Ten states have reported cases in 2019 alone.
Fake news stories circulating on social media about a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., have led to a disturbing chain of events. The stories claimed the restaurant – Comet Ping Pong – operated a child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. On Sunday a man from North Carolina who read about the rumors fired an assault-style rifle inside the restaurant. No one was injured. But the incident highlights the sometimes serious consequences of sharing false information on social media. A member of Donald Trump’s transition team resigned after it was learned he too was spreading conspiracy theories about the restaurant. Diane and her guests discuss the rise in fake news and what can be done about it.
- Marc Fisher Senior editor, Washington Post
- Cecilia Kang Technology reporter, The New York Times
- Laura Sydell Digital culture correspondent, NPR
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A gunman was arrested and the son of Donald Trump's choice for national security advisor has resigned, all because of fake news stories about a pizza restaurant here in Washington. Fake news stories were prominent throughout the presidential election season and there's growing concern that many people cannot tell lies from fact or they don't care about the difference.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me here in the studio to talk about fake news and how to combat it, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post and Cecilia Kang of the New York Times. Joining us from a studio at KQED in San Francisco, Laura Sydell of NPR. I'm sure many of you have seen examples of fake news and will want to comment on our show this morning. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
MS. DIANE REHMMarc, Cecilia, Laura, thanks for joining us.
MR. MARC FISHERThank you, Diane.
MS. LAURA SYDELLYou're welcome.
MS. CECILIA KANGThanks for having us.
REHMMarc, talk about the targeting of Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant. Shocking.
FISHERWell, Comet is a lovely pizza place. It's been open for about a decade. It's in a residential section of Washington D.C. and things were moving along quite swimmingly when, all of a sudden, just a few days before the election, there appeared online a series of tweets and comments on various social media sites that somehow linked this pizza place with a series of wild rumors about Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta and a child sex ring that they were purportedly operating from secret tunnels and back rooms behind and underneath this pizza place.
FISHERCompletely wild on the surface and yet, there were mentions in the Wikileaks emails of John Podesta that were released shortly before the election of the fact that John Podesta occasionally ate pizza at this restaurant. That's about as far as we go as far as facts are concerned. He did like pizza. He did go to this restaurant. Everything else is based on weird kinds of illusions that people found in the signs in front Comet and along the block that it's located on, signs that people said were symbols for pedophilia.
FISHERAnd the rumors spread like wildfire over the following weeks and the stores, the pizza place in particular, started getting death threats and phone calls and people were dropping by to look and see if they could find the secret tunnels. And everyone thought, well, this will all go away after the election. But in fact, it got much worse after the election, especially two weeks later when a man showed up on a Sunday to -- filming, doing a live broadcast, Periscope Live, while he was ordering his food and getting his pizza.
FISHERAnd that man had to be told to leave the premises because he had taken his camera into a backroom where there was a child's birthday party going on.
REHMOh, my goodness.
FISHERAnd so that only exacerbated the rumors online because people said, a-ha, they're hiding something. They made this guy leave. So it is a case of hysteria. It is a case of fake news, whatever you want to call it. What it's done to the people who own and work in and are customers of that pizza place and other stores on the same block is really devastating.
REHMAnd then, Cecilia, 28-year-old man Edgar Walsh shows up with a rifle, an assault-style rifle, inside the restaurant.
KANGThis last Sunday, Edgar Walsh, came from North Carolina, about a six-hour drive he made, to check out if what he was reading online was true. He really only had the Internet for about a month. He had been -- he had heard, once he got on the Internet, different conspiracies related to this pizza-gate theory. It's now called pizza-gate, this idea. And he's listened so sources like Alex Jones, Infowars. This is a site that's well known for -- and an individual who's well known for spreading conspiracy theories -- that really pushed the idea that there was a criminal pedophilia ring running out of this pizza place and it was directly linked to the top members of the Democratic party.
