Google Is Boosting All Manner of Fake News About the Texas Church Massacre

MEDIA
A search finds the site has been supplying ads to right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Photo Credit: turtix / Shutterstock.com

Google is continuing to allow the monetization of fake news via its advertising network AdSense, this time surrounding the November 5 mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX. Advertising networks Revcontent and content.ad are also featuring advertisements on fake news stories about the attack.

On November 5, a gunman opened fire and killed at least 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, TX. The alleged gunman, Devin Patrick Kelly, was court martialed while in the Air Force in 2012 on charges of “assaulting his wife and child” and has been accused of stalking ex-girlfriends. Law enforcement officers are now saying that the shooting was related to “a domestic situation.”

Media Matters search found that Google’s AdSense supplied advertisements for many websites pushing the fake news that Kelly was a member of the antifascist group antifa, with many seeming to base their pieces on a fake news article from prominent fake news website YourNewsWire. Those websites included Real FarmacyUSN Politicsmyinfonews.netClear PoliticsSBVNewsRedStateWatcher, and TruthFeed.

Some of these websites that were using AdSense, such as Clear Politics and SBVNews, also carried advertisements from content.ad, while TruthFeed also featured advertisements from Revcontent. Other websites not using AdSense that pushed the baseless claim, such as Conservative FightersThe Conservative Truth, and borntoberight.com, featured advertisements from Revcontent or content.ad instead, including the YourNewsWire piece (that article went viral, drawing at least 235,000 Facebook engagementswithin almost 24 hours of the attack, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo, and was shared on gun parts manufacturer Molon Labe Industries’ Facebook page).

Another false claim about the shooting came from Freedum Junkshun, a “satire” website run by a man whose made-up stories have been used by fake news websites to misinform. It claimed that the shooter “was an atheist” on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee. That article was funded via advertisements from both AdSense and content.ad. And fake news website Freedom Daily, which has repeatedly violated AdSense’s rules against race-based incitement of hatred, published the false claim that the shooter was a Muslim convert named Samir Al-Hajeed. AdSense advertisements funded that article.

It isn’t just Google’s advertising service that is struggling with how to handle fake news; among the top Google search results of Kelly’s name following the attack were tweets and a video that also baselessly claimed he was a member of antifa. YouTube, which Google owns, also prominently featured a video pushing the false claim as one of the top results for the alleged shooter’s name.

In early November, a Google senior executive testified before Congress that the company had “taken steps” to demonetize misrepresentative websites. Yet the fact that multiple websites are using AdSense to monetize misinformation about the Texas mass shooting via AdSense signals otherwise. Indeed, AdSense, along with Revcontent and content.ad, have generally become the advertising networks of choice for those who push fake news. And this comes amid continuing criticism of Google’s inability to not feature misinformation during or after crisis events. These companies clearly have a long way to go to fix their misinformation problem.

https://www.alternet.org/media/google-boosting-all-manner-fake-news-about-texas-church-massacre?akid=16330.265072.T3oS4c&rd=1&src=newsletter1084951&t=14

Advertisements

Are social media bots a threat to democracy?

Ryan de Laureal analyzes the push to get Silicon Valley to clamp down on promoters of “fake news”–and argues that the solution isn’t censorship, but transparency.

Are social media bots a threat to democracy? (Eric Ruder | SW)

TECH GIANTS Facebook, Google and Twitter have found themselves under fire as the latest details have emerged about the use of fake Russian social media accounts and political ads in last year’s presidential election.

The furor over various attempts to manipulate public opinion by spreading “fake news” during the 2016 campaign began almost immediately after Donald Trump’s shocking victory, resulting in a storm of criticism toward companies like Facebook, which were accused of failing to crack down on the abuse of their platforms by Russian fakesters.

The issue was revived again on September 6, when Facebook announced it had discovered that about $100,000 worth of political ads that were purchased from June 2015 to May 2017 by accounts with potential links to the Russian government, many of them posing as fake American users.

In the following weeks, the company handed over thousands of these ads to Congressional investigators and announced steps to limit the impact of such content in the future.

After Facebook, Twitter and Google were the next ones to be caught up in the investigation.

In Twitter’s case, a primary focus was on the use of so-called “bots”–automated accounts that can be programmed to post and share content, and can often be made to appear indistinguishable from real users. Hundreds of such bots were apparently used by Russian actors to spread propaganda during the election.

