The Fake-News Fallacy

from The New Yorker

On the evening of October 30, 1938, a seventy-six-year-old millworker in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, named Bill Dock heard something terrifying on the radio. Aliens had landed just down the road, a newscaster announced, and were rampaging through the countryside. Dock grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and went out into the night, prepared to face down the invaders. But, after investigating, as a newspaper later reported, he “didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting.” In fact, he’d been duped by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Structured as a breaking-news report that detailed the invasion in real time, the broadcast adhered faithfully to the conventions of news radio, complete with elaborate sound effects and impersonations of government officials, with only a few brief warnings through the program that it was fiction.

The next day, newspapers were full of stories like Dock’s. “Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123rd Street police station,” ready to evacuate, according to the Times. Two people suffered heart attacks from shock, the Washington Post reported. One caller from Pittsburgh claimed that he had barely prevented his wife from taking her own life by swallowing poison. The panic was the biggest story for weeks; a photograph of Bill Dock and his shotgun, taken the next day, by a Daily News reporter, went “the 1930s equivalent of viral,” A. Brad Schwartz writes in his recent history, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.”

More here.


5 Responses to The Fake-News Fallacy

  1. Meghan Healy September 15, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Fake news has been a sad reality for decades. Whether it be an alien report from October of 1938 or the discontinuation of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from September of this year, fake news has persisted. These false stories have been present since the 1930’s when the radio was made popular. Almost 80 years later, we are still questioning the accuracy of the information that is given to us over various media outlets. In 2017, fake news has varied from the closure of Walt Disney World, to CNN staging a Hurricane Harvey rescue video, to the death of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While some of these stories can be viewed as innocent gossip, others resemble manipulation into forming opinions in favor of a political agenda.

    Almost anything can be viewed as fake news. As described in the beginning of the article, even the so-called mass hysteria caused by the fake alien invasion news in 1938 was exaggerated. The alleged outbreak of delirium was fabricated by the newspapers to show that the radio could be reckless. As a result, people would start questioning what could be believed by these radio stations. Similarly, the media has us questioning what is real and what is fake with every article they produce.

    The article discusses the belief that Americans were dim-witted. This idea was sparked when intelligence tests on World War I soldiers revealed “discouraging news about the capacities of the Average American.” During the War of the Worlds hysteria, listeners who believed the story were considered “idiotic” and “stupid”. The story was possibly produced to specifically reach the audience that would believe the lies. Current news outlets probably possess the same idea of citizens being dim-witted. That is why they feed us these stories – they possess they notion that we are dumb enough to believe them.

    The article also mentions Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to spew lies to help his presidential campaign. Multiple fake news stories came out that supported Trump and gave the appearance that he was gaining unbelievable supporters, such as Pope Francis. If people saw that the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic Church – could be pro-Trump, they might then become pro-Trump as well. In the radio’s earlier days, it wanted to create a more democratic society. They created programs that resembled a forum to promote political engagement and diversity. The radio aimed to create active, rational, tolerant listeners that would make ideal citizens of a democratic society. In a way, news is a form of manipulation. The media shares certain stories in hopes of influencing the public’s opinions of a certain subject. The idea of fake news probably started with propaganda. Certain groups or organizations wanted people to lean a certain way or support a certain idea. They would put out advertisements that would influence people to think a certain way about a topic. This is similar to the alleged story of the Pope supporting Trump. One could see the headline ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’ and send it to their friends so they could either panic or celebrate together. Social media has made it easier for these stories to be spread, and for greater mass hysteria to be created. These stories can be shared with friends in a matter of seconds. The acceleration of these fake news stories will soon be even more detrimental to our society.

  2. KM October 28, 2017 at 6:58 pm #

    The issues that we are facing now due to the influence of fake-news are unprecedented and unmatched. While the article “The Fake-News Fallacy” attempts to equate our current situation to the broadcast of Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, I feel that this analogy undersells the pervasiveness and influence of fake-news in the age of the internet. Radio was far more limited in its reach in the 1930’s. According to an article titled “Radio: The Internet of the 1930s” on approximately 50% of urban and 27% of rural homes had a radio. Compare that to the internet today and we see that in 2016 approximately 66.6% of people in The Americas have access to the internet, according to an article by Adam Taylor on The Washington Post website. We have moved from a once more limited means of communication to one that allows us to disseminate information on a global scale.