KANGSo he came. He's a father of two, 28 years old. He came what appeared to be in a real mission to save the kids. He said to police that he wanted to rescue child slaves that he had heard about. When he got there, one of my colleagues had an interview with yesterday, excuse me, and he spent about 45 minutes, Edgar Walsh, in the pizza place. He fired, actually, his weapons. He fired one at a door that was locked. He wanted to see if there were children inside it. Found only a computer tower that he actually shot in the process.
KANGAnd he found no children. And he said, after he left, to police, that he surrendered when he found no evidence of this child pedophilia sex ring that was running out of this pizza place just about a few blocks from here, Diane. And he, in his jailhouse interview yesterday, said that I regret my decisions. The information was not 100 percent, is what he said, but that he still refutes he does not -- he will not say that he believes that this theory is actually false.
KANGCompletely false. He still won't say that.
REHMIt is a miracle that no one was shot or killed or hurt in this whole unbelievable procession of events.
KANGAnd I think that's why it's so chilling. Conspiracy theories, threats online, that is not new. It's been around for years. We've seen it -- we've seen rancor and a lot of nasty and threatening language directed at individuals for a long time, but rarely does that spill over into real life. And it's a real struggle because, actually, law enforcement doesn't know what to do when that exists online. And they don't know how to handle it because it hasn't reached the real world yet.
KANGBut this was an example of that happening. And as we all know, those who have been to Comet before, it's a busy place with tons of kids there all the time. So it's families and -- because it's a very family-friendly place with ping pong tables in the back, very casual eatery. So that's why I agree, it was very -- there's a lot of risks that occurred on Sunday.
REHMAnd to you, Laura Sydell, how did General Michael Flynn's son get caught up in all of this?
SYDELLWell, I can't exactly say how he got caught up in it, but he obviously believe it and he was regularly tweeting it. And the, you know, I believe it was General Flynn himself who said there was still suspicions there until they proved otherwise. It starts to feel, at least to me, a little bit like the Salem witch trials, which is we'll throw you in the water, you may die, but if you, you know, if you don't float, you're not a witch. And General Flynn's son was also part of the transition team for Donald Trump.
SYDELLAnd Donald Trump, who actually has been a supporter of Alex Jones and Infowars or rather Alex Jones has been a supporter of his, he's been involved in spreading a lot of these conspiracy theories, did, in fact, get rid of General Flynn's son in this case because he continued to tweet this out over and over.
REHMNow, the question remains about General Flynn himself. What is your thinking as you hear about all this, Marc Fisher, and the fact that Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump's pick to be national security advisor, has been advancing these kinds of fake news stories?
FISHERWell, obviously, it's very disturbing when anyone in a position of authority, particularly, you know, in such a sensitive area, is susceptible to these kinds of false reports. Now, what we're seeing is that this is not something that is simply a matter of a handful of lunatics believing something that's completely incredible. Rather, what we're seeing is that people across the country, some of them very clear-eyed, some of them very intelligent people, you know, I did a story where I went back, tried to find kind of the Patient Zero, who started this whole thing?
FISHERSo I went back through the whole chain of people who had spread this rumor. And talking to them, a lot of them were quite intelligent, a lot of them were educated, a lot of them understand the difference between credible news and not credible news and...
REHMSo are they doing it purposely?
FISHERYou know, it falls into a couple of buckets. There are some people who have evil intent. There are some people who are, perhaps, propagandists for one cause or another.
REHMAnd some people, the likes of which Laura Sydell found, who simply want to make money.
FISHERYes, there's a profit motive for some people, but there's also -- there's an innocent group of people out there who, I think, are really at the core of why this has become so widespread. And the issue here, I really believe, is the loss of trust in this society in recent years. And this stems, in large part, from technological change. So there have -- fake news has two main ingredients. Number one is good old fashioned rumor-mongering. Rumor and gossip have been around, I mean, the Bible admonishes us against it.
FISHERIt's been around forever. That is a constant. What's changed and what's made this so much more dangerous is the technology and the technology has given not only the ability to disseminate false stories, but it's also kind of encouraged people to do so because the authorities we used to depend on, the news media, the government, are no longer trusted in the same way.