The alarm being raised by Democrats about this Russian influence campaign should be taken looked at skeptically. Rather than being a smoking gun, the ad spending uncovered thus far by Facebook raises serious doubts about how extensive and impactful this campaign really was.

To begin with, $100,000 is an almost laughably minuscule amount of money compared to what presidential campaigns typically spend on political propaganda. While it is possible that more Russian ad spending may come to light, the fact remains that the Trump and Clinton campaigns each spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2016 presidential race, large portions of which were dedicated to advertising.

Even if an extra $100,000 bump for the Trump campaign by Russian actors is taken into account, Clinton still outspent Trump by over $200 million, and even Green Party candidate Jill Stein outspent the Russians 50 times over.

If the claim that Russian propaganda activity cost the Democrats the election is taken seriously, it reveals either superhuman ability on the part of the Russians or total ineptitude on the part of the Democrats, who failed to defeat Trump despite burning through buckets of money in their attempt to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THAT ISN’T to say that there aren’t genuine concerns raised by the issue of Twitter bots and fake accounts.

Though certain bot functions–such as liking posts, following users en masse and sending direct messages–technically violate Twitter’s terms of service, the company still encourages the use of automated accounts, and there are a proliferation of services available online that allow for abuse of the platform even by those who are not tech-savvy.

Certain products allow customers to create and control thousands of bot accounts in an instant, and Twitter’s low standards for account verification (little more than an e-mail address is needed to create an account) have made bots desirable tools for anybody wishing to influence public opinion, Russians or not–which is precisely why the current concern among Democrats about their use falls short.

Allowing anonymous users to create thousands of fake accounts at the click of a button and use them to impersonate real people and spread lies certainly is something that should be of public concern. This is especially true when–as was the case with many of the pro-Trump Russian bots and fake accounts active during the campaign–they are used to incite xenophobia and bolster society’s racist, far-right fringe.

But thus far, the Democrats’ only apparent concern is the use of bots and fake accounts by the Russians–even though bots have become a fairly regular feature of U.S. political campaigns over the past few years, with Republicans and Democrats alike investing in automated Twitter traffic to spread their campaign propaganda, alongside more traditional advertising routes.

An analysis of selected Twitter traffic during the 2016 election by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project found that over 10 percent of users tweeting election-related hashtags were potential bots–and it’s likely that most of them weren’t Russian.

Though the concentration of bot activity was stronger for accounts tweeting pro-Trump content, bots were also used to spread pro-Clinton content in 2016.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

DESPITE THE often narrow, jingoistic focus of the current frenzy over “fake news,” and its obvious use for Democrats as a political tool in their ongoing Russia inquiry, there are clear problems posed by bots and other forms of modern technological propaganda that should be taken seriously.

Addressing these problems must go hand in hand with the fight to defend the Internet as a free and open form of communication.

The ease and anonymity with which platforms such as Twitter can be abused make them attractive venues for wealthy and powerful actors–from dictatorial regimes to corporate interest groups–to manipulate public opinion, sow confusion and quell dissent.

In addition to their use by multiple players in the 2016 U.S. election, bots have been used extensively by the widely despised Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico to manufacture fake support for its candidates and silence criticism online. Pro-government bots have also been used by repressive regimes in Syria and Turkey to spread propaganda in support of the Assad and Erdoğan dictatorships.

A number of solutions have been proposed by the government and by companies such as Twitter and Facebook in response to the current Russia scandal, including tighter regulation and greater transparency in online political advertising, more aggressive enforcement of terms of service rules by social media companies, and greater collaboration between Silicon Valley and the national security state.

While some proposals, such as greater transparency around online ads and automated accounts, could be welcomed, many of these are quite dangerous. Of particular concern are measures that would lead to greater control over the Internet or censorship powers against online speech by either the state or corporations or both.

One example of these dangers can be found in the debate over the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, which is currently gaining traction in the Senate.

While the bill has the ostensible purpose of cracking down on sex trafficking, it has been criticized by Internet advocacy groups for its proposal to limit the application of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 has been described as “the law that built the modern Internet” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

Section 230 says that for purposes of enforcing certain laws affecting speech online, an intermediary”–such as a company, website, or organization that provides a platform for others to share speech and content–“cannot be held legally responsible for any content created by others. The law thus protects intermediaries against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them liable for what others say and do on their platforms.

