Fake news or false news?

The prevalence of “fake news” on the internet has been a hot topic recently. We often take for granted what we read in newspapers or hear on radio or TV. Is it really any better?

Fake news or false news?

Ken Piper, June 7, 2017

The prevalence of “fake news” on the internet has been a hot topic recently. We have learned to be wary of so-called news that we read on the internet, as we are with sensationalist tabloid stories. However, we often take for granted what we read in newspapers or magazines, or hear on the radio or television. Is it really any better? “If it’s on TV, it must be true!”

Over the years, I have noticed that the news I read in newspapers or news magazines is full of factual errors. Nearly every article that is about something I know, is wrong in some way. Radio and television news is the same, not just minor details, but major omissions and factual errors. In some cases, it is apparently because the writer and the editor are not subject matter experts. I notice this in scientific or technical articles in subject areas with which I am familiar. In other cases, it is factual errors about an event that has happened, or about a person I know. This may be because of misinformation the writer received and didn’t verify, false assumptions about the who and what of an event, or just plain sloppy reporting. The editors often make this worse by giving the article a title that contradicts the information in the article itself.

Let me emphasize, this is almost every news report that is about something that I know absolutely! So, what does this mean about everything else in the news – the articles on something I don’t already know about? Without having done a public survey of news accuracy, I can only assume that all news is chock-full of falsehoods – why would it be limited to my areas of expertise?

Is this fake news or false news? If it is intentionally wrong, with the purpose of misleading the reader, as is the case in many internet articles or tabloids sold at the grocery store checkout counter, then it is obviously fake news. If it is honest mistakes, even from sloppy reporting, it is false news. What if it is dissemination of information by someone who is seen as an expert, or claims to be an expert, but is not?

Bill Nye the “Science Guy” comes to mind. He seems to know a lot about science (could be his writers), but he is not really a scientist and besides, can’t be an expert in all the areas of science he talks about. He was a mechanical engineer, and Wikipedia (correctly, in my view) labels him a “science communicator.” So, when he says something that is either factually wrong, or presents something as a certainty that is still under debate, is that fake news or false news?

The president regularly tweets about “fake news.” In some cases it may be fake news; more commonly it is probably false news, or just something he doesn’t agree with. When a political party pays people to agitate at an adversary’s campaign rally, is that fake news? The event really happened, but the real news is that it was a fake protest.

Can we even trust peer-reviewed scientific journals? As scientists have become advocates for their personal beliefs, it is becoming obvious that the reviewers and editors are often becoming censors of things they don’t agree with or that don’t fit their social agenda. Because of this, some researchers are advocating self-publishing on the internet as a way around the problem. But without the prestige of a known journal, it is hard to get anyone to even find your work on the internet, let alone bother to read it.

So, how can we know the truth about anything? We can’t trust the news, and maybe not even the scientific literature, so should we just not read or listen to it? Many people only watch news channels that fit their political point of view. So, they are missing out on opposing viewpoints. Maybe it doesn’t matter. If they can’t get really true news, false news is the best they can get and they don’t trust the other stations anyway. After all, they are just “fake news.”

I Want To See You Be Brave

My favorite music video is “Brave,” by Sara Bareilles. It was written as an encouragement to a friend. But it can apply to anyone who is afraid to speak out.

“Say, what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.” Recently I heard on the radio the song “Brave,” by Sara Bareilles (written along with Jack Antonoff).  I first heard it a couple of years ago and it is probably my favorite music video – the one where people are dancing at various public locations around Los Angeles.  She was inspired to write the song as an encouragement to a friend to speak out, and not be afraid. But, it can apply to anyone who is afraid to speak out.

Hearing “Brave” made me think about people who are afraid to speak out because they fear reprisal. On college campuses students and professors are being targeted if they are not politically correct, which often equates to not being sufficiently liberal politically. (Who knew that liberal arts would mean you must be liberal?) Now teachers and students are targets if they say anything that might in any way be construed as a criticism of or possibly offensive to anyone else. I call it “intolerance for tolerance’s sake.”

In climate science those who disagree with the notion that most of climate change is man-made are ostracized, have difficulty getting funding for research, and their research may be denied publication. Government employees are afraid of reprisals if they speak out or reveal unlawful or unethical conduct by senior management. This is still the case, despite assurances by high officials and even President Obama that they would be free of reprisals for whistle-blowing.

When I worked at the Department of the Interior I would speak up if I thought something could be done better, but also if I thought something was not right. That included how employees were left out of decisions and opportunities. It also included questioning decisions made by senior management and political appointees. I was able to do this without reprisal. Perhaps I was respected because I was careful to speak against policies or practices and not make personal attacks. Was I being brave or foolish?

Others would come to me and ask me to express their concern or complaint. If I shared the concern I might do so, but if it was not a concern of mine I would tell them they must to do it themselves. Most were reluctant to speak out; they were afraid of reprisals. Were they justly afraid?

I read in an article in FedSmith (fedsmith.com, a private-sector newsletter for government employees) that whistle-blowers were often subject to reprisal, and when they took their complaints to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) they almost always lost. It is apparently extremely difficult to prove that adverse personnel actions are a reprisal for speaking out about illegal or unethical behavior, even if that behavior was proven to be true and the alleged reprisal immediately followed. So the FLRA is reluctant to act to protect whistle-blowers.

From what I know the fear of reprisals is justified. The fear of professors on college campuses is justified. Will that change with a new administration? Possibly, for government employees, but I doubt it. For the fear on campuses it will require a change in the public dialogue about what is okay to say in public. It really comes down to our First Amendment right to free speech. We all need to be brave enough to say what we want to say, and confident enough in ourselves to withstand what others may say. I want to see you be brave.

Featured image from http://www.directlyrics.com/sara-bareilles-brave-news.html. You can also see the video at this site, or search for “Sara Bareilles Brave.”