REHMMarc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post. When we come back, we'll talk about more of these fake news stories, where they begin and what we, as part of the news media, and what you, as part of the public, can do.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here with me, Cecilia Kang, technology reporter for The New York Times, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, and from KQED in San Francisco, Laura Sydell, digital culture correspondent for NPR. Laura Sydell, in your reporting, what have you learned about who is manufacturing fake news?
SYDELLWell, in my particular case, I took one story, one fake news story. It was not this particular story. But the story I picked had to do with an FBI agent who was supposedly killed when his house went on fire and he shot his wife and himself. And he had allegedly been involved in some way in an investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. And the thing is, this story spread like over half a million times on Facebook. It was completely false. And so I wanted to find out where this story had originated.
SYDELLAnd for those who are into where, you know, on the -- I want to say, on the right end of the spectrum, there's a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton kill off their enemies. And so the allusion in this story was that somehow Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of this FBI agent. So using -- getting some help from a friend who is very good at finding things on the internet, ultimately we were able to trace this story back to a gentleman named Justin Koehler who lives in Southern California, outside of Los Angeles in a suburb. He's got a wife, two kids. And he has a little empire of fake news sites.
SYDELLAnd his reason for getting into it is actually -- was a bit of a surprise. He is not somebody who is a big, right-wing person. In fact, he voted for Hillary Clinton. And he said he started doing fake news back in 2013 because he was actually trying to make a point about what he saw as the alt-right echo chamber. Sites like Breitbart, where he called it -- he literally told me he called it this red meat. They kind of half believe these things or they believe that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton are involved in killing lots of people. And so if you just make up a story and put it out there, they will take it and spread it around.
SYDELLAnd so he would appear occasionally, under a completely different name, calling out fake news. And this is, he said, sort of justified what he was doing. We found him -- he had never come forward by his real name, and we found him using a lot of methods on the internet, tracing back all these web sites and discovered they came from one person. And eventually I went and knocked on his door. He did not willingly come forward as the person that he is. Now he's speaking to people, after all these years. But what's troubling and that I pointed out to him, is that he was making a lot of money off of this too.
SYDELLSo whether he -- this was some kind of joke in the beginning, which to some degree I think it was for him, or not, he was making what he said to me between somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 a month off of spreading fake news. And he employed people. Well, or not directly, but he had people working for him who would post on his sites. And they made money. And they would talk to each other and make fun of what it was they were doing. There's something -- and I want to say that, you know, this is one instance.
SYDELLThere's also -- some other reporting has traced this back to Macedonia, where there are a bunch of kids making up fake news. And, again, it gets back to the money incentive. And in all of this, I don't think we can forget that. Facebook, Google, all of these companies are making money off of fake news because they make money when they get eyeballs. So not only was Justin Koehler making money, but Facebook is making money.
SYDELLGoogle is making money.
SYDELLBecause of the ads that are placed here.
KANGLaura's story really points to the cottage industry that's emerged around fake news. It's the sites that make money from advertising on Google and Facebook. It's the sites that also create Twitterbots that spread that news.
REHMExplain what a bot is.
KANGA bot is a robot. And a bot, in this case, is a piece of software that automatically lets you do things that you would do on a computer by this software and not by hand. So what that allows you to do is, say you sign up and create a hundred Twitter accounts -- which you can do, actually quite easily, anybody can as long as you have an email address. You can create a piece of software that tells that -- all those accounts, re-tweet whenever you see the hashtag Make America Great Again or I'm With Her and the code word Pizzagate. You know re-tweet those, re-tweet those.
KANGAnd so they're -- that's something that you can do. Twitter has what's known as APIs. It's the software that -- it opens up its network so that you -- it's platform so that you can create software on top of it to do that. Bots are a really interesting problem, in that these sites are built on algorithms that try to give to you as a reader -- they try to be friendly to you by surfacing what's most popular. So what you can do with bots is you can game the system.