It’s thanks to Section 230 that social media exists in the way that we know it today. The proposal to limit it, which could make companies like Facebook or Twitter open to lawsuits for illegal content posted by users, means that any organization providing an online platform for speech would be incentivized to more heavily police and censor content.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THIS DEMAND to be more vigilant in finding and removing malicious content is essentially what many have been making of Facebook and Twitter in the current Russian hacking scandal.

But what counts as malicious is subjective–whether there are human moderators on the other end screening ads and content and deciding what gets approved, and even more especially, when the moderators themselves are bots.

The enormous amount of advertising that is bought and sold on platforms like Facebook makes it impossible for a human to review and approve every ad purchase. An attractive alternative for tech companies is bots, programmed with an algorithm that allows them to automatically review and flag content as potentially troublesome.

If Internet companies censor content more heavily, it won’t be humans doing the moderating. Instead, as the EFF argues, increased sanctioning for online platforms will actually lead to a greater automation of this function.

A number of programs like this already exist, such as Google’s recently rolled out Perspective, a programming interface designed to fight online trolls by automatically moderating comment threads and flagging posts based on their “toxicity.”

The danger posed to free speech by programs like Perspective isn’t hard to see. After its rollout, users experimenting with it discovered a discriminatory streak in the kinds of statements flagged as toxic.

A statement such as “I am a man” is flagged as 20 percent likely to be seen as toxic, while “I am a Black man” is flagged at 80 percent. “I am a woman” is 41 percent, and “I am a gay Black woman” is flagged as 87 percent.

The problem is that algorithms can’t understand things like human intent. They can search posts for key words–like “Black” or “Jew”–that might be used by racist online trolls, but they have trouble distinguishing between actually racist posts containing these words from ones that aren’t racist.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SPAMBOTS AND fake news are legitimate problems. They muddy the waters of online speech and are ripe for abuse. Governments, including the U.S., use them for psychological operations to spread false ideas and silence dissent, and they can also be used by hackers to spread malware.

But sanctioning Internet companies for the actions of their users and giving them more power to censor content online is a route that could chill the Internet as a venue for free speech.

There are better ways to handle bots. If Twitter were simply to disclose which of its user accounts were automated–in the same way that it has been proposed to create greater transparency around Facebook ads by disclosing who bought them–it would go a long way toward eliminating the ability to disguise bots as real users.

There are trickier Internet questions out there, such as how to handle the epidemic of online harassment. But when it comes to bots, increased transparency may not be the best solution for Silicon Valley’s profit margins, but it would make for a better Internet for the rest of us.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/10/12/are-social-media-bots-a-threat-to-democracy

GOP launches counteroffensive against the media — to distract America from its massive failure

Republicans promised real accomplishments in Trump’s first 200 days. Now they must fall back on propaganda

Donald Trump’s base is shrinking, no matter what he tweets to the contrary. Two hundred days into his term, he has few legislative accomplishments to tout — despite Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade — and nobody to blame.

The president is increasingly frustrated that his raucous campaign-like crowds in friendly red states have not drowned out the Russia investigation or poll numbers that have him sinking to below 35 percent approval — and those poll numbers are starting to make congressional Republicans nervous.

Now Republicans have launched a counteroffensive.

It’s still 15 months until the midterm election, but in some ways the campaign is in full swing. House Republicans unveiled a new website on Monday meant to provide counterprogramming that depicts an alternative 200-day timeline highlighting GOP accomplishments and building up a favorite Republican boogeyman: the media.

“House Republicans aren’t distracted by the newest countdown clock on cable news or partisan sniping in Washington, D.C.,” the website, “Did You Know,“ reads. Republicans hope to blame the press for not writing more about their legislative achievements. Trump even took a break from his vacation to send off a barrage of tweets early Monday morning blasting the “Fake News” media.

But unlike the propaganda “real news” videos posted to Trump’s Facebook page in recent months — made to appear as “real” news segments hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara — House Republicans’ new venture more closely resembles the commercials put out by previous re-election campaigns.

“You don’t care about those things. You care about finding a good job, taking care of your family, and achieving the American Dream, and so do we,” the House GOP’s new ad announces.

