Facebook And The ‘Poisoning of Information’

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 By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“Wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government... whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789

 “(You believe) the fastest way to destroy democracy is to poison the information,” CNN Reliable Sources host said to guest Scott Pelley Sunday morning in an interview. Pelley was the CBS evening news anchor and is a host for the CBS 60 Minutes program. Stelter was interviewing him about his new book, “Truth Worth Telling.”

 “This is the thing that worries me most about our beloved country,” Pelley replied. “We have gone from the information age into the disinformation age….

“Our viewers and our readers now have a responsibility that they have never had before, and that is that they have to be careful about how they choose their information diet. This is going to be a problem for the rest of our history and a problem in particular for democracies,” he told Stelter.

We saw another example of just how bad the misinformation wars are becoming last week when a doctored video of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appeared on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the big three of social media.  The video showed an apparently inebriated or disoriented Pelosi stumbling through a speech with slurred language.

Created by the conservative Facebook user Politics WatchDog, it was intended to destroy Pelosi’s credibility with the American people. It was published not long after she had given a speech at the Center for American Progress saying President Trump’s unwillingness to work with Congress as it investigates Russian interference with our elections and politics suggested a “cover-up.”

The video received millions of views before it was proven to be a fake. Facebook, which many call their primary source of the news, acknowledged that the video had been intentionally manipulated to create a false impression of Pelosi. However, it refused to take the video down. It added some cautionary language that the video was false but absolved itself of responsibility for its content or continued availability.

“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy and counterterrorism executive, said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”

“We aren’t in the news business. We’re in the social media business,” Bickert said. Apparently, the part of providing accurate information is an equal companion with delivering misinformation. It is up to the viewers and readers of social media to figure out which is which. She assumes people who see the false information will seek out or care to find, information that challenges what they want to believe. She assumes readers and viewers have the time, or interest, to dig deeper if the information Facebook provides seems wrong or misleading. Most don’t. They will be left with false impressions that poison their understanding of our leaders and the critical issues we face.

This isn’t just a problem for national politics; it enters our daily lives in small-town rural Minnesota. Local residents habitually share information they find on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media sites. What they see and read shapes their beliefs. Those beliefs might have to do with the truth about our changing climate or about how much money Benson schools spent trying to remodel the civic center. It might have to do with the actions of our county board, city councils, healthcare center, law enforcement, or local business.

There is no verification of what is shared, just the posting of people’s opinions too often shaped by misinformation, prejudice, and anger.

Making informed decisions generally requires getting accurate information, not being subjected to an outright lie and then being required to discover its falsehood as Facebook proposes.

Facebook and other social media are deeply infected by those whose sole goal is the manipulation of our beliefs. Some do it for entertainment, getting a rise out of people with their outrageous distortions of truth. Some, such as Politics WatchDog, do it to destroy their opponents. The Russian government does it to influence America’s voters and its election outcomes.

In the past six months, Facebook has deleted 3 billion fake accounts. It can’t catch them all. It estimates that as many as 119 million of its active users are fake sites - sites that spread false information and hate speech.

We are motivated to lay down our lives for freedom, for liberty, and for a representative government; for freedom of religion, speech, assembly, petition, and the press. We fight for a system that protects the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

That fight for freedom has to be based on good intelligence. When our information is corrupted, with no source of knowledge other than divisive social media, partisan political organizations, religious zealots, and government sources, we won’t know if what we are fighting for is truth or lie.

We won’t know if we are voting for a cause that will limit our freedoms, delay action required to make our communities safer, implement changes that slow climate change, or put leaders in office who are out to enrich themselves rather than serve their constituents.

Newspapers, radio stations such as Minnesota Public Radio, and the mainstream television networks provide news with a high standard for accuracy and truth. In rural America, the newspaper is often the only source of trusted news about the local government and community. What happens if we disappear?

“As journalists, we have to tell the truth, and tell it again, and tell it again…because the people have to have reliable information to make decisions about our country. There is no democracy without journalism,” Pelley told Stelter.

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