KANGYou can manipulate the system so that the algorithms respond to hundreds and hundreds of re-tweets of Pizzagate over and over again. And so what it does is that it gives individuals a really exaggerated sense of power on these platforms.
FISHERAnd so what we saw with Pizzagate is that these bots had been programmed to take the Pizzagate hashtag or any reference to it and spread it out so that you've -- profit incentive comes into play because the more traffic related to that, the more that topic becomes trending news on Facebook and Twitter, the more money those companies make.
REHMAll right. Now both Facebook and Google have announced plans to block websites known for publishing these false news stories, from using online advertising networks. That is from this morning's New York Times, in regard to a threat that was posed against the parent of a child murdered at Newtown. Cecilia, talk about this.
KANGYeah, this was a very disturbing story. A parent of one of, as you said, a victim of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., was getting harassed and threatened online by a woman in Tampa, Fla., by the name of Lucy Richards, a 70 -- 57 year old. She believe in -- she purportedly believed in a story, a conspiracy theory that spread by fake news as well as just conspiracy online, that Sandy Hook was a hoax, that it never happened. So she sent messages -- four messages in January to the parent of one of these victims, these child victims. You're going to die. Death is coming to you real soon. This is according to the -- in the indictment.
KANGThe -- what the -- she is now being charged with four counts of transmitting threats in interstate commerce. That's really remarkable, that there is now...
KANGAnd serious, a legal...
REHMAnd very serious.
KANGIt could be a precedent. You know, it could be precedent setting. It's -- this is an example, same situation. It's not pizza. It's not here in D.C. It's another example of an episode that's been deemed to be a hoax. Or at least in this case, people thought a real event was a hoax. And she went on her own and she threatened these parents.
REHMSo, Marc Fisher, why do you think there was a proliferation of fake news leading up to the presidential election?
FISHERWell, you know, I think this is all part of a larger phenomenon in which people are searching for authorities that they can trust. They don't trust the government. We saw that in the results of the election. They don't trust the news media. We've seen that in the proliferation of these alternative media sources. And we've seen this before in our history. In the immediate aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination, when the official story of the assassination was deeply questioned by people across the country and all kinds of conspiracy theories came into play. We saw a lot of this same kind of hysteria.
FISHERIn 1969, the country was swept, long before there was any internet, by the rumor that Paul McCartney, the Beatle, was dead. And millions of people believed this, despite all kinds of efforts to show them that he was very much alive. People showed up at his estate in Scotland, searching for the evidence that he was dead, just like Pizzagate here in Washington. And this is without the benefit of the internet. That kind of hysteria spreads when trust is diminished. And trust is diminished because of things that government does, because of things like the John F. Kennedy assassination.
FISHERIt -- these days, we have to put some of the blame on the traditional news media, because we have diminished our own credibility by playing into the same kinds -- by -- the internet makes all sites look alike. So a lunatic site or a political propaganda site can look just like a credible news site. And the credible news media have bought into the same kind of come-on headlines and the same kind of click-bait as the alternative media have.
REHMI don't see any difference between fake news, lying, propaganda. I mean, you talk about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Go back to Nazi Germany and the manner in which propaganda was spread about Jews. And the reason that Hitler made sure that people believed what he was saying about Jews. Same thing. You have a lack of belief in government. A propagandist like Hitler comes to power. And this is what happens.
KANGYou know, I spoke to one person who tweets quite a bit about Pizzagate, Comet Ping Pong and the theory around it. And this individual said that he doesn't necessarily believe that it's true. But the point is, is he feels like that such a deep -- this speaks to the distrust in mainstream media and government -- he feels like so many issues are ignored by the mainstream media. He perceives a very strong bias. So for him, it's just to continue to nudge and tweak and poke at the mainstream media -- why aren't you covering this too? Do this.
KANGTom Rosenstiel, who's the head of the American Press Institute, he told me something I think that was -- that sort of crystallized this. Fake news is not meant for you to believe the actual news presented. It's meant to make you think twice about other -- the facts. It's meant to make you think about other things will less veracity.
