Image: David Mikkelson and Ari Ratner address a breakout group at the ADL conference in San Francisco, 11/13/17. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is the last of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Finally I attended a presentation titled “Misinformation and the Battle for Truth.”

David Mikkelson is the founder of Snopes.com, the oldest internet fact checker.
Ari Ratner moderated.

Mikkelson was very interesting, partly because he has such a long tenure with the issue of misinformation online. He has been operating Snopes.com since 1994.

In the beginning, he said, most of the questions they got were had to do with hoaxes and urban legends. Since 2008 misinformation online has become highly politicised. There are also issues of people putting out misinformation for profit, since fake news is cheap and viral.

According to Mikkelson, the economics are fairly simple. Posting on social media is free. Revenues are generated by advertising on the sites themselves. The purveyors of this stuff look for “grabby” pictures and clickable headlines. Bots are cheap. One profitable strategy is to pit groups of people against one another: they all click and click and click, the angrier they get.

After the election, he said, we began to realize the “fake news” phenomenon. The president leaped onto the usage of the term and unfortunately has rendered it almost meaningless.

Someone asked about personal attacks Mittleman has received. He said most of those have been “mostly misinformed.”  One memorable case was that of Hal Turner, a white nationalist radio host. He claimed that a secret North American Union (a “one world” entity) was secretly issuing currency. He spent a lot of time on the radio talking about how the “owners of Snopes are helping their rich Jew pals deceiving.” He said that everyone in fact-checking gets some of this; what he didn’t say was how many of those other firms are thought of as Jewish.

Currently, he said, there’s less overt anti-Semitism online, but that the hate is more towards immigrants, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, etc.

He talked about the need to educate ourselves in fact-checking, and especially for young people to be helped to understand how they can do this for themselves. Some suggestions:

  1. Use fact checking websites like Snopes.com.
  2. Look at the site where the material appears. What are their sources? Search on the writers’ names and see what else they’ve done.
  3. Keep an eye out for websites that mimic the respectable news sites, such as BBC, ABC, etc. Some fake news sites use design to boost believability.
  4. Watch for indications that someone is paying to publish. Always look for possible bias. Sponsored content must be evaluated as such.
  5. The more outrageous information is, the less likely that it is true. Keep checking.
  6. Does this source (the website, etc.) have a particular political bent? Are all their articles from the same point of view?
  7. Do the facts in the article match the headline? Headlines sometimes are clickbait and the article says no such thing.
  8. If studies are cited, who paid for those? How reputable are they?
  9. Watch for confirmation bias. We are inclined to believe things that match with the opinions we already have. Anyone can fall into the trap of believing something because it appeals to them. WHY do I want to believe a particular item?
  10. Finally, beware the lure of “secret knowledge.” It’s very exciting to have secret information. But if it is all lies, that’s a problem.

He said that at the platform level, some companies are taking steps. Still on a basic level.  (This matched my impression of the presentations from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube earlier in the day.) He said that the platforms don’t want to limit what users see.

Someone asked about what other countries are doing.

Mikkelson said that in Europe they take legislative approach that wouldn’t work in the U.S. because of Constitutional issues. For instance,  Facebook can be fined for not getting hate stuff down fast enough. He pointed out that the global aspect of this is part of what complicates solutions.

Someone asked about “sponsored news” and his comment was that “at least they are telling you it was paid for.” Funding media is a huge challenge.

He pointed out that there is a difference between fact checkers and journalists. One of the strategies used by the oil companies in the Standing Rock conflict last year was that they sponsored “fact checking sites” that were strongly biased in favor of the oil companies. So always look at the sources: who is paying?

 

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