    While Chen raises many valid points in his article, I found his reference to fake-news being similar to a virus to be not only interesting but also quite accurate. Social media has afforded fake-news the ability to “infect” mass amounts of users by being passed through tweets, tags, and likes. While not everyone believes what they read on social media, as Chen’s article notes only “4% of American Internet users trust social media ‘a lot’”, these fake articles are still surviving and “replicating”, causing the true news to be lost in a sea of lies. The question then becomes how to solve the issue of fake-news. As Chen points out, many currents solutions are tied to anti-virus type programs. Chen also notes that a venture capitalist, on the tech blog Venture Beat, suggested releasing artificial intelligence to serve as a “media cop.” My question is: How do we teach a program or AI to know what is false or fake, when we as users cannot always determine this? Why do we continue to let technology make the decisions for us? As can be seen in other articles on this blog, such as “Your Artificial Intelligence Is Not Bias Free”, bias exists in AI and it influences the results that are returned. If we utilize computer programs and AI to filter out fake news, we run the potential of restricting the information we receive in ways beyond just weeding out what is fake or not.

    What appears to be an underlying theme, within many of the articles that I have read and commented on in this blog, is that major tech companies have excessive amounts of power and influence over society and how we think and act. Chen discusses in his article how platforms such as Facebook and Google now “define the experience of the Internet for most people, and in many ways they play the role of regulator.” As Chen also points out, we allow algorithms on platforms like Google and Facebook to allow us to get stuck in “filter bubbles” that generate the same cycle of thought by feeding us information based on our preferences. While I do not support the idea of the FCC regulating the content of the Internet, as they were called upon to do in the radio field, I do feel there needs to be some form of regulation among the platforms and news outlets that extends beyond just the major platforms. It might be time for platforms such as Google and Facebook, in order to temper their power and influence, to unite with news outlets to develop a self-imposed set of standards and a united plan to combat fake news.

    Chen’s article highlights the beauty and the danger of the internet in regards to information dissemination. In this day in age we have access to more information than at any other point in time due to the expansive nature of the internet and the digitizing of information. However, while we have access to this immense amount of information we are now charged with determining what is true and what is false. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is that we each must become a discerning user. It has become more difficult to not only determine if and what type of bias the sources that we rely on have, but also whether or not these sources are relaying the truth. Much like an auditor in the accounting field, we must each maintain a questioning mind by approaching information we attain online with an air of skepticism, regardless of how reliable the source may seem. (Arens, Pg. 303) Just because you can find something on the internet, does not mean it is true.

    Additional Sources:

    Arens, Alvin A., et al. Auditing and Assurance Services: an Integrated Approach. Pearson, 2017.

    Radio: The Internet of the 1930’s

    Adam Taylor

  3. Rebecca Hu November 3, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

    Everything is biased on this world, there are two sides to everything. So as news information, different sides will present the audience with different information. It is almost similar to a deceptive advertisement, because of the news agency’s own views will report information that would direct the audience thinking the same with the news agency.
    Information can be accessed too easily. Before the age of technology, information has to be published in papers. We do not get news update immediately until the next day, everyone has access to a mobile device. Everyone can be a reporter with their phone, recording evidence and spreading the information on social media platform. The vast majority of the American population rely on social media and interne to get access to information such as news. Fake news is everywhere because everyone can be a reporter. This is not something new, it is just more common and easier to do because of the age of internet and technology.
    The article mainly discusses the radio, how it misleads Bill Dock believing that Aliens are landing on Earth. It also discusses the usage of twitter by Donald Trump. I find it interesting that “most people seem to understand that their social-media streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment.” It is clear to people that the information sources posted on their social-media timeline cannot be trusted. Yet, it seems like everyone is blaming Facebook and Google for fake news for the Presidential election last year.
    There is the idea of having a media cop to maintain everything in order, fact checking and trying to eliminate ridiculous fake news that made no common sense. For me personally, I never thought the fake news could have such a big impact and issue in the society. I just see it as fake advertising. When we watch an advertisement on TV or other forms of media. We don’t necessarily believe in every word the advertisement said because obviously there is bias in the advertisement. The ultimate goal of the advertisement is to increase sales. So is fake news, the purpose of having a ridiculous story and eye-catching headline is for people to click.
    Society and lifestyle have totally changed because of the way we are communicating change. Communication is not only limited to face to face. We can get information to another location of the globe incredibly fast. There are too many things we can do because of this level of convenience, this includes making up information. Because there is just too many information scatter in the world of internet. I believe because fake news is getting more common, it is important to emphasize the skills for people to determine the reliability of the information.
    The solution to this issue is for people to use their brain and think. Most people know we should not blindly believe on information from the internet. Yet, we are still blaming that the technology companies should put in more effort on maintaining the validity of the information. We defiantly should put in more resource on securing information on data. But also it’s time to improve our education to make people think about the data we were given. We moved on from spending a lot of time gathering information, we are now into an era to modify the data we have and use it for a different purpose.