REHMMaybe meant to, but doesn't necessarily do so.
SYDELLLaura Sydell, what...
SYDELLWell, I think there are a lot of naïve -- yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.
REHMNo, I wanted to ask you exactly what it is you think is promoting all of this.
SYDELLYou know, it's a kind of perfect storm of a lot of things. I think, you know, I would argue that there was -- the groundwork was set by a lot of things to begin with. I mean, you had a whole network of right-wing media that had been set up, that had questioned the veracity of the mainstream media. And on the left, you've had a long history of questioning the veracity of the mainstream media. And then you've got the internet, which amplifies everything.
SYDELLAnd I think that's part of why it's taken off to the degree that it has. And you have a combination of people who are perhaps just doing it for cynical reasons, like Justin Koehler, who was trying to make a point. And people who are just naïve, too -- who are out there and don't quite realize that there -- that even though something may look real, it's not. You know, for example...
REHMAnd you're listening...
SYDELL...my father and...
REHM...to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know you wanted to make a point, Marc.
FISHERWell, all of those factors are absolutely essential. But there's an additional one which may seem odd on the surface and, that is, this is to many people fun. There is -- there's a large number of people, as I was going back and talking to some of the people who were most responsible for spreading the Pizzagate idea, they talked about the thrill of the hunt. They thought, here was a puzzle. Here was a mystery. And they wanted to solve it. And the joy of the internet is that they were able to connect with people all around the world who were working on the same mystery.
FISHERAnd they have latched on to what is great fun about the work that we do as journalists, which is the thrill of the hunt. It's just that they're doing it without the responsibility part. And they're doing it out there in public where it's hurting the owners of a shop or the customers of a shop.
REHMAnd let's carry this on even further. Here's an email from Robert, who says, I battled on Facebook with friends who were Trump supporters and spread these fake news stories. I called them out on it and they just didn't care. It was so frustrating. These are not people I would describe as unintelligent. He goes on to say, I support free speech. But steps need to be taken to stop this. I think it should be made the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. And that's what crossing the state line on this charge against this Florida woman could mean.
KANGThat is what it could mean. And law enforcement is in a really tricky spot. They, in the case of Comet Ping Pong, had been called -- both the FBI and local police -- weeks before the gunman came this past Sunday. They basically said, you have to present some evidence of an imminent threat, not just I want to kill you. And I've read all of the -- many of the texts that James Alifantis, he's the owner of Comet Ping Pong, had received. Some of them were really threatening, like, I want to kill you personally. That was literally one of them.
KANGBut it has to be like, I want to kill you personally today, this afternoon, at five o'clock. It has -- there has to be some sort of imminent threat presented. Now the FBI is involved -- when I spoke to some of the store owners in that block, including Comet -- but it took a gunman on Sunday to come. It's -- so it's a really tricky line right now, the FBI, and how to handle these online threats. And also how to handle all the requests for investigations of these hoaxes.
SYDELLI think, if I can just jump in for one second here though, I think that the companies whose sites are being used for this are going to have to play a role. And while they've talked about not running advertising on these sites, one of the things that really struck me that Justin Koehler said when I called him out was, hey, you know, Google basically stopped running ads on my sites. And the next day my inbox was filled with hundreds of other places that were perfectly willing to run ads on my site.
FISHERAnd, you know, the social media companies, for years, have been telling us, we can't control what's on our site. It would violate the First Amendment. It violates the spirit of the internet. It's self-correcting mechanism. Well, that's what they say.
REHMBut it's not.
FISHERThat -- right. And that's what they say in this country. But look across the ocean to Europe, where governments have held Facebook and Twitter to account and have required them to take responsibility and remove material that is derogatory and so on. So they can do it. They simply choose not to.
REHMMarc Fisher of The Washington Post, Cecilia Kang of The New York Times, and Laura Sydell of NPR. We'll be right back with your questions, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Daniel in Reston, Va. You're on the air.
DANIELHi, Diane, hi, panel. How are you all this morning?
