Guest editorial: It’s hard to find truth among bounty of purposeful fakes

I’ve tuned out of the endless forensic analyses of how news media failed the electorate. In fact, other than having misread the political and cultural pulse of many Americans, I’m not sure the serious news organizations failed us at all. Many of us were just absent. Watching a Trump supporter on the PBS Evening News say that she’d liked the idea of a woman in the White House until she learned from her sister’s Facebook page that five people Hillary knew had recently been murdered, I was curious about the news item and found its source in an article in the The Guardian.
The fake news story was generated by pay-per-click entrepreneurs in Denver. They develop fake news they hope will go viral, making money on each click when their content is picked up. They cashed in handily on this fabricated news item that did indeed go viral. Another such enterprise propagated the widely accepted fake news that Pope Francis endorsed Trump.
Entrepreneurship is alive and well around the globe. A cluster of teenage clickbait news fabricators practically mint money in the town of Veles, Macedonia, by generating endless pro-Trump fake news items.
According to the latest Pew Report on News Media, 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook. Fil Menczer, a professor at Indiana University, who studies fake news and Facebook, has written that, “You’re being manipulated by the system (falling for fake news) and you become the perpetrator because you share it with your friends who trust you and so the outbreak continues.” The term used by propagandists is “useful idiots.”
We associate good and bad news with our own sense of security and wellbeing. This creates a difficult choice. If we want to feel good all the time, we now inhabit a news universe where we can choose and share our own unverified news. Words creeping into daily use like “fact-free” and “truthiness” lend credence to this disturbing trend.
As a boy, I remember gathering around the family TV to hear Walter Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley tell us what was happening in the world. We trusted these voices. 60 years later, they’ve been replaced by an infinite buffet of news choices with varying degrees of truth and comfort all protected by the first amendment.
Traditional, trustworthy news media did not fail us, we failed ourselves. Real news is still there, but we must care enough about our democracy to read it.
Bill Schubart is an entrepreneur and writer who lives in Hinesburg.

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