Of course, some may recall that House Speaker Paul Ryan promised that “this will be the most productive presidency and Congress in our lifetimes” and initially pledgedto repeal and replace portions of Obamacare by spring and tackle tax reform before the August recess.

Ryan’s gamble on a glossy new campaign meant to distract from his failed policies is likely to pay off. Republican voters have long been primed to distrust the mainstream media. A poll released late last month found that nearly half of all Republicans are in favor of courts shutting down media outlets that publish biased information. A majority of Republicans also said they support fines for media outlets that put out biased or inaccurate news reports.

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s personal Facebook page — not the White House’s Facebook page — has recently taken to producing what it calls “real news” video clips that highlight positive stories ignored by the media as controversy further engulfs the administration. Last week, Lara Trump, the wife of Trump’s youngest adult son, Eric, informed more than 2 million viewers that Trump donated his presidential salary to the Department of Education.

A nearly identical video was posted Sunday by Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany, a former CNN contributor who announced her departure from the network only hours before appearing in the pro-Trump propaganda video. On Monday, it was announced that McEnany would become the next spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

“Thank you for joining us, everybody. I’m Kayleigh McEnany, and that is the real news,” the conservative television commentator said to end her “News of the Week” segment for Trump’s Facebook page.

McEnany’s seamless transition from CNN to “Trump TV” to the RNC is such a transparent circumvention of the fourth estate that even conservative commentator Erick Erickson complained on Twitter: “How very Soviet.”

In fairness, Republicans aren’t trying to hide their propaganda push. The Trump campaign said it plans to use its fledgling Facebook show to “continue to promote real news” and to “talk to Americans directly.”

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon’s Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

New Google algorithm restricts access to left-wing, progressive web sites

By Andre Damon and Niles Niemuth
27 July 2017

In the three months since Internet monopoly Google announced plans to keep users from accessing “fake news,” the global traffic rankings of a broad range of left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights organizations have fallen significantly.

On April 25, 2017, Google announced that it had implemented changes to its search service to make it harder for users to access what it called “low-quality” information such as “conspiracy theories” and “fake news.”

The company said in a blog post that the central purpose of the change to its search algorithm was to give the search giant greater control in identifying content deemed objectionable by its guidelines. It declared that it had “improved our evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates” in order “to surface more authoritative content.”

Google continued, “Last month, we updated our Search Quality Rater Guidelines to provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag.” These moderators are instructed to flag “upsetting user experiences,” including pages that present “conspiracy theories,” unless “the query clearly indicates the user is seeking an alternative viewpoint.”

Google does not explain precisely what it means by the term “conspiracy theory.” Using the broad and amorphous category of fake news, the aim of the change to Google’s search system is to restrict access to alternative web sites, whose coverage and interpretation of events conflict with those of such establishment media outlets as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

By flagging content in such a way that it does not appear in the first one or two pages of a search result, Google is able to effectively block users’ access to it. Given the fact that vast amounts of web traffic are influenced by search results, Google is able to effectively conceal or bury content to which it objects through the manipulation of search rankings.

Just last month, the European Commission fined the company $2.7 billion for manipulating search results to inappropriately direct users to its own comparison shopping service, Google Shopping. Now, it appears that Google is using these criminal methods to block users from accessing political viewpoints the company deems objectionable.

The WSWS has been targeted by Google’s new “evaluation methods.” While in April 2017, 422,460 visits to the WSWS originated from Google searches, the figure has dropped to an estimated 120,000 this month, a fall of more than 70 percent.

Even when using search terms such as “socialist” and “socialism,” readers have informed us that they find it increasingly difficult to locate the World Socialist Web Site in Google searches.

Referals from Google searches to the WSWS have fallen by about 70 percent

According to Google’s webmaster tools service, the number of searches resulting in users seeing content from the World Socialist Web Site (that is, a WSWS article appeared in a Google search) fell from 467,890 a day to 138,275 over the past three months. The average position of articles in searches, meanwhile, fell from 15.9 to 37.2 over the same period.

David North, chairperson of the International Editorial Board of the WSWS, stated that Google is engaged in political censorship.

“The World Socialist Web Site has been in existence for nearly 20 years,” he said, “and it has developed a large international audience. During this past spring, the number of individual visits to the WSWS each month exceeded 900,000.

