“When it’s impossible to distinguish facts from fraud, actual facts lose their power.” So writes Zeynep Tufekci in his insightful article about identifying falsehood in the media. (“Don’t Trust, Verify: Finding the Facts in A World of Fakes,” Wired, March 2019, pgs. 18-19.) Given that bytes are easier to manipulate than the old form of hot type, what we see as newsprint, photographs or videos, today, we should hold suspect. That’s why the author suggests a new standard for truth which is different from the past. Rather than accept a report as true until proven false, the public should reverse the standard. We should doubt until we can verify. Says Tufekci, without an agreed upon set of facts, we can have no meaningful debate.
Here’s an example. A woman on Facebook complained about a guest who appeared on MSNBC. The individual criticized Bernie Sander, claiming he was 24 minutes into his presidential campaign speech before he raised the issue of racial injustice. A film clip, however, shows Sanders raised racial injustice two minutes into his opening remarks. The woman on Facebook accused MSNBC of spreading fake news.
My initial reaction was to dismiss the issue as a tempest in teapot. The order in which Sanders lists his concern about racial injustice says nothing about the subject’s importance to him. People sometimes reserve their most critical issues for last. On the other hand, was the Sander’s supporter right? Did MSNBC owe the politician an apology? Maybe. But commentators aren’t reporters. Their opinions are their own and are rarely held to the same standard as reporters.
Donald Trump often protests that he is a victim of fake news. He’s right, apparently. The Poynter Institute, a global leader in journalism studies, lists some of the false reports made against him. Yet, no Sanders supporter appears to have rushed to the president’s defense.
My point is obvious. The omission or commission of errors that appear in the media probably flourishes because the nation shares a general contempt for facts unless those facts speak “our truths.” Therefore, the Tufekci principle ought to apply. We should assume all reports are false until proven true. It would make life simpler.