So Much Fake News, So Little Time

How to decide if it's true.

Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.__

Is anything true?

We’re flooded with fake news, to the point where even those of us who take pains to check stories are often baffled about what’s true and what’s made up.  In recent weeks I’ve been flabbergasted by the quantity of false stories told and retold, even by reliable reporters.

I’m luckier than most.  I don’t have short deadlines, and I’ve lived long enough to have a wide range of sources with proven track records.  And yet, it’s getting harder and harder to separate wheat from chaff.  To take the most recent example, I’m told by my government, and by those of Great Britain and France, that innocent civilians in Syria were killed by Assad’s chemical weapons, and that the three Western countries bombed Syrian targets in reprisal.  I wasn’t skeptical about either claim.  Syrian tyrants have been poisoning their own citizens for a long time.  Why should I doubt they’ve done it again?  And with Donald Trump and Mad Dog Mattis at the helm, why on earth would I doubt that the United States had led a counterattack?  There were no “firsts,” it was all part of a well-known pattern.  And yet…

And yet there are many smart people who are telling me that Assad did NOT kill his people with chemical weapons, and that we did not bomb him.  These are people I trust and admire.  My point is not that the stories about Syria are false (I believe the official version), but that serious people believe that the official accounts are hoaxes.

Or consider this from Tablet:

On Saturday, Nellie Bowles, a technology reporter for The New York Times, wrote a piece about Campbell Brown, the former news anchor recently hired by Facebook to help the social media giant improve its relationship with the news media. One obvious problem is Facebook’s contribution to the dissemination of fake news, which Brown is now fighting. How? Let the Paper of Record tell you all about it.

“Ms. Brown,” wrote Bowles, “wants to use Facebook’s existing Watch product — a service introduced in 2017 as a premium product with more curation that has nonetheless been flooded with far-right conspiracy programming like ‘Palestinians Pay $400 million Pensions For Terrorist Families.’”

But there is no doubt, by my lights, that the PLO pays pensions to the families of arrested and killed Palestinian terrorists. The Times story is false, and there is no reason to believe it, and there is no reason to think that the “terrorist pension” account comes from a “far-right conspiracy.”  Yet here we have an experienced journalist, now working at Facebook, swallowing it whole, and another experienced journalist repeating the false story.

 So what are we to believe and how can we know?

Sometimes you can check it, as in the case of Palestinian Pensions.  Sometimes you can wait for the evidence to become clear, but our fellows nowadays tend to be in a hurry, and don’t want to wait a week before making up their minds.  The so-called fact checkers online are not worth much more than the original stories, IMHO.  You have to follow the advice I got as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin half a century ago:

First. Take it easy.  Suspend judgment for a while.  Look at several sources.  Things may become clearer.  Remember that not all questions have answers;  there’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.”  Stick to sources you have established to be mostly accurate, remembering that we all get it wrong sometimes.

I know this advice is hard to follow, but if you follow it you’ll stay closer to the truth than if you buy into some exciting story.  And you’ll sleep better, too, which is very important.