know.
Rooks: We’ll go to Sophie calling from New Hampshire. Hi Sophie, go ahead.
Sophie (caller): Hi. I'm a student at the University of New Hampshire. I'm studying communication. And I've been talking about this issue in one of my classes. One of the recommendations that my teacher gave me was that we would, that people take individual responsibility and work as mediators and I think maybe a social change in people correcting other people.
Because right now, especially with family members, it's such a hard issue and it's a very much of an issue where it's hard to address without it being acceptable to mediate or call people out for being wrong.
Rooks: Sophie, I'm so glad you called and I'm wondering if Jeanne or Chet, you have questions for Sophie as a young person studying this, as a young person who's grown up surrounded by social media.
Lunner: What are you going to do with your degree?
Sophie (caller): Oh, I'm really thinking about just going in and helping people and facilitating and mediating sort of public discussions. I think definitely advocating for groups, especially in the mental health field, trying to advocate for them and sort of change the narrative of sort of neurodiversity and stuff like that.
Lunner: Well, good for you and I think that you'll find that what you learn in the communications curriculum is going to be helpful no matter what you do. I have had a series of an unusual collection of jobs and many careers and the common denominator for success was always being able to communicate well.
Bourgault: I think that Sophie brings up a really interesting point there too. Because I think there's again a lot of experimentation that we can do in different ways of confronting this problem. We've seen some really fun projects around the world. There are some contests that communities can host that encourage people to try to identify fake or paid news content. And it does two things: one is people get really engaged in the process and they're really interested and are looking around for it so they can win this contest; and second it unearths a lot of stories for the journalists and traditional media to cover because they do uncover all sorts of crazy fabrications out there that show up on online or in traditional media.
So, fun contests, different ways of convening people to have conversations about it. All of these things really make a difference. I think in that individual agency and your individual ability to navigate this new information environment that we're all living.
Rooks: Sophie, good luck to you and thanks so much for calling in. Jeanne, what do we know about how the proliferation of fake news has affected confidence in traditional journalism, traditional institutions. There have been studies about this, haven’t there?
Bourgault: That's exactly right. The global PR firm, Adelman conducts an annual survey of trust around the world and for the last four or five years they've seen a dramatic decline in trust for public institutions broadly and the media very very specifically. Up until actually this past year and so we're starting to see glimmers of hope.
Because I do think we can only live under this environment so much and so as trust is eroding, slowly people are starting to look for trusted voices again. And not surprising, they turn to scientist, authoritative voices, researchers and the media. And so we're seeing a slow curve back towards trust, particularly for those types of institutions that have long had some trust. The decline continues on social media platforms – there’s just a slight turn in the curve when it comes to trust trusting traditional media and authoritative voices.
Rooks: A slight trust in the curve but fewer of those voices to turn to, right Chet?
Lunner: There is and what bothers me is that in my in my public speaking presentation that I do around the state, one of the slides goes to the most recent Reader's Digest poll of trusted people in our culture. And you know back in the day, remember Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America etc. and their presidents were very well received in that light. These days the most recent poll they have – the most trusted person is the actor Tom…help me out here…(Rooks: Hanks?) exactly thank you. Tom Hanks is the most trusted man in America and none of the top ten people are either government officials or journalists.
Rooks: Well, we are talking about the impact of fake news. Before we go back to the callers, I want to talk about something that just happened in the news. There was the video you mentioned, Chet, that seemed to show President Trump slaughtering journalists. you know very disturbing. Some people are calling that video, and including the National Press Photographers Association, hate speech and saying that it incites violence. The creators, I understand, are saying it was satire. And I know that this is a debate that's been going on for a very long time. Where do you come down?
Lunner: It's very difficult. I mean anytime you start to try to define what this is, what news is, what satire is, what commentary, is what fair use is. All of those things are really gray areas. And I think it comes down to more of a cultural…there's something hardening about our culture with this free-for-all that was not a part of traditional news publishing. We would have never thought, even if we'd become the you know sole owners of that thing, we would have never published it in the days of traditional mainstream journalism. It just wouldn't happen. I think you've got to go in wanting not to do things like that as opposed to going into the office wanting to do things like that. And that cultural, that's a cultural shift not something you can deal with legally by defining it more clearly. It's like, you know, it's art. You know it when you see it.
Bourgault: I’m just going to jump in and say it does underscore a terrible sort of, in addition to this rise of misinformation and disinformation, fake news, propaganda, and another giant challenge out there for the news media is the safety and security of journalists around the world. For the last decade, murders of journalists for just doing their work has been on the increase. Journalist going to jail with complete impunity is on the increase for the last decade and, in fact, last year the United States joined the top ten list of one of the most dangerous places when it comes to journalists being murdered because of the murder in the newsrooms in Annapolis last year. So, there are direct real-world impacts for that type of showing violence against journalists. It is happening really in the world everywhere around the world.
