When frogs can’t get along

16 04 17

Below is an archived edition of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly email newsletter. This edition was published on 04/16/2017. Members of Factual Democracy Project have access to past editions. Subscribe to Ctrl Alt Right Delete

Programming note: Starting next week Ctrl Alt Right Delete will go on a short hiatus while I take a brief medical leave. There will be no newsletter on April 23. I’ve lined up a guest editor for April 30 that you’ll really enjoy.

Fake news and Facebook

I’m not fond of the term “fake news.” Mostly because I could talk to ten different experts about the topic and get ten different definitions of the term. First Draft News has a fairly comprehensive way of organizing fake news by type and intention, but when Trump and the frog squad talk about fake news, it means something else entirely. Fake news is a term and a problem that everyone knows about but no one can define. Unfortunately, that conundrum is exactly what the Trump administration have used to their advantage by labeling news they don’t like as fake.

The result of trying to tackle the issue of fake news has been several entities attempting to solve a problem without clear parameters. This week, Facebook stepped into the fray. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a lengthy interview this week outlining his thoughts on fake news among other things. Facebook also began rolling out tips to spot fake news to their users. You might have received a push notification directing you to look at it. The post is a checklist of 10 items, which when you think about how long most of us spend looking at an individual post on Facebook, feels absurdly long. Mike Caulfield, a veteran blogger and news literacy geek, pushed back pretty hard against Facebook’s suggestions:

This Facebook advice? It’s indistinguishable, for the most part, from what you would have told students in 1995. And beyond the ineffectiveness of it, it has potential to do real harm. It was precisely these impulses — to judge resources by look and feel and what they say about themselves — that propagandists played on so expertly in 2016.

The history of technology is that the fakers are going to get even better at these things next time around. Yet the Facebook advice doesn’t even seem to realize how good they got at this in 2016.

Facebook is rolling this out in the same week where a Buzzfeed Ipsos Public Affairs Surveyshowed that Americans at large can’t agree what news on Facebook counts as news. Some stats worth noting:

  • “Overall, 48% of respondents said Facebook was a major or minor source of news for them. Another 20% said it “rarely” was. The rest either said Facebook was never a source or they weren’t familiar with the platform. The survey found that more than half of those who use Facebook as a news source — 54% — said they trust news on the platform “only a little” or “not at all.””
  • “The survey asked those who do use Facebook as a source of news to identify which types of content on Facebook they “consider news.” Seventy percent said they considered “content from traditional media sources (i.e. CNN, New York Times, etc.) shared on their pages” to be news — the highest percentage of any option. This result means a third of those surveyed don’t consider news from actual news organizations to be news when it appears on that outlet’s Facebook page. A total of 51% of respondents said that content from a traditional outlet shared by one of their friends was news.”
  • “While almost half of the American adults surveyed said Facebook is a major or minor source of news for them, there is far from any unanimity as to what “news” actually is when it comes to the platform.”

The increased skepticism around news seen on Facebook news feeds is a great relief to me. When Buzzfeed and Ipsos Public Affairs did a survey last December they found that 75% of Americans believed fake news stories when they saw them on Facebook. I’m glad that public attitudes have changed so much since the end of 2016. We still might not agree on what the problem is, but there now seems to be broad agreement among the American public that we should take what we see in our social media feeds with a grain of salt.

Now that Americans are perhaps better able to acknowledge the existence of fake news and its effects, I hope we can have a conversation about the role that fake news and other forms of disinformation play in creating the current media ecosystem that we find ourselves in. As Columbia Journalism Review showed in an exhaustive study of media during last year’s election, right-wing media had an outsized effect on the media ecosystem at large.

Given the partisan nature of the content, it’s going to be challenging to make the debate over disinformation nonpartisan. But if we have any hope of getting back on track, it’s a conversation and a debate we need to engage in.

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#AltSpice etc.

A few odds and ends worth keeping an eye on this week:

  • The Steve Bannon /Jared Kushner feud gets curiouser and curiouser. Last week, leaks flew fast and furious about their war for White House influence. #FireBannon and #FireKushnertrended on Twitter as Trump’s army took sides. Trump has made it pretty clear in an interview that Bannon’s status is diminished but Bannon still holds serious sway with the frog squad. If the White House wants to keep their online army intact, (something they desperately need) Bannon will have to remain. By the way, there’s no doubt where the white supremacists come down on this fight. Anti-Semitic trolls online have been unleashing filth directed at Jared Kushner for days now.
  • Sean Spicer is terrible at his job. Sean Spicer still has a job because his remarks about the Holocaust aren’t out of line with what many of Trump’s supporters, and some of his aides in the administration, actually believe. What Spicer said said was right out of the Holocaust denier playbook, and Trump was elected by a coalition of white nationalists and Holocaust deniers. Too often, the Trump administration gets a pass for their anti-Semitism. We need to make them own it.
  • The air strikes on Syria continue to be a huge wedge issue for the frog squad. Many of Trump’s biggest supporters in the media have turned on him. The Donald subreddit had a collective meltdown that ended with the moderators taking a heavy hand and deleting dissenting comments en masse. Richard Spencer denounced the strikes and Milo Yiannopoulos even came out of the woodwork to express his disappointment in Trump.



Thank you Nicole Belle for copy editing this every week. I couldn’t do this without her. Thank you also to everyone who took our reader survey. I’m going to work on putting your feedback into action after my brief hiatus. See you all in a couple of weeks.


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