July 18, 2024

Misinformation Rules The Internet

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Where do you put your trust in the news today? Is it with the national station that feeds you with what you want to hear? Is it with social media? Is it your daily newspaper? 

Surveys have continually found that local newspapers are the most trusted source of news for the citizens of their community. But we face three challenges in our communities today that are undermining America’s representative democracy. 

First, more than 3,000 newspapers have disappeared as multi-billion-dollar internet companies enrich a few people while destroying trusted news. Second, social media is often identified as the “news” source for too many Americans. And third, as newspapers disappear the void is filled with fake news, or “pink slime” newspapers and websites.

Rural America is not insulated from manipulative misinformation. Broadband expansion has ensured we are as connected as any metropolitan city dweller. We have seen rural Minnesota become more fractured by polarizing national news. We’ve seen an increase in belligerence, threats of violence, and an erosion of trust in government institutions and in the press.

Earlier this month, NewsGuard published a report about a network of “167 Russian disinformation sites fronted by John Mark Dougan, a former Florida deputy sheriff who fled to Moscow after being investigated for computer hacking and extortion.”

With the addition of these fake news sites, there are now 1,265 such sites run by foreign governments, political operatives of the right or left, and others with an agenda to twist the news to fit their goals. There are 1,213 daily newspapers in America with their websites produced by professional journalists whose publications adhere to a code of ethics.

NewsGuard was founded in March 2018 by award-winning journalist Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz. It monitors the spread of fake news sites and provides credibility ratings that serve as a guide for the trustworthiness of the news you are getting.

A warning from NewsGuard was issued in 2022 that soon fake news sites with an agenda to spread misinformation and manipulate the American public would outnumber real news sources.

“In an age of accelerating polarization, when Americans of all political persuasions need access to reliable facts more than ever, this is not a turning point that anyone who cares about democracy should celebrate – far from it,” Brill said. “Reliable, professional journalism sustains democracy. Partisan activists on either side secretly posing as journalists are termites undermining democracy in the most insidious way possible.”

These “pink slime” sites take on names that make them sound legitimate. Minnesota Business Daily, NW Minnesota News, St. Cloud Sun, North Alaska News, Kalamazoo Times, and Suffolk Reporter are among the names they use.

“Pink slime journalism is just that: Bad information meant to make people think it’s wholesome and nutritious when, in reality, it’s empty calories,” The Freedom Forum writes. “Pink slime” is a word that came out of the meat processing industry and refers to a filler once used.

When it comes to news consumption, pink slime sites lead to news malnutrition and can be toxic to your civic knowledge health. It twists the truth, produces misleading and false information, and manipulates your political leanings.

But there is more than pink slime at the news snack bar in America.

Half of Americans say their news comes from social media – Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, or X (formerly Twitter, a report from the Pew Research Center says. It adds that “the word ‘media’ in ‘social media’ doesn’t mean that these tech platforms are particularly good places to get informed or distribute news.”

It’s disturbing how many Americans, especially young people, will say they get their news from social media. We suspect when they say news, they are often referring to entertainment and connections with friends that have little to do with news.

These sites quickly learn what you want to see and feed you more of the same. You will rarely get information challenging your political or social beliefs. It is more likely your prejudices will be reinforced than new insights into an issue will broaden your understanding of it.

“Seeing news” on these social sites can “include seeing someone opine on a news event, a joke referencing current events or information about a breaking news event that’s happening,” Pew Research says. 

It also points out that the “news” is often not coming from journalists. It’s coming from “influencers,” those who have built a following because of their momentary popularity, not their journalistic integrity. It comes from celebrities, family, and even strangers, Pew says.

Pew also found that “most news consumers on each of the platforms studied say they sometimes see news that seems inaccurate.” Around 25% say that the news they see is “extremely or fairly often” inaccurate. How much of the news these people said they trusted was in fact misinformation?

Misinformation is accelerating in its spread and becoming more convincing as artificial intelligence programs learn quickly to individualize our social media feeds. AI-powered social media will, in some ways, know us better than we know ourselves based on all the habits, purchases, and conversations we’ve had on social media.

Elections are coming up in November. How much can we trust the internet to provide us with the civic and social knowledge we need to vote at the polls intelligently?

“Nearly three in five Americans wrongly believe the U.S. is in a recession, 49% believe unemployment is at a 50-year-high when it’s actually at a 50-year low, and 49% believe the S&P 500 is down when it’s actually up,” Pew Research writes.

AI programs will edit photos, videos, and voices, to create an alternative reality to manipulate what voters see and hear. America’s experiment with representative government is in a dangerous place today.

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