Lunner: Another dangerous element of this is the anonymity that social media has. When I was first starting out as a reporter, one of the best lessons I had was I covered the City Council on Thursday night and then Friday morning I'd be at a coffee table in the town in the village cafe with the same people that I had covered the night before. So you learned pretty quickly the impact that words, even accidently, can have on another person and you're accountable for it face to face.
With social media nobody knows nobody.
Rooks: We’ll go to Randy who's calling from Powell. Hi Randy, go ahead.
Randy (caller): Hey Jennifer – great show. I'm from Carroll Plantation though. (Rooks: Oh wow.) We don't we don't want to upset all 83 of us.
Rooks: So, Randy. Carroll Plantation – tell us where you are on the main map.
Randy (caller): Sure. You go up 95 till you get to the Lincoln exit and then you head east on Route 6 and about halfway to the Canadian border, no, a third of the way, you'll come to a little town called Springfield. Turn left, go past the fairgrounds – be on your right – that dirt road right at the end of the fairgrounds, you go down there about three miles and then I'll put the coffee on.
Rooks: Well thank you and I bet you're a little past peak leaf season now. But what's your thought about fake news?
Randy (caller): Sure. The thing is you're on your Facebook and you see a meme. Usually it's about some very, you know, topical polarizing issue – gun control, abortion, or left versus right and something just doesn't look right. You know, your fake news radar goes off. I go to Snopes. I go to factcheck.org to check it out, come back and I tell my Facebook friend in a reply: Geez, you know it's not right, send the link and, you know, good on you.
Some of them don't care. You know they just, they're gonna do the work of the Russian BOTS anyway and they will reply like “oh yeah, wow, look at that.” They just leave it out there and there doesn't seem to be any third-party mechanism if the meme or the post doesn't violate Facebook standards, you can't report it as this fake news thing to a third party so that they could correct it or what have you. So it's very frustrating because I take pride in not spewing any BS.
Rooks: Yeah, Randy, I think that you bring up a couple really interesting points. And the first I'll throw to you Jeanne which is – Randy brings up a point that there are people out there who don't care if something is fake news or not.
Bourgault: Well, there's a couple of …there’s two ways I would say to address that. One, again getting back to the platforms themselves – the Facebooks and Googles of the world – and their own obligations. If they want to be corporate good citizens, they can do a better job of burying these stories and they should. They have the technology; they have the capability. So that's one piece of it.
The other piece is the market itself – that we can starve the fake news market if advertisers and brands and the big investors say we're done. We don't want…right now, digital advertising dollars are programmatically automatically through algorithms put out there in the social media landscape. They have the ability to control that. They can say, no, we want our ad dollars to be directed at verifiable trusted news sites, real news sites. And so there's a way we can start starving this fake news as well and I think we need to do both of those things.
Rooks: Yeah and Chet, that's the second part of what Randy was saying – that when he finds out something's false, he wants there to be a third party he can report to it and it's a third party who might be able to actually do something about it.
Lunner: Yeah and they are trying that in Silicon Valley. Facebook has a whole set of fact checkers – Jeanne mentioned those earlier – and then there's a new level that they're putting together called the oversight board that will be there to even look at appeals of the fact checkers. Should we post this or not? And so that, which will not be connected directly to Facebook in theory. So there is an attempt now underway at some of these places which, again remember, have never been required to do this so it's all new to them, to put in some sort of oversight board that could do what the caller was looking for.
Rooks: Randy, thank you so much for your call and I think it's our first call from Carroll Plantation. Very fun. Thank you. We're going to go to Lawton in Penobscot. Hi Lawton, go ahead.
Lawton (caller): Hi, we’re without power here so I’m calling you on my rotary phone.
Rooks: Oh, excellent. I have one too. Well, I'm glad you're listening on your battery operated radio or is it a hand crank?
Lawton (caller): I got a dial phone and a battery operated radio. I guess my question is: do your guests feel like we're getting close to a point of no return where it'll be really difficult to decipher the real news from fake news. You know in the presidential question here supposing Trump is impeached and there is evidence, there are a lot of people almost religiously that will believe…won't believe it. They will say it's fake news, it's the deep state, it's the liberal news media. How do we combat that?
Lunner: I don't know that there's – I left my crystal ball at home today – but hopefully it's nearer than farther that people will start to understand that it's more than money involved here. There's a commercial side to publishing news and the Facebooks of the world, which are sinking in money, and then there's the public service side of journalism and news. And I think that, as Jeanne mentioned, the market control – the market will eventually just, you know, just force them to be more responsible.
But Americans particularly, but probably most people in the world, require timely relevant solid information upon which to base their decisions every day. And if you go without it, it's kind of like this power outage we're going through now, you know. I automatically reach for a light switch that's not there anymore. So, we don't notice it but it's a really important part of our life to have solid, reliable, trustworthy information. And somehow I think that we the people will find a way to force that.