DANIELJust to put it out there, Diane, I'm a big fan of yours, and I'm so sorry to see you go, and your voice has been very much a reassuring one in some really troublesome months going through this election. So (unintelligible)...
REHMThank you. I want to remind you, I will be doing a weekly podcast after the first of the year.
DANIELAnd I will be downloading it.
DANIELSo my question goes to the social media sites. In particular -- you guys have already touched on it fairly well, but if ABC, CBS, The Washington Post, AP, Reuters, they all rely on other news services and reporters to be able to get information and then put it out there. And then they make money on ads built around that. That's basic news structure, right? Facebook is operating fundamentally in the same way. So is Twitter, so is Google. And you're held to account for liable laws, slander, and in certain cases can be held criminally liable in the case of reckless endangerment, things like that, as a result of false news stores, or for poorly researched ones.
DANIELMy question is, what legal ramifications there could be within the U.S. for sites like Facebook and Twitter where they're very clearly avoiding these duties clearly for overhead sales.
REHMAll right. Marc.
FISHERWell, the problem is that they're actually not held to account. To those social media companies are not held responsible for the content that their users put on the site. So this is the essential difference. They use all of us as their kind of unpaid labor because we provide the content that they then sell advertising against. And they are not responsible or they say they're not responsible for what is put on there, unlike The New York Times or The Washington Post or ABC or CBS, who are responsible for their content and can be held to account by liable suits or public pressure.
FISHERNow, in the case of the social media companies, they have specifically just said that they are not responsible. And, you know, so they get the best of both worlds. They get all the content for free, and they don't have to have any legal responsibility for it.
REHMSomething's got to change.
KANGCan I just jump in on the law on this one?
SYDELLBecause there is something called the Safe Harbor Provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which very specifically says that these companies are not responsible. So this was set up early on back in the '90s, you know, in the early days of the internet, so they aren't legally responsible. The other thing that always strikes me that these companies talk about the First Amendment, and I have to say the First Amendment has nothing to do with these companies.
SYDELLThese companies are private companies and they can do whatever they want. The First Amendment is something that applies to the government. The government cannot do something that, you know, represses free speech, but they own their websites. If they choose not to put something on their website, they can take it down. It's totally within their discretion.
KANGThe reason why they so adamantly say they are not editorial, they're not media companies. Mark Zuckerberg says over and over again, we are a pure technology company, a pure technology platform. It absolves them from the responsibility. They walk a very fine line legally, but more importantly with trust. What happened actually this year is that they actually have gotten under a lot of heat for the perception that they were manipulating what's known as their trending story news line -- trending feature topics. So that there was an allegation that they were suppressing conservative content. Whether that's true or not, that's beyond the scope of this conversation today.
KANGBut the thing is they were lambasted by the rights. They were just under so much pressure because they were perceived as getting into the editorial side. They don't want any of that. They want lots of users who posts lots of stuff so they can make lots of money. That's the bottom-line.
REHMHere's an email...
SYDELLCan I add one more thing? They actually laid people off who -- they actually did have humans at one point who were involved in taking down stories. And they laid them off after this whole scam, or this whole scandal that came up by the Right Wing. And so there are no humans in the process. And one does wonder whether or not part of the problem is they want to do everything by algorithm and they're keeping human beings out of the process of making decisions about what to keep up and what to take down.
FISHERBeing responsible is expensive. It's much cheaper to automate everything and not be responsible.
REHMHere's an email from Sandy in Annapolis, Md. who says, "There's no difference between the shooter at Comet Ping Pong and a home grown ISIS supporter. They have been both self-radicalized on the internet. Why aren't they both called terrorists?" How do you react, Laura?
SYDELLWell, I think it's an interesting question. I mean, you know, many people would say, for example, people who do violence at abortion clinics are also terrorists. I mean, I think we do need to remember that terrorists come in all forms. They can come -- have many different ideologies. Certainly in this country I think ISIS is a very particular kind of threat, but I think it's a valid point to make, that this is a sort of terrorism of sorts...