“While a significant percentage of our readers enter the WSWS directly, many web users access the site through search engines, of which Google is the most widely used. There is no innocent explanation for the extraordinarily sharp fall in readers, virtually overnight, coming from Google searches.

“Google’s claim that it is protecting readers from ‘fake news’ is a politically motivated lie. Google, a massive monopoly, with the closest ties to the state and intelligence agencies, is blocking access to the WSWS and other left and progressive web sites through a system of rigged searches.”

In the three months since Google implemented the changes to its search engine, fewer people have accessed left-wing and anti-war news sites. Based on information available on Alexa analytics, other sites that have experienced sharp drops in ranking include WikiLeaks, Alternet, Counterpunch, Global Research, Consortium News and Truthout. Even prominent democratic rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International appear to have been hit.

A broad range of left-wing, progressive, and anti-war sites have had their traffic rankings fall in recent months

According to Google Trends, the term “fake news” roughly quadrupled in popularity in early November, around the time of the US election, as Democrats, establishment media outlets and intelligence agencies sought to blame “false information” for the electoral victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

On November 14, the New York Times proclaimed that Google and Facebook “faced mounting criticism over how fake news on their sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome,” and they would be taking measures to combat “fake news.”

Ten days later, the Washington Post published an article, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” which cited an anonymous group known as PropOrNot that compiled a list of “fake news” sites spreading “Russian propaganda.”

The list included several sites categorized by the group as “left-wing.” Significantly, it targeted globalresearch.ca, which often reposts articles from the World Socialist Web Site.

After widespread criticism of what was little more than a blacklist of anti-war and anti-establishment sites, the Washington Post was forced to publish a retraction, declaring, “The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings.”

On April 7, Bloomberg News reported that Google was working directly with the Washington Post and the New York Times to “fact-check” articles and eliminate “fake news.” This was followed by Google’s new search methodology.

Three months later, out of the 17 sites declared to be “fake news” by the Washington Post ’s discredited blacklist, 14 had their global ranking fall. The average decline of the global reach of all of these sites is 25 percent, and some sites saw their global reach fall by as much as 60 percent.

“The actions of Google constitute political censorship and are a blatant attack on free speech,” North stated. “At a time when public distrust of establishment media is widespread, this corporate giant is exploiting its monopolistic position to restrict public access to a broad spectrum of news and critical analysis.”

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/07/27/goog-j27.html

Trump rejects his poll numbers as fake news — but even his voters are starting to notice the scam

Even voters who bought into Trump’s reputation as tough-talking deal-maker are starting to glimpse the truth

Stressed and agitated about all the “fake news” about Russia and his son’s legal predicament, not to mention the ongoing train-wreck of his legislative agenda, Donald Trump decided to spend the weekend watching and tweeting about the U.S. Women’s Open tournament at his New Jersey golf club. It had to make him feel a little better, since the profits from these golf properties go into his own pocket.

According to this report from McClatchy’s Anita Kumar, Trump is unique in that respect even as a business owner, much less a president of the United States — who would normally be assumed to be too busy to make personal appearances for publicity at his profit-making businesses virtually every week.

Trump’s Twitter feed indicated he was having a nice time, at least until the Washington Post unveiled its new poll numbers:

The ABC/Washington Post Poll, even though almost 40% is not bad at this time, was just about the most inaccurate poll around election time

That was a nice try, but the poll showed that Trump is actually at a 36 percentapproval rating, which is the lowest rating of any president at this point in his presidency since Harry Truman. He is down six points from his 100-day mark; his disapproval rating is at 58 percent, with 48 percent “strongly disapproving” — levels never reached by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and only reached in George W. Bush’s second term. He can tweet that it’s not bad all he wants, but it’s bad.

And it has to be mentioned that for all the right’s yammering about the election polls being wrong, they actually weren’t. The national average on the day before the election showed Hillary Clinton winning by a 3.5 percent margin, and she won the national popular vote by about 2 percent — easily within the margin of error. People were shocked on election night because they just couldn’t believe that he’d pulled off a weird inside straight in the electoral college, not because the polls had been rigged against him, which seems to be an article of faith among his faithful followers.

