How can we deal with fake news?

If we’re trying to repair our relationships and by doing so, heal our country, one of our obstacles is fake news. We disagree about what’s true. As someone I know put it, we used to know it was true if Walter Cronkite said it, now we don’t.

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That’s because our media is splintered, not just by cable news, but also on the internet and on social media. People who’ve studied the media say that the lead stories and the interpretations they’re given vary dramatically from NBC to Fox. The rest of the networks will lead with one story and Fox might ignore it. Or give it a very different interpretation. And of course, social media is a major disconnect. Lots of people get their news from a Facebook group they’re part of or from the people they follow on Twitter, many of which are partisan. One conservative man I know sent out an email proudly stating that he had cut the cord on cable because he got his news from the internet, which was all he needed. He went on to quote extensively from Breitbart, which he considered an impeccable source.

It doesn’t help that our former president called anything he didn’t like, anything that showed him in a bad light, “fake news.”

But what is fake?

According to the Washington Post fact checkers, the final count of lies by President Trump was over 30,000 — half of them in his last year.

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Trump’s claim that he won the election fits with his overall pattern of lying. Even after President Biden was sworn in, Trump continued to insist that he won the election. He lost multiple lawyers for his second impeachment trial, who might have resigned because they wouldn’t go along with that claim. The lawyers who did represent Trump in the most recent trial did repeat his claim about the election.   

However, there’s no evidence that Trump actually won the 2020 election. In over 60 challenges in court, Trump has only won one. The claims that were made in public statements about voting machines changing the votes never made it into court. There have been recounts that confirmed Biden’s win in multiple states, twice in Georgia. Biden has been sworn in as president. This week, the Supreme Court rejected the last two claims made by the Trump campaign about a fraudulent election.

The truth does come out in court, when people have to swear to tell the truth and can’t rely on just repeating statements with no evidence. In court cases, you have to have proof, so they had to abandon most of their claims. And, except in one case, they didn’t have evidence. It seems, unlike what he says to the media, in the past, when asked to testify in court, former President Trump doesn’t lie; he says he can’t recall.

The courts are getting involved in another way, as lawsuits are being filed by the voting systems companies (Dominion and Smartmatic) against those making claims of election fraud. The targets of the suit are Trump’s lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell (both Dominion and Smartmatic), as well as Fox News and three of its hosts (Smartmatic).  Dominion also sent letters to Fox, Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN) warning that similar litigation against them is imminent, and indeed has filed one of those suits.

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The action in the courts has changed the playing field. OANN is trying to protect itself from potential lawsuits by making its hosts read a disclaimer even as they give airtime to people like Mr. Pillow’s Mike Lindell, who are making statements that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Here’s part of a 90-second the disclaimer that OANN aired before a broadcast, “Michael James Lindell has purchased the airtime for the broadcast of this program on One America News (‘OAN’) network ... In particular, OAN does not adopt or endorse any statements or opinions in this program regarding the following entities or people: US Dominion Inc. (and any related entities); Smartmatic USA Corp.; Brian Kemp; Brad Raffensperger; or Gabriel Sterling.” Oh, and now Dominion has filed a lawsuit against Mike Lindell, who blusters that he has “proof.”

Observers who study politics call former President Trump’s assertion that he won the 2020 election despite evidence to the contrary, the “Big Lie.” A “Big Lie” is a propaganda claim so outrageous that people believe it must be true. This an English translation of a term coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf, which he used to describe the claim that the Jews had blamed Germany’s loss in World War I on a particular general, when, in Hitler’s mind, the Jews were to blame. Then, Hitler used his Big Lie to justify the Holocaust.  

By his pattern of lies and attacks on statements that he doesn’t like, former President Trump has created an atmosphere where the truth is under attack. How do we know what’s true? And what do we say when people we disagree with are quoting “alternative facts” (as Kellyanne Conway termed them)? It’s disorienting when people just don’t seem to believe the same facts! 

The whole concept is made even messier by the difference between what is news and what is commentary. The difference isn’t always clear. I personally was surprised to hear that Fox got a court to dismiss a slander case against Tucker Carlson by claiming his show was entertainment and not news and didn’t have to be accurate. I would be very surprised if Tucker’s most dedicated viewers knew this. It’s not just Fox that uses this as a defense; a similar court case was dismissed against MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow about a statement she made about OANN. Opinion shows aren’t held to the same standard as news. The judge in Tucker’s case wrote that a “reasonable viewer with an appropriate amount of skepticism” would know that the facts were exaggerated. This could apply to the comedic hosts who routinely include politics in their shtick.

Why does this lying and exaggeration work? Don’t people see behind the lies? It seems not. Why? Because, most times, we aren’t “reasonable viewers.”

That’s because of what psychologists call confirmation bias. That’s when we pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe and dismiss information that conflicts with it. To be clear, it’s not just “them” that have it. We all have it. It’s a normal, natural part of being human.

But I want to focus on the solutions. It’s going to be hard — otherwise, it would have already been done.

In order to combat this, first we need to focus on our own confirmation bias. If we don’t do that, we open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy. Also, the only person we can change is ourselves. And, when we do so, we model the change for others. More about this later.

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We all think we’re sophisticated consumers of news, but few of us follow all the steps that Richmond Shreve lays out in his book, Credible? (I was gifted a copy of the book he wrote with his coauthor Susan Mehrtens, which is available on Lulu.com.) His suggestions include:

·       Scan the article quickly.