Bourgault: I couldn't agree more and that's exactly what we try to do all over the world. Because we believe everyone everywhere deserves that information that helps them make good choices for their families and participate in their communities and hold their governments to account. We're going to get there because we need it, we want it, and it's so important to our lives.
Rooks: Lawton, thank you so much for your call. Janet on Facebook writes: “I started posting ‘When you hit forward or share you assume responsibility for the veracity of what you post. Fact check since I am sure you would not want to spread lies.’ I started this in 2008 and lost friends because of it.”
Alright. So we’ll go to Steve calling from Auburn. Hi Steve, go ahead.
Steve (caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I wonder if you could speak briefly about the repeal or the or the lifting of the Propaganda Act in 2013 and how that may have played into some of the fake news and people being responsible for the fake news that they are spreading. If you could just give us a little enlightenment on that it would be great.
Rooks: Chet is shaking his head. Jeanne, I can't see you either. (Jeanne: can’t answer that) Yeah, so sorry about that Steve. We have an email from Tim. “It seems to be a constitutional nightmare to regulate free speech on those platforms, but could prohibition of official campaign advertising on social media at least help mitigate the disturbance of fake news and elections. Also that would help lawmakers have an avenue to police campaigns and their ability to pay for the spread of disinformation.
So Tim's idea – just say you can't advertise, if you're a political campaign, on social media. Chet you're shaking your head.
Lunner: No, that's not going to work I'm afraid. It's so deeply built into the system that…I mean people have been lying about other candidates since George Washington's days. And it's the ability to have as free and open and expressive exchange as possible, I think, is critical to our democracy. And, you know, you see it in these debates that the presidential candidates are having and the profiles in the local newspaper recently about upcoming City Council elections. That's the kind of information that you just have to look at each candidate’s approach and what they say and how they say it. And some of this is our responsibility in that critical thinking aspect we talked about earlier there – to know what smells right and what doesn't.
Rooks: An email from Greg: “I was talking with my 30 year old son about how difficult it is to find real news. His comment to me was ‘Papa, news is over.’” Jeanne I suspect you beg to disagree.
Bourgault: Yeah, I do disagree. I think it's interesting. I think when we think about how to rebuild trust in the media, I think getting to as local a news as possible, getting back to what Chet was saying about being held accountable as a journalist. Even thinking about you, Jennifer, people know who you are. MPV, Maine Public is providing a service that we all know where to go if we disagree with something that you might be saying. And so, as we slowly rebuild the trust in news, I think working and focusing at the local news level first, which is unfortunately the one that's being hit the hardest when it comes to the market forces against news, but I think reinvesting in local news, really committing to making sure that we have the news that is most relevant to our lives available, will slowly build rebuild that trust around the world. News will never die.
Lunner: And I must confess, speaking on behalf of no one, that my newspaper colleagues were not the quickest, most innovative people in the world when this threat started to arise. And I think the young man who was quoted is probably right for his generation that the newspapers and the traditional sources have not have not remained relevant to them and we need to look at how to do that better.
Rooks: I want to return for these last few minutes to talking about the election. Bonnie on Facebook writes: “Don't count on social media. Do your homework on the candidates.” People lead busy lives. How much homework are they expected to do and how much might this affect the election? Jeanne.
Bourgault: Well, I agree that people do need to do their homework and they'll do as much as they're able to do and commit to do. The debates are a fantastic format. Most election offices publish, you know, fantastic non-biased information. It's hard to answer that question but I do think it depends on the individual. But we have an individual responsibility if we're going out to vote.
Lunner: And I would add that you should do your homework about where you're getting your homework. Just to make sure that a (Jeanne: great point) that your sources are giving both sides of the issue.
Rooks: Isn't part of the issue though, Chet, that some of the, you know, people know NPR, people know the New York Times, people know the Portland Press Herald. But there are news outlets that are legitimate that didn't used to exist. For example, BuzzFeed. That's a silly name. It does not sound like a legitimate news organization, but it is.
Lunner: Look, I'm a grizzled old ink-stained newspaper guy but if newspapers stopped killing trees, it wouldn't be the worst thing that ever happened in American history. I don't care what the platform is. You need to abide by these traditional values not necessarily the traditional delivery systems.
Rooks: Okay, well such an interesting conversation. I can't believe it's over. The voice you just heard – Chet Lunner, former Maine newspaper editor. He served in various positions with the federal government including with Homeland Security. And Jeanne Bourgault, who is president of the nonprofit news organization Internews. One of our callers mentioned Snopes. Off the top of your head, do either one of you want to throw another fact-checking website out there that our audience might like to hear.
Lunner: PolitiFact is good. NewsGuard is good.
Rooks: Okay, Lucy Suchek ran the board today. Maine Calling is produced by Jonathan Smith and Cindy Hahn. I'm Jennifer Rooks. You've been listening to Maine Calling on Maine Public Radio.
(Banner photo: Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/140988606@N08/)