In any case, this poll shows that Trump is slipping badly with independent voters, 38 percent of whom approved of his leadership back in April. Only 32 percent are behind him now. Democrats aren’t even worth counting at 11 percent. Yes, Republicans are still in his corner for the most part: Eighty-four percent approved of him in April and 82 percent approve now. Experts suggest that a president is in real trouble when approval among his own party dips below 80 percent, and that hasn’t happened yet.

One of the most astonishing results in the poll regards the Russia scandal. Six in 10 Americans believe the Russian government tried to influence the election while 31 percent don’t think it happened and 9 percent are unsure. Sixty percent of the public believe it happened, and 67 percent of those people think the Trump campaign was complicit.

But here’s the weird number:

The number of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who think that the Russians sought to influence the election, and that the Trump team intentionally helped them, has fallen from 18 percent in April to 9 percent now, indicating even stiffer GOP resistance to the idea. Among leaned Democrats it’s gone from 60 to 64 percent, not a significant shift.

The more Republicans hear about it, the less they believe it happened. And we aren’t just talking about Trump true believers. This is all Republicans, even ones who held their noses to voted for him. Considering the information we have, it would be fair to say “we don’t know what really happen,ed” but for Republicans to think there’s less evidence today than there was three months ago is bizarre.

Still, a majority of Americans (52 to 37 percent) think Trump is interfering in the investigation and 63 percent think Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with someone he believed was from the Russian government, in hopes of collecting dirt on Hillary Clinton, was inappropriate. So there’s that.

While the Russia scandal may inform people’s views of Trump’s leadership, it’s his own behavior on the world stage that has 48 percent of the country believing that U.S. global leadership is weaker since Trump was inaugurated. Only 27 percent think it’s gotten stronger. That was supposed to be his big selling point — his unique talent for making deals with foreign leaders. But only a little over one-third trust Trump in any negotiations with foreign countries.

Fifty-five percent say that Trump is not making much progress on his goals, which is probably a relief to most of them, particularly when it comes to health care. That GOP bill continues to be about as popular as E. coli: Only 24 percent support it. More troubling for Trump and the GOP is that they’ve lost older voters and white women without college degrees on this issue. Older voters vote in midterm elections, and women without college degrees make up a large portion of the population that will be affected by the possible loss of health care. They might just vote in larger than usual numbers too.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll will be released later this week, but they teased their results with one interesting observation: Trump’s base may finally be eroding a bit. They sampled voters in counties that either flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 or where Trump did much better than Mitt Romney, and found that Trump’s support is slipping.

In those counties where Trump did much better than Romney, he beat Hillary Clinton by a combined 65 to 29 percent. Today he’s down to 56 percent approval. In the counties that flipped to Trump from Obama, the president’s approval rating is just 44 percent. He won those overall with 51 percent last November.

All of these numbers are dismal for the president. The big question is the reasoning behind it. Gallup has some answers. It’s not so much that people disagree on issues, which isn’t all that surprising since Trump is all over the map on those. Sixty-five percent of people who disapprove of his performance in office say it’s because of his character, personality and competency, specifically criticizing his bad temperament, arrogance, obnoxiousness, lack of experience, selfishness, racism and sexism, lack of knowledge, wishy-washiness and use of social media.

Certainly one can assume that Democrats, at least, are hostile to Trump’s stands on issues as well, but because of his bad character and incompetence they don’t feel that anything he says on the issues one way or the other is trustworthy. That’s his problem: Donald Trump is demonstrating his unfitness for the job, right out there for everyone to see, every single day.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

Separating fact from fake news

Danny Katch, author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, considers how the left can analyze the world in the Trumpian era of “alternative facts.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

ALL GOVERNMENTS lie, as the independent journalist I.F. Stone once said. But not all governments lie as proudly as those led by Donald Trump.

This guy started his presidency issuing an easily disprovable falsehood about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, a typically Trumpish blend of silly and creepy, like a dictator declaring that from this day forward the sky is officially orange (or climate change is a hoax). He lies so often that a whole category of his lies are denials of previous lies.

Corporate-owned media outlets generally obey the unwritten rule that the spokespeople for government sources should be treated as credible–regardless of how many times they’ve been caught lying–but the new president’s obvious disdain for the truth pushed many of them to adopt a more Stone-like stance of skepticism.