·       Look for what he calls skepticism triggers. Some of these are the use of innuendo, all or never statements, attacks on the person’s character, no independent sources, absence of obvious questions that the author should know, and emotional triggers. (I’ll come back to emotional triggers in a minute.)

·       Identify the purpose of the article. Where is it on the continuum of objective reporting, analysis, opinion, rant, advocacy, and propaganda? The courts have obviously thought about these distinctions.

·       Watch for tropes or memes that are used to bypass rational thought. These are used a lot by comedic commentators.

·       Evaluate whether the language being used is deliberately obscure.

·       Fact check. Interestingly, he differs from some media literacy experts who recommend fact checking everything by suggesting not taking the time and energy to fact check everything, but only if the article passes the previous steps.

I confess, I don’t follow all these steps. But I think I do have a nose for skepticism. I probably should hone it more as Shreve suggests.

One suggestion from Tim Harford, journalist and author of the recently published book The Data Detective is to notice our own reactions. If we’re in a heightened emotional state (as highlighted by Shreve), we might be being manipulated. He made this statement in relation to data, but it also applies to everything we read. I think we have to be particularly careful about stories that play to our emotional triggers (as Shreve suggests) and also on our moral foundations. As I talk about in my book, Persuade, Don’t Preach, when I became aware of how journalists and politicians use those moral foundations to manipulate me, it made me mad! I am certainly aware of that.

The answer? Educate ourselves on the ways that we’re being swayed. I haven’t read The Data Detective yet, but that’s his topic. As happened to me, once you can notice your own reaction, you can start to put space between what the media or politicians say and how you react.

Another valuable insight I gained from the book Credible? came from Shreve’s co-author, Susan Mehrtens. As a Jungian psychology expert, Susan brings a fresh perspective to this discussion beyond the normal questions about credibility. I didn’t know that Carl Jung wrote extensively about various different forms of truth, and when they’re useful. I was particularly struck by his thought that absolute truth is unknowable, available only to an omniscient being.

And two other concepts were helpful to me. First, the idea of a useful truth, which Jung used in therapy.  He saw how people’s view of truth changed as they grew and evolved in therapy. Because our view of truth is context-dependent (very true in our current political situation), a view of truth is useful if it helps us move on beyond our problem. That struck a chord with me, since one of the lessons in seminary was how context shapes our perceptions. I would add that a view of truth that causes harm is not useful, such as when those who invaded the Capitol acted on the view that the election was stolen.

The final concept that Jung identified was paradoxical truth, which “holds the tension of opposites and thus fosters movement, growth and change.” This also struck a chord with me; we learned a similar concept in seminary, “both/and”. Both things can be true, even if they appear to contradict one another and we need to look for the way to integrate them. Because all humans are context-bound, we’re limited in what we believe is true. When we encounter an opposing viewpoint, it’s coming from a different context, one that has a grain of truth in it. Jung tells us that doing that leads to growth and change.

So, I’ll come back to the purpose of this newsletter. How can we use this to help us mend our relationships? The model I’ve been working with is the following:

·       Ask questions

·       Listen

·       Affirm

·       Reframe

Now that we know what the experts say about credibility, we can frame some new questions. Of course, be careful about hypocrisy. Don’t ask someone a question that you haven’t answered for yourself.

Here’s some questions you might consider asking someone who’s saying something that might be relying on a questionable source. Some of the questions are from the above sources, some are from other places. You might want to frame your questions as, “Here are some questions that I’m trying to apply in my own media consumption, that might be useful to you in this age of fake news.” (Don’t lie; do this first for yourself!) But remember, your goal is to mend the relationship, to have a discussion that brings you closer, so don’t turn this into an interrogation. Don’t feel the need to ask all the questions. Instead, be curious, and try to use this as an opportunity to learn.  

·       Where did you read that? How long have you been reading information from that source? Have you found it trustworthy? How did you know it was trustworthy?

·       Where did you used to get your news?  What made you change? How has your life changed since you changed sources? Have you become more informed? Or do you later find that you miss things?

·       Are there any stories that have been particularly meaningful to you?

·       Have there been any stories that turned out to not be true?

·       Is it useful? Does it help you understand the world better? Does it fit into what you already think, or does it stretch you?

·       Does the article try to make you upset or fearful? How does it do that? Is that what you want your news to do?

Then of course, listen to what’s being said. Try to find something to agree with, like, “It’s important to find a trustworthy news source.” Or, “Yes, I get upset about some of what I hear.” Be especially alert for something you can learn that you didn’t know. I recently had an email discussion with someone where I learned about how the Trump administration had stopped funding international women’s health organizations that also provided abortions. I didn’t know that until this person told me.

On to the last step. I usually call it “reframe,” but I’ll change it to “respond” in this instance because I haven’t come up with a reframing suggestion yet. Here’s my suggestion. Why don’t you close with a comment about how you’re trying to change your news consumption or be more aware of your media consumption and how media has affected you. Then you could ask whether the person has considered making any changes like that. My personal favorite is the idea of placing mental space between the news and you, especially if you’re getting emotional. If we all did that, perhaps things would calm down.

Finally, let’s think about Jung’s concept of paradoxical truth. How might that help? It can help you as you listen. Look for things the other is saying that are new to you or are surprising. Is there a kernel of truth that you should pay attention to? We all need to learn and grow and this is one way.

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