Editorial: Of Facebook, Twitter and FPF?

Caveat emptor. It’s Latin for “Let the buyer beware.” For most of modern history the term has been applied to real property (for example, the snake ointment sold by Dr. Marvel at the carnival), but today the most apt usage may be with the dissemination of information.
Facebook and Twitter have been in the news for the past year for distributing “fake news” to an unassuming American public. Turns out that hundreds of millions of fake news items spread on Facebook and Twitter helped the Russians launch a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. Most unsettling is that the American public (and even sophisticated news operations) hadn’t a clue they were being duped. Until this past election, many Americans hadn’t looked at these sites as untrustworthy.
Rather, far too many Americans just blithely assumed that if you read it on the Internet it must be true. Well, not quite, but close. Certainly, most Americans knew that the alt-right Breitbart News, for example, wholly fabricates news that has no semblance to the truth. Similarly, conservative talk show hosts like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck all play off conspiracy theories and intentional falsehoods (the conspiracy that Obama was not born in the U.S. is an example) to con a gullible public. But they weren’t suspect of items that popped up on their Facebook page or Twitter feeds. That’s now changed.
But “fake,” or let’s say, harmful news is also broadcast in other ways, including on the local level — and that’s where area readers must learn to become savvy consumers of the news.
Vermont-based Front Porch Forum is a case in point. As a forum for neighborhoods and town residents to share bits of information, it can work well. If you’ve just lost your cat or dog, or even pet snake, post it on FPF and close neighbors are there to help. But similar to Facebook, Twitter and other user-generator forums it has its drawbacks.
When citizens write about town issues (particularly to influence voters about an upcoming election), for example, readers must ask vital questions: what is known of the author’s credibility; is what he or she wrote accurate; has it been fact-checked; does that person have a bias against or for the issue; do they quote town or school officials, or cite the sources of their information?
Readers, in short, must put themselves in the role of editor to determine the validity of the content — and most people don’t have the information necessary to do that well.
This is not to fault FPF for posting public opinion. FPF was not designed to be a news generator with edited content, but rather to provide a digital forum to connect community members.
It’s up to readers of that forum to understand that opinions and comments are not edited for accuracy. They do monitor for decency (no vulgar language, no name-calling, etc.), but the model is to rely on citizens to monitor each other’s posts. That works in terms of getting the meeting of the local Girl Scout annual bake sale correct, but not as well on the nuances of more complex issues.
Just recently, the city manager of Vergennes decided he needed to on local community television to clarify what he considered a crucial issue that someone had misrepresented on FPF. Inaccurate postings in Bristol and Middlebury in recent years have also caused town officials headaches and had them scrambling to clarify inaccurate statements posted on the forum.
The common thread is this: today’s access to digital media makes it all too easy for uninformed comments — deliberate or otherwise — to pass as news to an unsuspecting public. “Caveat emptor” is the law of the land today in media partly because there are so many ways to get information, and because we are in an era where bad actors are all too eager to use unedited forums to deliberately spread falsehoods to their advantage.
The best defense is an educated public that understands — at the very least — which news source to trust, and which sources they should beware.
In terms of generating and editing local news, community newspapers have spent decades building up trust in the community, sending reporters into the field and hiring editors to strive for accuracy in all things we publish. On the news side of the ledger, it’s what a good community newspaper does.
— Angelo Lynn

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