February 6, 2017

GROSKAUFMANIS | Falling for Fake News

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I don’t think I really understood the insidiousness of “fake news” until I read and believed a piece of it myself. Last weekend, I was in Montreal with other Cornell students for a conference when Trump’s executive order on immigration was signed and confusion turned into logistical panic. The people running the conference went from committee to committee and addressed the ban, explained that some people might have difficulty getting back into the United States and offered their support if anyone found themselves stuck at the border. It wasn’t dramatic or political, it was to-the-point. And still, for obvious reasons, people were freaked out.

Then a post about the impact of the ban on conference attendees went viral on Facebook. Someone from the conference described his experience and stated that ten participating students would be unable to return to the U.S. I was pretty shocked, but it seemed believable enough. There were hundreds of students at the conference, dozens of American schools, and there was a reasonable likelihood that those schools would include students from the seven countries which were subject to the travel ban. I believed the post because I didn’t have any reason not to believe the post, but it ended up being textbook “fake news,” in that it was factually incorrect.

To my knowledge, everyone from the conference was able to return to the United States. I don’t know where the “10 students” figure came from, nor do I know if the person who originally wrote the post intended to spread fake information or if he was simply as confused as everyone else. Either way, the post got more than 300 “shares” on Facebook. Reporters flocked to the conference and started reaching out to some of us. I saw and wholly believed false news in action, in part because it was rooted in a kernel of truth reinforced by confusion.

The truth came from the fact that we all were spoken to about the executive order, and that the people running the conference implied the possibility of being denied re-entry into the United States. That was something all of us delegates experienced firsthand, with no middleman and no reporters giving us information. The confusion came from the executive order itself; nobody had gone through it line-for-line and the Wall Street Journal’s abridged version didn’t really do justice in explaining whether or not people with student visas would be allowed back into the United States.

I think one problem with fake news is that, in some cases, it contains crumbs of truth. The executive order did bar certain people from re-entering the country, the secretariat at our conference did go from committee to committee to tell us about possible issues with re-entry and there were people from all over the world at the conference. It was perfectly plausible that the post could have been true and, for this reason, it settled naturally as fact for many of us when we read it. I’d like to think that sometimes the acceptance of misinformation doesn’t come from a place of stupidity or naivety, but rather from a tendency to trust and an inability to vet every single thing one hears.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect example of fake news because it was a Facebook post, not a falsity from a reputable news organization or from an official advisor like Kellyanne Conway. This isn’t meant to stand as an example of rampant fake news in the world, but to highlight how we, as consumers, are susceptible to the acceptance of fake news and misinformation. I have no explanation for this larger-scale phenomenon and the alternate realities that different factions of Americans seem to be living in. What I can speak to, however, is how the trusting nature of the public puts a microphone to fake news. We expect journalists to have fact-checked information before reporting on it, so when we receive that information, we often assume that it is correct. If we don’t have the impulse to say “prove it” every time we hear something, we are at risk of consuming fake news or getting fake information. And of course, it’s impossible to thoroughly fact-check all of your own news unless you attend press conferences, visit war zones and sit in on phone calls with foreign leaders. So how are we supposed to restore confidence in the validity of information?

Many of the things happening in the world right now are so crazy that they habituate news consumers to accept them as the new normal. Public policy can be confusing, quotes can be taken out of context and differing opinions are sometimes reported as fact. Reporting that is factually incorrect or intentionally misleading, is an issue on both sides of the political spectrum and presents an obvious danger to society. It’s going to be a lot harder, over the next four years and maybe in the age of new media more generally, to distinguish fact from fiction. The media is essential because it connects us with the vast majority of the world that takes place beyond our immediate experiences. We should all still tune in and pay attention, but we should do so with skepticism and resist the temptation to go on autopilot.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.