SYDELL...you know, but we do perceive the threats differently for a variety of reasons, particularly after 9/11.
KANGThe reader is pointing to the process of which how people become radicalized online. Interestingly the major social media firms just announced, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft and Google, that they would actually join together and try to combat violent extremism online by sharing information about users. So there might actually be fixes. If you were to take this analogy further, there might actually be fixes to solve some of this false rumor, conspiracy, fake news that lead to things like the shooter at Comet Pizza.
FISHERYou know, the problem is not the individual necessarily. There have always been conspiracy nuts. They've been successfully marginalized in much of our history. What's new is the ability for these messages to spread in a mass way that was never possible before. So the fix I would think has to address the spread, more than the individuals who may be attracted to one crazy notion or another. So the question of the bots, the question of the responsibility of the social media companies, it's the spread that is where the solution lies.
REHMAll right. To Victoria in Burton, Mich. You're on the air.
VICTORIAI recently moved from a small blue town in Colorado to a red town, and I for the first time came across fake news and conspiracy theorists. And I want to thank you for being a lifeline. You guys have pretty much addressed a lot of my questions, except that I really worry a lot about the danger of some of the theories out there.
VICTORIAThis was -- the pizza guy was a guy, one person, but I know people who truly believe that the Jews were warned before 9/11. And there's not -- to me, there's a small step, right, that some people are taking individually, but there are a lot of people out there. I've met many conspiracy theorists who hoard guns. They're all on the right because they truly believe this is happening. I think it's super dangerous for the republic. And take my comment off-air.
REHMThanks for calling. Marc.
FISHERYou know, social scientists are just in recent years starting to look at this question of who is susceptible to fake news. And it does not seem to align with intelligence or even with education necessarily. It does not align by ideology quite so much as some people might thing. There are some studies showing the conservatives are less inclined to spend a lot of time thinking critically, that they're much more willing to make quick decisions. They value the idea of quick decisions.
FISHERBut there's also research that shows that there's no difference between ideologies. There are liberal fake news stories. We saw the story about Tiffany Trump supposedly avoiding a kiss from her father. Completely made up, and very popular in liberal circles. There's a Yale psychologist, Daniel Kahan, who did a study that found no difference between liberals and conservatives in how vulnerable they are to this kind of political bias or wild stories.
SYDELLI think if it fits into whatever your world view is, you know, if you believe that there was a conspiracy to shoot JFK, and somebody gives you a story that fits right into that, I'm going to do a self-confession here that I had a moment, a friend sent a story to me. I can't quite remember what it was, and I almost tweeted it out. And then I stopped and I said, wait a minute, where did this come from? And here I am in the news media and I almost got caught up in it because it...
REHMAnd I did get caught up in it, Laura, with my conversation with then candidate Senator Bernie Sanders with these fake news stories about him and other high level Washington official having dual citizenship with Israel. And he immediately said simply, well, of course that's not true, you know. And I really did get caught up in it. It is scary.
KANGYou know, it is scary, and it's hard, even people who read the news all day, can fall to these stories. There are some things you can do. I think there needs to be -- I want to offer a few solutions if I can.
KANGI don't know if they're going to solve the whole problem, but one bucket is education. Obviously you have to look for clues if a story is fake. If the URL, the address, sounds weird, it probably is weird. It's worth checking out whether it's real. If it's washingtonpost.com.co...
KANG...it's probably not The Washington Post.
SYDELLThat was Justin Collier who...
SYDELL...who owned that one.
KANGI remember that from your story. And then read and evaluate the story. If it sounds a little bit too crazy to be true, go and try to research a little bit before you share. Research on snopes.com, PolitiFact. There's a ton of new -- part of the cottage industry now also includes fact checking sites. So go to those sites. One of it is also technological. These companies promise Facebook and Twitter that they're going to come out with tools to make it easier to identify and to make it harder for companies to profit. Twitter said that they're going to try to take down accounts that spread too much misinformation.
