Hurrah for the Fact Checkers

What? Some of us have been surprised to learn about the thriving industry of manufactured, fraudulent information promulgated on the internet simply for profit. Fake news. Suddenly, the term is applied to any story someone doesn’t like, but we know the difference, or we think we do.

An article published at explains how the really “fake news” sites operate. For a few hundred bucks the author can pay an army of “bots,” Twitter accounts, pretending to be real people, to retweet and share the fake news story. At some point, real people pick it up and spread it. It works best if the story “pushes the buttons” of some group and the tale is salacious. Voila! The fake news impresarios can make $10,000 per week on a popular story, paid by advertisers for the clicks they generate.

In line at the grocery store my friends and I used to laugh at absurd headlines on the National Enquirer. A favorite was something like “1,000 Pounds of Tap Dancing Fury!” with a picture and a story of a feud between two obese tap dancing competitors. Like professional wrestling, we considered it harmless foolishness.

Now, after a gunman shot up a pizza joint, radio hosts and internet broadcasters had to apologize for promoting the fraudulent “pizzagate” story that Hillary Clinton used the restaurant as the site for a child sex ring. It wasn’t a harmless lie. The owner received many death threats.

These days we’re used to it. The jaded point out that politics and advertising have long been aware of the powerful tools of propaganda. The examples have been with us long before Hitler discussed the subject in his manifesto, Mein Kampf. There, he pointed out that, if one is to lie, it’s better to go for the Big Lie, not minor misstatements, because the Big Lie, if repeated over and over will be believed.

The American History Association website has published a U.S. government pamphlet written in 1944 explaining the meaning and use of “propaganda.” This publication defined the term “propaganda” by stating that it has to do with any ideas or beliefs that are intentionally propagated. It uses words and word substitutes in trying to reach a goal – pictures, drawings, graphs, exhibits, parades, songs and other devices.  The term originated with a committee of cardinals established in 1622 to supervise foreign missionaries, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.

“Nothing new,” the crafty old pundits would say in response to current day lies. “Fake news” promulgated by the Russians is just “dis-information” and everybody does it. The Spaniards sent out leaflets and posters in advance of the attack by their armada, saying that the British people welcomed the arrival of their liberators. Untrue.

Why is it that so many people who would recognize the Big Lie if they heard a local newscaster say it, will gleefully retweet or “share” an outrageous tale on Facebook and Twitter? Maybe we harbor the illusion that we really are among friends. If someone posted it on my timeline, then it’s the honest opinion of one of my buddies who has no reason to lie about it.

In a previous post, I quoted an article that pointed out that the majority of the people who shared articles online had never even read the piece to the end. Therefore, the sharing wasn’t their well considered “honest opinion” but something more like an impulse, perhaps piling on to the burgeoning movement of the viral Big Lie.

In Texas we say, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. I like the fact checkers: Politifact (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Fact Check and Snopes. They may not get it exactly right, but at least they’re not actively selling snake oil for profit.