But Trump only needed to lob some missiles and bombs in enemy lands to restore the press back to its natural state of blind trust in authority. The Pentagon announced that it dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in eastern Afghanistan, and there was little mainstream questioning of the government’s claim that this monstrosity with a mile-wide blast radius managed to only kill bad guys.

Clearly the left has to take a different approach, and treat the word of the U.S. government as we would that of any individual with a similarly long history of murder and mendacity.

But if we don’t trust the government–and, by extension, many of the mainstream news reports that simply repeat government talking points–then how do we get our information?

The left doesn’t have the resources to replicate all of the bureaus and investigative reporting of media corporations. Progressive media like Democracy Now! and Truthout (or even your humble correspondents at SocialistWorker.org) can sometimes deliver important scoops, but radicals have no choice but to rely on larger outlets for much of our information.

The defining difference between the left and the corporate media is not that we have different facts–because we often don’t–but that we have different frameworks for interpreting and drawing conclusions from those facts. That’s important to keep in mind at a time when “alternative facts” are becoming a growing problem on the left as well as the right.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

OUR STARTING point at SocialistWorker.org is that, as mentioned, we don’t trust “our” government.

But we should be consistent like I.F. Stone and be suspicious of all governments–especially those like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people and lied about its crimes with a boldness that would make Sean Spicer bow down in admiration.

This is unfortunately not a universal method across the left. Like the closed circuit of right-wing websites passing the same fabrications back and forth about disease-spreading immigrants and “black-on-black crime,” there are a growing number of websites recycling dubious speculations about “false flag” operations in Syria designed to discredit the Assad government.

These conspiracy theories not only suck a few people down the “truther” rabbit hole, but they also create a deliberately muddled atmosphere on the left that can make new activists think they need to read detailed studies of the property of sarin gas just to have an opinion on something that couldn’t be more clear: the Assad government is monstrous.

SocialistWorker.org has drawn that conclusion not because the U.S. government says so, but because millions of Syrians have said so–including those who have been killed, jailed and exiled in the process.

That gets to the next element of our framework for evaluating facts and understanding the world. We may not trust governments, but we listen closely to ordinary people, particularly when they are organized in large-scale protest movements.

Protesters can lie, of course, and protest movements are subject to manipulation, whether by foreign agents or homegrown opportunists. But our starting assumption when hundreds of thousands or millions of people take to the streets is that they are not mere puppets of a foreign power.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HERE’S THE thing about government lies: They’re usually not very effective–and in reality, they don’t need to be.

When the cops kill another unarmed African American and claim he was charging at all five of them with a pair of scissors, they don’t get away with it because we all believe them–certainly not those of us who live in the neighborhood. They get away with it because cops are allowed to murder unarmed Black people. The lie is just a formality.

Or take the lies that the Bush administration told about Iraq having “weapons of mass destruction,” which some now cite as “precedent” for the U.S. lying about Assad using chemical weapons.

There are two false assumptions that have developed in recent years about the big WMD lie.

The first is that most people were tricked by the lie into supporting the war. In fact, the U.S. population was pretty much split down the middle, and the protests against the Iraq invasion before it happened were some of the largest in U.S. history. Like killer cops, the Bush administration went to war with Iraq not because they were able to fool us, but because they had the power to disregard popular will.

The second myth is that the WMD lie was essential for the war. In fact, it wasn’t necessarily the belief in WMDs that led people to support the invasion, but the other way around. Just as people who want to drill for more oil find a way to not believe in climate change, people who wanted the invasion to happen convinced themselves that Saddam Hussein had his finger on the button of an arsenal of WMDs.

As for our side, while we certainly didn’t believe the Bush’s lies–especially when they were contradicted by the person charged with inspecting Iraq for WMDs–many of us wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Iraq did indeed hide chemical or biological weapons. After all, the U.S. had considered Saddam Hussein an ally until he became an enemy.

Our opposition to the war wasn’t based on believing that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, but on the anti-imperialist understanding that the United States isn’t a force that would protect the world from those weapons.

