We've all heard about the fake news that propagandists in Russia, Macedonia, Romania and elsewhere dropped into America's scarcely regulated social media network in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Turns out, the Knight Foundation reports, we shouldn't be speaking about it in just the past tense. Millions of intentionally fake and conspiratorial tweets are still turning up in Twitter every day, and they're making their way to various U.S. news sites. Mostly, they're turning up in far-right conspiracy sites, the Knight Foundation study reveals, but mainstream media is picking up some of it, too.
The boogeymen are still under the bed. We as news consumers must remain vigilant.
But what does that mean? How do we catch these misinformation bombs and what do we do about them?
First, some of the details.
The Knight study revealed a scale of disinformation dissemination that's breathtaking. Knight's analysis of more than 10 million tweets from 700,000 Twitter accounts found links to some 600 misinformation and conspiracy news outlets — and 6.6 million tweets in the month before the 2016 election.
Some 80 percent of the "fake news" accounts that repeatedly spread misinformation during the 2016 election campaign are still active, and they're tweeting by the ton daily.
During the election, misinformation was spread by both Republican- and Democratic-identified accounts, the study found. After the election period, left-leaning fake news decreased much more than right-leaning fake news.
The Russia’s Internet Research Agency trolls were the most prolific — but other sources were likely to actually spread fake news. Some were widely quoted in U.S. media, such as @WarfareWW, @TEN_GOP and @Jenn_Abrams.
How does the average news consumer tell the difference? It's getting harder because the fakers are getting better, and even mainstream news media is occasionally fooled. One way is to look at who the tweet or linked article quotes or cites as a source. Does that person or organization really exist? Google them.
But since the fakers are getting better at their craft, this is perhaps safer: Identify a short list of news sources you trust and follow only their news tweets or posts. Follow The Wall Street Journal and National Review, for example, if you prefer to see things through a conservative lens, or The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle if you'd rather trust progressives. Major media outlets might have their biases but their reporting is at least fortified by a commitment to truth. Yes, really.
Don't follow a news source that has "conservative," "progressive" or any other partisan identifier in its name.
Oh, and if the article in question uses exclamation points — any exclamation points! — don't trust it.
Reader: No one is more surprised than I am to be writing to complain about The Californian. I love reading my newspaper every morning. I started subscribing to a newspaper when I was in my early 20s. And to The Californian since we moved here 31 years ago.
On Oct. 3, my letter was published on the Opinion page. I was pleased to see it published. Thank you. It was very difficult for me to write.
I was surprised to see the sexual assault victim’s title, Dr. Christine Ford, deleted both times I used her name. This woman is a scholar with multiple advanced degrees including a Ph.D. I was told that AP’s guidelines require that, unless the subject is a physician, Dr. cannot be used; that it will cause confusion. I say “nonsense.” Your readers are smarter than that. I felt it diminished Dr. Ford’s status and sounded like I disrespected her. Much to the contrary. Can you do something to change this arcane rule or guideline so you can maintain the integrity of message?
— Ann Olcott
Price: First of all, thank you for being such a faithful reader. If we had 100,000 readers like you, I would probably be driving a nicer car.
I asked Ema Sasic, who handles our letters to the editor, about this policy. Her response: "You're correct — AP Style and other style guides we follow discourage the use of 'Dr.' except when it refers to physicians in order to minimize reader confusion. Other letter writers have asked the same question, and I understand where the confusion/frustration might come in."
I'll add this: Although you give readers credit, Ann, for knowing that the "Dr." designation could apply to any academic doctoral degree, the potential confusion is still real. We usually add "Ph.D." after the person's name if it's relevant to the particular story — as in a Ph.D. in engineering, public health or religious education. All of those people might receive letters from their university alumni associations addressed to "Dr.," but that doesn't mean we have to use it.
No disrespect is intended to Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D., or, for that matter, to Brett Kavanaugh, who holds a juris doctorate.
Reader: You people are the epitome of hypocrisy. You print all the slime that Dianne Feinstein and her Senate colleagues say about Brett Kavanaugh but my letter to the editor is not fit for your gutless paper. If you had any (expletive) you should have condemned how he was treated by the scumbag liberals, however, that's not in your D&A. You also have no problem printing all the lies about Trump. You are a disgrace to journalism.
— Jack Balfanz
Price: Jack, your letter started out fine:
"The liberal loons are coming out of their bat caves to accuse any innocent man of sexual assault whom they want to destroy."
Fine, except for the reference to "D&A."
But then you invented a little story about a sexual assault involving Feinstein herself and evaluated, for our apparent benefit, her degree of sexual desirability.
So, yes, we declined. We are gutless. Also, we have a modicum of decency. And an obligation to the other decent people who read this publication.
How did you know Feinstein and her Senate colleagues said slimy things about Kavanaugh, anyway? Did you hear it on your favorite cable news network? (Let me guess.) Did you then write a letter to that network blasting it for having aired said slime? If not (hyperbole alert), you are the epitome of hypocrisy.
Either you learn through the media what was said in those Senate judiciary hearings or you go blissfully through life not knowing about it. Apparently who choose the former — and then shoot the messenger.
Don't ever stop being you, Jack.
Reader: In this past Sunday's Opinion section, your paper picked a majority of Democrat candidates. Gavin Newsom? Really? A continuing blunder from the Jerry Brown administration to destroy California through overtaxation, increasing homelessness, socialistic agenda, etc.
Have you forgotten what county you're in? This is Bakersfield, a very red county! The readers would like to see more balance if nothing else.
— Dan and Sandra Duke
Price: California is so thoroughly Democratic, it can be tough to find a better-qualified, electable Republican at the state level, and that was reflected in our editorial board's recommendations for statewide office this year. The situation is somewhat reversed at the local and regional level, where readers can find (or will soon find) a lot more Republican endorsements.
It is indeed unusual for The Californian to support a Democrat for governor. We have endorsed Republicans for that office in six of the last nine elections.
In 1983 and again four years later, we picked Republican George Deukmejian against Democrat Tom Bradley. In 1991, we endorsed Republican Pete Wilson over Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and in 1994, we picked Wilson over Democrat Kathleen Brown. In 1999, we endorsed Republican Dan Lungren over Democrat Gray Davis.
In 2003, we opposed Davis’ recall but endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as his replacement. Arnold Schwarzenegger won, of course, and three years later we endorsed the Republican Governator over Democrat Phil Angelides.
Until we endorsed Jerry Brown twice (against Meg Whitman and then Neel Kashkari), we'd selected Republicans in at least six out of seven elections.
Reader: What's in a name! The newspaper in Marysville, a Republican conservative Christian scandal sheet owned by the owners of the Orange County Register, is proudly called the Appear Democrat!
The Californian still has McCarthy, Valadao, Fong, Vidak and Grove in its stable. So why not call it the Bakersfield Republicrat? Then, like the Swiss, you would offend no one.
— Panfilo Fuentes
Price: Appeal Democrat, Pete. Appeal.
I'll bring up your suggested name change at the next staff meeting.