Do We Want Fake News?

Do We Want Fake News?

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Even in the title to this brief essay, I found myself challenged to come up with a headline that struck a proper balance between interesting, descriptive, and philosophically honest. The best I could come up with was one that is semantically honest. In an effort to be philosophically honest and to subvert Betteridge’s Law: I do not want fake news, I just don’t think most people really consider the effects of feeding the algorithms that provide their news choices.

I read this tweet yesterday:

“.@Google killed its Reader in 2013 because RSS as a format doesn’t track browsing to sell ads, and lets the user chose what they want to read. As opposed to algorithmic personalization which siloes us into increasingly homogenous demographics for advertisers” @LucLewitanski (www.twitter.com, 7/2/18)

When I read this, it triggered these thoughts: I still use RSS as a news source. And, dammit, this is probably true.

I consider myself moderately aware of my own cognitive dissonance, and I try to combat it proactively when reading the news. For example, in my Apple news feed, which is the most algorithmically personalized source that I regularly use, I have added NPR, Fox News, The New York Times, and Breitbart as favored sources. Even with such ideologically different sources, I find the articles I tap on end up defining my reading preferences in ways that I want to avoid. Based only on my experience, I expect that most people’s Fox News online reading is loaded not with right-wing bolstering, but with crime stories. To test this, I navigated to foxnews.com using a VPN browser extension that said I was in the U.K. (As I write this, I live in Texas, but am visiting California.) I then clicked on “U.S.” on the homepage and was treated to a list of mostly political news stories, but check out this screenshot of the link to “Trending in US”:

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

The top three links are the types of story that usually show up in my Apple News feed, the fourth is nominally political. If I were to believe the perception that my Twitter stream offers about Fox, it would be that they are more focused on feeding me right-wing propaganda than anything, but they seem happy to follow the mainstream news maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” but this is self-fulfilling. There is likely a preference among readers and viewers for these stories. I certainly fall victim (pun intended?) to at least reading the headlines, even if I don’t click on most of the stories. And when I do resist the temptation to read the ones I’m most curious about, it’s at least partly because I don’t want to feed the algorithm.

I am a proud skeptic. When I describe myself as such, I don’t mean in the sense of leftist politics and fake-news-fighting. I even try to avoid cynicism, though I am frequently unsuccessful. I believe in skepticism in terms of lack of belief in objective facts. I believe all facts are subjective because I believe humans are unavoidably subjective.

When it comes to media and my skepticism, I recognized the opportunity for easy media silo building as a teen. I grew up in California in the pre-internet era and loved reading the L.A. Weekly and O.C. Weekly, mostly for the movie reviews and concert listings, but as a voracious reader I was so hungry for material that I read most of the cover stories, which frequently highlighted local political and social issues. It seemed to me that they trended strongly leftist and they seemed to sell me a different perspective than the Orange County Register, which seemed strongly right-leaning. I realized that if I read about an issue in both, I could feel confident that the information that was presented the same in both sources could be a reasonable simulation of a “fact.” I still take a version of this approach in my media reading in an effort to avoid the silos.

Which brings me back to RSS. Frankly I use it to largely avoid mainstream headlines. The most mainstream is NPR’s news headlines, which provides me with the closest thing I’ve found to bi-partisan summaries of national news and capsule views of international stories. I mostly use RSS for fairly niche art blogs or webcomic postings or “indie” music news or “alternative” comics news or the handful of online writers I like who offer RSS feeds. None of which I can reliably get from Apple News.

I know that I have created my own silo of information with my RSS feed, but at least it’s not an international company’s algorithm creating it.

Having presented my personal perspective, I see little example (anecdotally) of people who resent this algorithmic consolidation. I think that most people are happy with the news that is packaged and delivered to them in a way that doesn’t test their mindset to strenuously. I say this not with disdain, but with envy. I occasionally wish that my head were not filled with skepticism, but that I could unselfconsciously enjoy the world around me. And I could write another five thousand words on why I don’t wish that to be the case.

I am happy in the silo I create by following non-homogenous sources, self-selecting for people like me. People who don’t buy the mainstream American approach to systemic homogenization. My family is filled with people I love who are very happy with their Facebook feeds and Apple News headlines. I have tweens and I can’t decide on which side of the fence I want them to end up. Do I want them to suffer my continuous dissatisfaction, or do I want them to be mostly comfortable with whichever biased (“fake”) news source they like the best? That is a question I don’t have an answer for, Betteridge be damned.

Great Things About President #45

Number Three

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One of the frustrating things about being a typical American when it comes to politics, is that the system is ridiculously obfuscated. Even when I’m interested to learn how my government came to a decision I’m flummoxed either by the motivations of its players or the behind-the-scenes dealmaking one assumes is always present. In an era where everything is analyzed and illuminated, from sports events to smart phone releases, it is rare to hear detailed reporting from “the room where it happens.

A beautiful thing about #45 is that he is incapable of hiding his intentions, desires, or feelings. I am cynical enough to believe that our politicians are at least as cynical as I. This president has unwittingly dragged the back-door-dealing of politics kicking and screaming into the public eye. I am only capable of mentally tracking political events back for a few weeks at best, so if you read this anytime after tomorrow, forgive the feeling that I’m talking about ancient history.

Politico featured an interview with Mitch McConnell where he specifically talks about explaining to Trump why ending filibusters will be bad for politicians. “I’ve told him repeatedly, the votes aren’t there to change it,” he said. He also describes himself explaining a very basic concept of government, “I remind the president occasionally…but for that [the filibuster] we would have socialized medicine [and] right-to-work would have been eliminated across the country.”

This strikes me as good news because every time someone has to explain why #45 is doing something ignorant, we the people stand a chance of being less ignorant about it. We also, as a country, come closer to agreement when a perceived party ally of the president can provide an explanation for why he is being unreasonable about an issue.

Another example of opening the doors to the secret room came out of the president at the G7 summit. Fox News described his contribution to the G7 as “contentions (sic),” saying that he “roiled his allies by first agreeing to a group statement on trade only to withdraw from it”. The article continues by explaining the Angela Merkel told German public television “that she found Trump’s tweet…’sobering’ and ‘a little depressing.’”

The beauty of this is that it is hard to imagine a recent president, Democrat or Republican, upending the expected norms of such a significant group. Can you imagine George H. W. Bush griping in public about Helmut Kohl? Or vice versa?

Some people fear that this president is destroying the respect other nations have for America while others are celebrating his apparent lack of kowtowing. Those who fear the destruction of respect are both underestimating the intelligence of other nationalities and overestimating the lasting damage one president can do. Those who celebrate are doing the opposite. I personally like to see through my rose-colored glasses and believe that the rest of the G7 (for example) understand that #45 is an anomaly in the progression of our country’s drive toward greater understanding and international compassion, and believe that, save for Supreme Court Justices, the president has little lasting effect on the nation. Whoever fills the roll of #46 will be able to undo most of what #45 does, as long as they continue to do it unilaterally.

In any event, my feeling is that in America, little of this political discussion really matters. On with the status quo.