Similarly today, opposing the U.S. waging war on the Syrian government doesn’t require us to believe the Assad regime didn’t carry out the recent poison gas attack (which it almost certainly did)–any more than protesting the Ferguson police murder of Mike Brown required us to know that Brown hadn’t first robbed cigarillos from a convenience store (which he almost certainly didn’t.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE LEFT that needs to grow into a force that can challenge Donald Trump has to be one that doesn’t create its own alternative facts to fit into our alternative politics. On the contrary, we have to do our best to gather and interpret new information from all available sources in order to keep up our understanding of a constantly changing world.

This dynamism is another element of our political framework, and it’s admittedly more complicated than simply trusting what the leaders of protest movements say more than governments. Assessing the changes in inter-imperial rivalries and the competing political tendencies inside opposition movements is not an exact science, and it requires a willingness to debate and change one’s mind.

But there’s a basic outline for understanding the U.S. role in the Middle East that’s clear. For years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. goal was regime change to install puppet governments across the region. Those plans were laid to waste, first by the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then by the 2011 Arab Spring rebellions, which turned “regime change” into a revolutionary demand that the U.S. government instinctively opposed.

That’s why the Obama administration was very cautious about backing rebels in Syria even as Assad turned the country into a killing field that sprouted both ISIS and a mass exodus of refugees to the surrounding region and some to Europe. And it’s why Trump came into office talking even more openly about working with and not against the Syrian regime.

Yes, the U.S. government has lied to go to war, and it will undoubtedly do so in the future. But we can assume that it isn’t lying about Assad’s sarin attack, not because Trump of all people is a trustworthy president, but because he didn’t want to go to war against Syria.

(Of course, reports like this New York Times article make it unclear if the Trump administration is even competent enough to know whether or not it’s lying.)

Fifteen years ago, the 9/11 conspiracy cult did damage, not good, to the antiwar cause, and more than a few decent leftists were sucked into the abyss of all-night Internet sleuthing and “you must be in on it, too” paranoia.

Their problem wasn’t that they were wrong that the U.S. government was probably hiding details about 9/11–like the involvement of Saudi Arabia. The problem was the illusion that if only they could uncover the “truth” and bring the conspiracy to light, we could get back to the normal decency of American capitalism and empire.

Today, it’s critical that the left exposes Trump’s lies, rather than counter them with our own. Otherwise, instead of winning millions of new people to our side, we’ll just add to the general cynicism that you can’t trust anything you read anywhere.

http://socialistworker.org/2017/04/20/separating-fact-from-fake-news

Noam Chomsky: Randomly Surfing the Web Is No Way to Educate Yourself

MEDIA

Internet Is a ‘Cult Generator’

A fact here, a fact there, and “all of a sudden you have some crazed picture.”

Photo Credit: Talks at Google/YouTube

Fake news has been around long before Facebook, but it was the tech company’s goal to appear like a newspaper that eventually misled its users far more than ever before.

“Technology is basically neutral,” author Noam Chomsky explained. “It’s kinda like a hammer…the hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull… same with modern technology [like] the internet. The internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for.”

Unfortunately, that’s almost the antithesis of Facebook. And while Paper, the ad-free Facebook news feed app ultimately failed, the social media network had by then successfully developed tools like Smart Publishing. The latter tool for publishers aimed to boost stories on Facebook that were popular with the user’s own network, amplifying the performance of fake news in a scandal-obsessed hyperpartisan era. But until five weeks after the election, there was little distinction on the platform between “news” published by conspiracy theorists and actual trusted news sources.

“If you don’t have [an idea what you’re looking for], exploring the internet is just picking out random factoids that don’t mean anything,” Chomsky stated. Without a specific strategy, he believes the internet is far more likely to be harmful than helpful.

“Random exploration through the internet turns out to be a cult generator,” Chomsky concluded. “Pick up the factoid here, a factoid there, somebody else reinforces it, and all of a sudden you have some crazed picture which has some factual basis, but nothing to do with the world. You have to know how to evaluate, interpret and understand.”

Despite having initially denied that hoaxes on Facebook influenced the presidential election, Facebook did begin flagging articles users identified as fake news in mid-December.

Facebook isn’t the only tech company faced with the onslaught of fake news; Google’s top stories are often totally illegitimate.

Chomsky doesn’t like Facebook for many reasons; however, he does use the internet for research.

Then there’s Donald Trump, who in May, after sharing a fake video to claim a protester’s non-existent ties to ISIS, said, “All I know is what’s on the internet.”

Watch: