Monday, December 12, 2016

Revealing fakery – and stupidity

As a result of this past US election, we’ve become aware of the phenomenon of fake news—or faked news, as it might better be called, since it’s usually made of deliberate falsehoods. At the same time, there are far too many people who are convinced that the mainstream newsmedia is filled with falsehoods. Put together, this may be an existential threat to democracy itself.

Like a lot of people, I’ve read a lot about faked news, about the European teenagers who spread a lot of the stuff, how the Russian government frequently used faked news as part of its efforts to destabilise other countries in an effort to block opponents, and even how some fakers did it just for the money.

However, I recently became aware of the extent to which the Rightwing (and some of the Leftwing) in the USA is convinced—utterly certain—that the mainstream news media always lies, and that it engages in spreading deliberate falsehoods in an effort to control/brainwash/etc. ordinary people. In the old days, we’d have laughed at such people, maybe thought they needed professional help. Now, we have them harangue us on Facebook.

There’s not much that we can do about unhinged folks and their conspiracy theory rants (apart from block them on Facebook, which I did a few times to both Rightwingers and Leftwingers after the US election). However, there’s something we can do to make it easier for us to avoid getting sucked in by both faked news and unreliable sources.

I’ve talked many times about what I do to evaluate sources of information (like I did in a post in 2012), and how I double-check most things, especially if it seems to reinforce my own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions too neatly. I also fact-check stuff from our adversaries, but in that case it’s to debunk it, and through that I’ve sometimes found that what they’re saying is true, or that what I believed wasn’t quite true. This is a huge benefit of checking all the time.

However, few of us have the time to check everything, so technology has delivered some shortcuts that help this problem.

Not long ago I switched to using the Chrome browser full-time (a story in itself), and it has numerous extensions that are extremely useful for all sorts of things. I added two that help fight fake and unreliable news.

The first is called “Fake New Alert”, and it uses a list of suspect sites to put a yellow and black bar across to the top of a window to alert uses that a site may contain false or misleading news. It doesn’t stop the user from accessing the site, it just provides a warning. So far, I’ve been able to safely ignore the warnings (because of my normal vetting process), but it’s good to have the reminder.

Another extension, “B.S. Detector”, does the same thing, but goes one step farther: It posts an alert on things that people share on Facebook to alert you that the link is to a site considered unreliable, and tells you the reason why (such as, that it trades in conspiracy theories). Again, the alerts don’t prevent the user from accessing the sites, they merely raise a warning.

I found one Leftwing site flagged by B.S. Detector because it was highly partisan, something that by itself doesn’t mean it’s not accurate, though it does suggest there’s some spin involved. I also saw a share on Facebook from The Onion flagged because of satire, something some users have complained about, but that experience has shown me to be a useful thing. So far, the flags have been pretty straightforward—and so far I ignore them if I want to check out a site.

I have both extensions installed, which means that questionable websites are getting both flags at the moment, and on some sites they overlap. I may turn one or the other off eventually, but at the moment they don’t always flag the same sites.

But even a simple warning is too much for the delicate flowers on the rightwing. I read many rightwing meltdowns in reviews of the two extensions. At the core of the gripe was the reality that some rightwing sites do, in fact, spread fake news and conspiracy theories, and they hate that being revealed. They also don’t understand what censorship is, especially that a banner at the top of their browser window that doesn’t stop them from visiting a site is not “censorship”. And, they conflate accuracy of information with merely accurately matching their ideology, prejudices, and partisanship.

These extensions are useful because they alert users to potential problems on a site that may need some more investigation. Sure, we should all do that from time to time, but a little reminder never hurt anyone.

I first found out about these Chrome extensions (by accident) on Mashable.

The graphic above is an enlargement of the "poop" emoji on Apple OS. 

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