commonplace newsletter #2

lettersImage courtesy of Ken Douglas.

I think I’m getting the hang of this Newsletter plugin for WordPress. It sent out a nicely-formatted email yesterday – April Fool’s Day, appropriately enough, given that the common thread of the links I selected was what we talk about when we talk about “fake news.” (One think I’ve learned – I need to check my spelling, because it wasn’t automatically checked for me. Sorry about that, newletterers.) Here are the links I shared:

The Fake News Course (A Sillybus) This satirical project is subtitled How to Write and Read Fake News: Journullism in the Age of Trump. While it’s the Onion of syllabi, it actually goes a long way toward showing how false narratives are created. The course is the work of Talan Memmott and Mark C. Marino and is part of UnderAcademy College, an artistic adventure in tongue-in-cheek critique.

Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda. Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman studied what people who retweeted either of the two presidential candidates shared on Facebook and Twitter, finding that people on the left tended to link to traditional news sources while people who supported Trump tended to link to far-right sites, with Breitbart and other non-traditional sources at the center. The authors conclude this polarization is not a result of social media technology, but rather “the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive” and is something the press needs to confront.

The Religious Origins of Fake News and Alternative Facts by Christopher Douglas adds another wrinkle to the debate. He writes: “Beginning with the Moral Majority, founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, and continuing through church organizations such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, conservative Christians have helped reshape the Republican Party and its policies. Its ‘family values’ positions on abortion, the sexual revolution, gender roles, pornography, and homosexuality have been heavily influenced by its conservative Christian theology.” Because these politically-charged fundamentalists reject both evolution and a historical/critical approach to scripture, they have developed an alternative information ecosystem that rejects much of modern discourse as dangerous and anti-Christian. This gave fundamentalists training in how to reject “expert knowledge” which lends itself to a conspiratorial echo-chamber. So it’s not technology that’s separating us, it’s a result of pre-existing extremism and deep distrust.

Did our fake news epidemic start as a 4Chan prank? No, according to Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer, and Gabriella Coleman, scholars who have studied the world of trolling. While some fans of Pepe declared they had elected a meme, the role of 4Chan is entwined with preexisting divisions that were easy to exploit, including by 4Channers. “More than fake news, more than filter bubbles, more than insane conspiracy theories about child sex rings operating out of the backs of Washington DC pizza shops, the biggest media story to emerge from the 2016 election was the degree to which far-right media were able to set the narrative agenda for mainstream media outlets.” Sounds very like Trump’s capacity to dominate television while spending little on TV ads.

Which brings me to danah boyd’s essay: Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear. While there’s a tendency to blame our primary portals to the internet for pushing us into filter bubbles and a demand to make them fix it, boyd says the problems are deeper. “Too many people seem to think that you can build a robust program to cleanly define who and what is problematic, implement it, and then presto—problem solved. Yet anyone who has combatted hate and intolerance knows that Band-Aid solutions don’t work. They may make things invisible for a while, but hate will continue to breed unless you address the issues at the source. We need everyone — including companies — to be focused on grappling with the underlying dynamics that are mirrored and magnified by technology.”

So here we are: technology has played a role in where we are today, but it’s just one dimension of a much more complicated situation. Something for journalists and information professionals to consider as they confront the problem.

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