New York (CNN Business)Almost every story in the news these days involves lying. It’s a sad and destabilizing reflection of a choose-your-own-news culture, and it’s best viewed not as a set of single discrete stories, but as a whole.
One is a Twitter (TWTR) conspiracy theory about a vaccinated man’s death and one private school’s decision to bar vaccinated teachers.
One front-page deception about Vice President Kamala Harris and one Republican party official’s hypocrisy about the importance of honesty.
One false assertion in a Facebook post and prime time television chatter about leftists “hurting America’s students.”
At the same time some high-quality newsrooms have been hollowed out, media outlets light on news but heavy on talk have been flourishing, often by stoking sectarian hostilities. With people unsure who or what to trust, and with “fake news” rhetoric around every Facebook (FB) corner, lying can seem like the new normal.
Around and around it goes, a carousel of deceit, powered by shameless attention-seekers, hyperpartisan propagandists and profitable algorithms. Fabrications are shouted while corrections that follow are whispered. Words like “lie” are wielded like weapons in argument after argument. And factual sources are constantly playing catch-up.
Much of this B.S. emanates from right-wing media sources — and those sources attempt to absolve themselves by accusing others of mis- and dis-information. Instead of claiming their hands are clean, they merely claim everyone else’s hands are dirty.
It’s enough to make ordinary news consumers throw up their hands in disgust.
The best advice one can offer, in this chaotic news environment, is to seek out news sources that try to get it right; recognize that stories evolve over time; and apply skepticism, especially with sources that are unfamiliar or untested. As science communicator Laurel Bristow said on “Reliable Sources” recently, “if something that you read or see seems too good or too bad to be true, it probably is.”
Journalists are trained to be skeptical and insist on backup. Big name-brand outlets are flawed, but most they at least strive for factuality. Checks and balances and fact-checking processes and ethical norms all help with that.
Judging by recent news cycles, there are a whole lot of people and publications lacking those norms and processes. And what’s troubling is that some of the lies are being spread by those who walk and talk like journalists and pundits with expertise and authority, making them seem credible to some news consumers.
Take all the recent bull about President Biden and burger bans or, as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, “red meat lies to the base about red meat.” Daniel Dale debunked that whopper the other day with a headline that said “No, Biden is not trying to force Americans to eat less red meat.”
Sadly, the “no” framing has been necessary for several subjects in the news.
“No, Virginia is not moving to eliminate advanced high school math classes,” a Washington Post headline explained on Monday, attempting to clean up right-wing detritus that originated from a single Facebook post.
“No, officials are not handing out Harris’s picture book to migrant kids,” another Post headline said on Tuesday, debunking a story that started in the New York Post last week.
The New York Post, in typical tabloid fashion, claimed that “unaccompanied migrant kids brought from the U.S.-Mexico border to a new shelter in Long Beach, Calif., will be given a copy” of the children’s book Harris published in 2019. It was not true, but instead of issuing a correction, the Post added an “editor’s note” Tuesday afternoon to tell readers that the article has been “updated to note that only one known copy of the book was given to a child.”
Republican leaders rushed to react. “Was Harris paid for these books? Is she profiting from Biden’s border crisis?” the Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel asked on Twitter.
But local officials told The Washington Post “that Harris’s book is not being handed out in welcome kits. A single copy of the book was donated during a citywide donation drive, officials said.”
Dale reported that the welcome kits don’t contain any books at all. “Rather, an informal library will be set up with the donated books to let kids choose what they want to read,” he tweeted. “So… wrongness on top of wrongness.”
That’s a pretty effective summary of the entire misinfo ecosystem: Wrongness on top of wrongness.
Many of the sham stories involve Covid-19 in one way or another. The World Health Organization identified an “infodemic” — a portmanteau of “information” and “pandemic” — last year to describe the proliferation of health misinformation that was spreading along with Covid-19.
PolitiFact’s homepage is full of evidence of that, from a falsehood about Biden’s mask usage to a viral lie about the Covid death toll.
Confusion about the miraculously effective Covid-19 vaccines is the latest front for fact-checkers and public health officials. Alex Berenson, who was labeled “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” by The Atlantic magazine earlier this month, suggested a conspiracy was afoot when he tweeted that “another well-known person in his forties – not a true celebrity, but someone with a sizable Twitter following – ‘died suddenly’ Friday. No cause of death given, and his family wants privacy.” Berenson claimed that “these cases have popped with disturbing frequency since December.”
Berenson’s baseless speculation pointed to the death of Dan Kaminsky, a legendary cybersecurity expert. Since Kaminsky talked on social media about getting vaccinated, and died soon thereafter, his family has been targeted by anti-vaccine figures.
In a statement, Kaminsky’s niece Sarah said “I think Dan would laugh at the idea of conspiracy theorists promoting anti-vax propaganda through his death, but as his family, it hurts us to see his death being used to spread is about a vaccine that he had full faith in.”
She said that his death “has nothing to do with COVID-19 vaccination and unfortunately everything to do with diabetic ketoacidosis.”
Bogus online claims about Covid and the vaccines don’t occur in a vacuum. They have real-world effects. In Miami a private school “has warned its staff against taking vaccines that prevent Covid-19, saying it will not employ anyone who has been inoculated and spreading misinformation about the potential risks of vaccination,” the Miami Herald reported.
The Herald found that the school’s justification consisted of “links to unofficial websites” and vague anecdotal “reports.”
That’s how the lies about the 2020 election have festered, too: Obscure websites and aspiring conservative media stars have generated the raw material that trickles up to former President Donald Trump and his allied TV networks.
Republicans in Arizona are “actively pushing the Big Lie with a bizarre election faux audit,” MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez said Monday, setting up a story about a secretive recount of the election in that state.
“This circus is a direct result of Trump’s Big Lie, claiming widespread election fraud. There was, of course, none,” Menendez said. “But the Republican-led state Senate tapped an audit company run by an election conspiracy theorist. And a pro-Trump cable channel is overseeing it.”
The former president has been cheering on the effort in statements that are, predictably, full of lies. And so the carousel keeps spinning.
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