  4. Joane L November 11, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

    Technology has made it easier for people to retrieve the news and stay up to date with the events around the world. But most importantly, the sources of our news is a major concern, since technology has also made it possible for people to post fake news as a way to be deceitful. Fake news mostly contain dramatized and rumor-filled evidence, which is what most readers are drawn to. Sometimes, regardless if the truth has been told, there are people who would choose believe the fake news. In recent news headlines, the President himself made claims that he created fake news, his version of fake news however, is anything he does not agree with. It is believable that fake news gain popularity on a political subjects, raising issues within political parties. In fact, fake news had a great impact on the 2016 election. The big contributions to fake news is that, most adults now get their news from social media instead of reading a newspaper or watching a news channel. Fake news date back to 1938 with the launch of War of the Worlds, a dramatic science fiction broadcasting show that aimed to report fake events as a comedy, but instead scared people to even moving out of state to avoid being attacked from Aliens. Because it is now easy to set up websites and there are no barriers to what you can accomplish with technology, we can expect this trend of fake news to expand. Some sites are set up intentionally to spread false information, while others are just after popularity and choose to post blogs, stories and articles without engaging in any research.

  5. Chris Goldfarb January 26, 2018 at 6:56 pm #

    There are a plethora of articles every day describing how social media and the internet in general have transformed society and continue to do so at an exponential rate. The rise of social media is a topic no one seems to be able to get away from. There is a perfectly valid reason for this in that no one with a smartphone, tablet, laptop or any other modern computing device is more than a couple of clicks away from the infinite river of information that is the internet and this constant proximity without barrier presents a huge problem. Since there is nothing stopping anyone from at any given moment sharing their thoughts with the world, we as humans have to rely on our own willpower to stop ourselves from doing that and it is well known that humans have never been particularly good at relying on our will power to stop us from anything. Here lies the truth behind social media, social media does not transform society it enhances it.
    While the differences between changing something and enhancing it are minor those differences are significant and especially relevant to the current conversation surrounding social media. This is something I believe Adrian Chen gets spot on in his article “The Fake-News Fallacy”. In Chen’s analysis of fake news he gives in anecdote regarding Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast where he narrated an adaption of “The War of the Worlds”. In this anecdote Chen describes how the mass spread of information can cause strong instinctual reactions before anyone ever really verifies that information. In the article Chen even admits that amount of people who had those extreme reactions is debated as the broadcast had a relative small audience. What this whole anecdote does so well is point out that with all the contemporary talk about the dangers of fake news, people back in 1938 were just as susceptible. Social media has not changed people reactions to fake news it’s just increased the amount and the speed of its dissemination to make it more prevalent.
    This concept that people are inherently impressionable and have a tendency to believe information that agrees with their preconceptions about the world can be tied back even further into things like Plato’s “Republic”. In “Republic” Plato goes into great detail talking about the dangers of rhetoric and explains the principle that whoever is the best orator is the one with the power. What connects all these things is that people have always bad at differentiating truth from fiction and thousands of years later the only things that has changed is the forum in which we use to communicate, and with each change in forum comes a revolution in people’s ability to manipulate other people.
    As Chen points out that as our society has progressed more and more people have clued into this fact and that one the most egregious examples of this is modern advertising culture. Companies has worked very hard to make sure that any time you aren’t sleeping is spent looking at an advertisement whether it’s walking through Times Square, the TV in your house, or the pop up ads on YouTube there is no escaping them. Every single one of these advertisements has the same goal, convince you to buy something you don’t want to buy. The way these companies do this is by bombarding you over and over with same slogan or cartoon character until that particular product becomes etched into your psyche, with the hopes that through exposure over time you will gradually have be more receptive to their brand.
    It’s also important in not that commercial advertising is not the only advertising there is. When I say social media enhances society it does how by exaggerating every single aspect of it by giving everyone a voice. This phenomenon is magnified tenfold in the world of politics, a concept completely dependent on people having a voice and expressing their views, so by connecting the volatile world of politics with a platform that gives everyone a voice and in an instant social media becomes the most vicious political battleground there is.
    Circling back to the 2016 election we have never gotten such a clear demonstration of this idea in full effect. President Donald Trump may have his critics but no can argue about the effectiveness of his campaign, when he first announced his candidacy it was widely considered a joke and now he’s sitting in the White House. Whether he fully understands how he’s done it or not he’s mastered social media using it and done so in a way we have seldom seen before. While you can’t argue about how well his campaign worked one thing you can argue about is the ethical implications involved with it. As I said we’ve never really seen someone use social media the way Mr. Trump has used it but we have absolutely seen his style of campaign before and it’s horribly reminiscent of things like soviet campaigns. In Soviet Russia and even under Putin’s Russia a common tactic they used is something called equivalency. Equivalency essentially is a way of justifying your actions by portraying them as a less then or equivalent evil compared to something someone else did. What this does is misdirect attention from you to your political opponent and change the conversation from criticizing you to criticizing them. In the end this tactic isn’t new but the ethics behind is very clearly murky at best and while social media gives everyone a voice it also makes tactics like equivalency way more effective establishing its status as the ultimate political weapon.

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