October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

August 15, 2016

An Amusing Aside

I’m finishing an essay — due today — for the American Political Science Association conference in Philadelphia. The title is “Race, Poverty, and Police: A Conversation.” Here’s what it’s about:

How might we understand #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter in terms of #allmenarecreatedequal?

It’s about memes and hashtags and the conversation we’re not having because we cannot have it.

February 21, 2015

Narrative Bias and Superstition

This article in The Atlantic calls it magical thinking or superstition. I call it narrative bias.

If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately [1].

I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.

Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

September 3, 2014

Rhetoric, Truthiness, and Critical Thinking

Minus the partisan spin, this article in Slate explains the rhetoric of truthiness in a useful way.

It also creates an excellent argument for critical thinking as a civic virtue. Truthiness — a product of terministic screens — is something opposite of the product of critical thinking. Truthiness is only possible in the absence of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is difficult.

Thus, this Slate article:

Newman, who works out of the University of California–Irvine, recently uncovered an unsettling precondition for truthiness: The less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems. When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it—whether or not we should.

I’m not sure education can address this, seeing as how its project has taken many hits of late from assertions of truthiness from across the political spectrum. Did I mention critical thinking also makes the people politically troublesome and more difficult to “lead”?

August 7, 2014

Mass New Media Word Salad

Yes, I did just start a website for my MED581 Issues in media Ethics class called Mass New Media Citizen Ethics. My challenge was coming up with a name that captures the complex nature of media ethics now that citizens — especially millennials — are also, and expect to be, media producers, i.e. more than just a part of the conversation.

I think it works 😉

School starts on 18 August. So keep an eye out for their contributions. And use the contact form to make suggestions. The comment system will be open.

I have listed the site on the sidebar under Media Ethics. I will not be listing it as a part of the Rhetorica Network just yet. Still mulling that over.

January 22, 2014

Taking a Break, Back in the Spring

Rhetorica and Carbon Trace will be on an extended blogging hiatus until sometime in the spring.

This is mostly a career-related break. I have several projects and matters to attend to that are going to require my full attention.

Now, when I say full attention, that doesn’t mean I’m going dark. I’ll still be commenting on the various topics of interest related to my two blogs through Facebook and Twitter.

I know you’re all out there just clinging to the edges of your seats 🙂

Back soonish…

November 13, 2012

The Whole Content Thing

I’ve written many times on Rhetorica about the differences between stenography and reporting. The essential difference is that stenography (the thing reporters do too often) is the mere passing along of statements made by others, and reporting is the digging into the issues of civic importance to discover the information people need to be free and self-governing.

In a recent blog post about the questionable future of journalism, Robert G. Picard describes the usual stenography:

Most journalists spend the majority of their time reporting what a mayor said in a prepared statement, writing stories about how parents can save money for university tuition, covering the release of the latest versions of popular electronic devices, or finding out if a sports figure’s injury will affect performance in the next match.

Most cover news in a fairly formulaic way, reformatting information released by others: the agenda for the next town council meeting, the half dozen most interesting items from the daily police reports, what performances will take place this weekend, and the quarterly financial results of a local employer. These standard stories are merely aggregations of information supplied by others.

Almost any of my students — people between 18 and 24 years old — can spot the problem immediately. And I’m not talking stenography (although that’s a problem). The problem here is that the kind of information gathered by stenography is, today, easily gathered and disseminated by almost anyone with a bit of gumption and an internet connection.

What Picard suggests — and it’s important — is really just a new way of understanding the traditional job of journalism we call reporting:

To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context, explain how and why they happened, and prepare the public for future developments.  These value-added journalism approaches are critical to the economic future of news organizations and journalists themselves.

Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.

Value-added journalism. That should be redundant, but it isn’t because he’s right.

Our culture can no longer afford the luxury of news organizations paying journalists to pass along their stenography. Our culture needs good journalism; it needs good reporting. So by all means let’s be redundant: We need value-added journalism.

(Note: Critical journalism? Where have you heard that before?)

March 28, 2012

A Defining Moment

After they spit me out the other end of the graduate school machine, I would have conversations such as this with people I would meet:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: English composition and rehtoric.

Person: Oh, I’ll have to watch how I speak.

Every English teacher in the English-speaking world has had this conversation because it seems every speaker of English is scared to death of making a “grammatical” error (which tells you something about the language or English education or both). I developed this response:

Me: Don’t bother. I’m a content guy.

But the world was simpler then. I knew who I was. Despite the funky stereotype, when I told people I teach English they knew what I meant. If I answered “rhetoric,” I’d get a measure of curiosity that, appeared to me at least, to indicate “I haven’t the foggiest what that means, but it sounds interesting.”

A funny thing happened in 2004. I took a job teaching journalism — something that I had practiced for pay before enrolling in grad school (because I wanted out of journalism).

Now the introductory conversation goes something like this:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: Journalism.

Person: (look of horror and pity) Oh, that’s nice.

This reaction is often followed by the person asking one of two general questions:

Why is journalism so broken?

… or …

What kind of future can your students expect?

I’ve discussed answers to these questions on Rhetorica if you care to search for them. Short versions: 1. Arrogance, misunderstanding (long list), fear, and laziness. 2. Excellent, if one is not focused solely on big-city newspapers.

But here is where this post is really going: I don’t teach that much journalism anymore. My teaching duties have been, and will be for at least the next few years, two classes in media ethics, two classes in multimedia journalism (Ozarks News Journal), one class in fundamentals of media convergence/new media, and one class in introduction to journalism.

Half my teaching load is media courses. And ONJ is a learn-by-doing class for juniors and seniors. The come to that class knowing the basics and more of the craft of journalism, so it’s my job to help them practice their journalism skills for multimedia presentation. So it’s a hybrid media-journalism class.

I’m ready to have an entirely different introductory conversation:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: Multimedia convergence, media ethics, and journalism with a rhetoric focus.

Person: Waaaaaa?

OK, yeah, that needs work.

I can title myself almost anything within reason, I suppose. Technically, because of the name of my department, I am an Associate Professor of Media, Journalism & Film. But the film part just sticks out there because, frankly, I know nothing about film beyond what one learns watching movies. So here are a few ideas:

  • Associate Professor of Media and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media and Rhetoric
  • Associate Professor of Journalism and New Media
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics, Rhetoric, and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics, Rhetoric, Journalism, New Media, and Media Convergence
  • Associate Professor of Whatever The Hell It Is I’m Teaching This Year
October 31, 2011

Journalism and Poverty: The Draft Essay

My recent essay about poverty and journalism is ready for Rhetorica readers to review. Here’s the link to Google docs.

I rely heavily on a criticism made by sociologists Herbert Gans and Michael Schudson — that journalism routinely fails to offer citizens “actionable” information. I largely agree with their assessments. So perhaps it is interesting that providing the poor and working class “actionable” business and economic coverage is exactly what I think newspapers should do to correct the (middle)  class bias of journalism.

Take a look. Let me know what you think.

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