KANGThey've got to really step it up on that account. But the last one is a little bit more existential that everybody has to take ownership of, is maybe reading stories that don't confirm to your bias, to your point of view, looking for other sources of information. If you are -- the internet has taken sort of the Fox News/CNN divide of TV into steroids, you know, steroid mode on the internet. It's just the divide is so big on the internet. So I think it's worth reading, okay, well, maybe I'll go to a liberal site if I'm conservative, maybe I'll go to a conservative site if I'm liberal. I think it's -- that could be really a good move for this huge fragmentation we're experiencing that's spilled into media.
REHMAnd what do you think, Marc?
FISHERAnd on that last point, that requires a real act of volition on the part of the read because you have to counter what Facebook and Twitter are doing to keep you in that information silo that we're all in. Because what you see on Facebook and I see on Facebook are completely different based on what we've looked at before and what they think we want to see. And so it tends to be a very narrow road.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Jonathan in Phoenix, Ariz. You're on the air.
JONATHANIt's a thrill to talk to you and...
JONATHAN...I'm going to miss you very much when you go off the air.
REHMAnd you'll I hope tune in to a podcast.
JONATHANOkay. My question, I wanted to bring up the article that The Washington Post published on November 24th about a Russian backed effort to disseminate fake news to influence the election, that cited a report by a group called Propernaut (sp?). And that report basically gave a list of sites that they alleged were Russian backed fake news organs. And it was criticized by a lot of people, Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone, Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, Adrian Chen, The New Yorker.
JONATHANAnd my question, basically, that goes with what they said in response, which is that I'm a little concerned that as this concept of fake news has started to proliferate through the media since the election, while these wildly fallacious websites are obviously a problem, I'm concerned that just this idea of fake news can be used in the future to discredit or suppress, you know, any sort of alternative stories that don't fit...
JONATHAN...on an officially sanctioned line. And ironically will end up sort of contributing to this kind of filter bubble problem that we have now where people just sort of seek out things that confirm their biases, and anything they don't like can just be dismissed as, oh, well, that's fake news.
FISHERWell, you know, it's a good question, and the answer is that strong and independent reporting is the answer to much of this. And so when you have reporting that is transparent, that says here's how we got this information, here's why we think it's credible, that's how you build trust with readers. And so it's incumbent on all of us in mainstream news organizations to be extremely transparent. In the case of the story that you talked about, some of the information in that story was based on a group that was not transparent, a group that was hiding behind all sorts of anonymity, and that made that story somewhat problematic.
FISHERThe Post editors are absolutely convinced of the correctness of the thrust of that story, but there is a problem with that list that you referred to. There's going to be further reporting in The Post about that very soon. So I think it's really up to those organizations that want to win the public trust to be completely transparent in this age when people can go out and do their own research, and should.
REHMSo what you're saying, Marc, is that some of The Post's own reporting on this perhaps was not thorough enough.
FISHERWell, I think the reporting was very good and the reporter, the editors who worked with -- were very clear about the fact that they had checked out this information. There was a reference to a particular list, which is what the caller is referring to, and we never saw that list. And so we didn't quote from the list, we didn't go into the list in any detail. But whether it was right to mention the list is the question, and that's one that there's further reporting going on.
REHMLaura Sydell, what...
SYDELLOh, I was just going to say I looked at that.
REHM...are your suggestions, not only to us in the media, but to people in general about these fake news sites?
SYDELLI mean, I think you do -- to some degree, people do have to take personal responsibility and really think about where they're getting their information. One thing that's a problem that's happened is this attempt to discredit The Washington Post or any kind of mainstream media organization every time we make a mistake. And I guess I want to have a plea out there to the public that we are human, we do make mistakes, but it doesn't mean that the vast majority of what we do hasn't been fact checked very, very carefully. And I think it's really important to keep that in mind.
REHMNor does it mean -- nor does it mean that The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR are making those mistakes deliberately to misinform. And therein lies the difference. Thank you all so much for being with us. Laura Sydell of NPR, Cecilia Kang of The New York Times, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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