Our information space is broken. There is no way for a normal person to just check in and get the news. At best, we get news analysis colored by the partisan bias of the person or organization presenting it. At worst, we get propaganda tailored to create a narrative or stories presented without fact-checking and validation because they were too juicy to skip.
As our country has become more polarized over the past decade, this has become even more prevalent. This past weekend another false narrative blitzed though our public information space. A group of boys from Covington Catholic High School were accused of harassing a Native American elder and shouting racist slurs.
My organization debunked this with less than 30 minutes of research, and the information we put into this video was all available to the journalists who smeared these kids, but the tale of a MAGA-hat-wearing mob of teens was too good to pass up. The whole incident seems to have been precipitated by a fake account on Twitter with all the characteristics of an influence operation.
“The account claimed to belong to a California schoolteacher. Its profile photo was not of a schoolteacher, but of a blogger based in Brazil… the account had tweeted on average 130 times a day and had more than 40,000 followers,” according to CNN.
It is not known yet if this was a foreign or domestic account, but either way it was an attempt to stir dissension. It succeeded brilliantly by hitting the media’s preconceived notions about Trump supporters. Now it turns out the Native American Vietnam vet who was lionized as the brave victim, never served in Vietnam, although he seems to try and mislead people into thinking he did.
BuzzFeed’s Big ‘Scoop’ That Never Was
Another recent example was a “blockbuster scoop” by BuzzFeed claiming the Robert Mueller investigation had proof that President Trump had instructed his lawyer to lie under oath. This would be an incredible story––if true.
But it wasn’t, and hadn’t been subjected to the sort of ethical journalistic process as a story making such a deadly claim should have been. The fact that almost every media outlet ran the story with the disclaimer “if true” shows they had doubts about the story and the outlet pushing it, but couldn’t restrain themselves.
Then, in an unprecedented move, the special counsel’s office released a statement throwing a flag on the play: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller.
In the day prior to this, CNN and MSNBC mentioned impeaching President Trump more than 200 times in reference to this report. The damage was done, and it is time we consider whether that is the new standard for far too many media outlets. Run the smear that matches your preferred narrative, then correct only if forced to, knowing full well that will receive orders of magnitude less coverage. Mission accomplished.
Western Media Is Being Exploited Left and Right
Security Studies Group specializes in information operations––the art of influencing opinion, policy, and actions through the use of information. We identify and counter both foreign and domestic influence operations and propaganda. We wrote a detailed analysis of the manipulation and exploitation of western media by Turkey during the Jamal Khashoggi incident and another about how the Washington Post ran propaganda from Qatar under Khashoggi’s byline.
I wrote an article detailing how Russian influence operations during the 2016 election were as much about sowing dissension and division in the United States as they ever were about electing Donald Trump:
But the damage that Democrats and others pushing the ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ narrative have caused is as real as the charges are false. The Russians aren’t supporting President Trump. They are weakening America and infecting our public discourse and body politic. The efforts by the left to tie this to President Trump and his campaign have contributed to Russian success.
The partisan divide that leads to this is well known, but whatever safeguards there were in the editorial process that used to restrain it have disappeared. Now a normal consumer of news can only choose the flavor of bias he prefers.
This has created a situation where alternate realities compete for public attention. The majority of journalists are part of the left, either culturally or politically. Some of them even notice the problems just outlined.
There’s also the problem of confirmation bias. Have you noticed that these type of media mistakes seem to favor one side over the other? In the case of the BuzzFeed story, I’m guessing there probably weren’t a lot of Trump voters involved in that editorial process. In the case of the Covington students, it is clear that their identities—privileged young white Catholic men smirking and wearing red MAGA hats—cast them as villains and triggered many media elites. We know this because they told us as much.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. Now comes the hard part of fixing a system this broken. It can be done, but it requires more people on the left to look in the mirror and admit that bias is a real problem and the only fair solution is to present both sides of a story and let the public make up their own minds.
How to Fix a Broken, Biased, Fact-Free System
But how do you do that when the vast majority of the major media outlets and social media are ideologically aligned on the liberal side? The barriers to entry for competitors, especially in the online world, are potentially too high to allow them to break in. Attorney general nominee William Barr discussed this domination of the information space and possible government interest about it during his confirmation hearing.
Barr said. “I’d like to have the antitrust [division] support that effort to get more involved in reviewing the situation from a competition standpoint. I also am interested in the issue of privacy. And the question of who owns this data.”
The same problem exists within so-called fact-checking, where the organizations the media and public rely on to call balls and strikes, like Snopes, PolitiFact and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), are all part of the institutional left. The media and social media outlets simply reinforce their own institutional biases when they try to perform those functions.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sees a problem, asking: “Are these tech giants running impartial digital platforms over which they don’t exercise editorial judgment when it comes to content? Or do they in fact decide what speech is allowed and what is not and discriminate based on ideology and/or political affiliation?”
What is needed is a fact-checking organization that is fully partisan––as in, all partisan viewpoints are represented. We should gather a group of experts across the entire political spectrum and evaluate their personal biases. Then you can account for these known influences when evaluating facts or issues and balance the competing ideas to triangulate to ratings of facts and slant. The artificial intelligence capabilities of the tech companies can do this with ease, they just don’t currently have the political right represented in this process.
This would ideally be a nonprofit funded by donations from both the left and right sides of the political divide. It would be a gesture of good faith from the tech companies, which claim to be unbiased, to contribute and offer their participation and access to their platforms. The media companies would be smart to do the same, but a lever to keep them in check would be the fear of having their stories exposed as false or biased. If the folks who are happy with the currently tilted playing field don’t want to get on board, those government agencies might feel obligated to give them a good reason to.
We can’t have a national discussion about anything until we can at least talk about the same facts.