Fake News Ethics: A Quick Audit


There is…

(1) fake news,

(2) misleading or incompetent reporting,

(3) news that some people call fake because they don’t like its likely effects or implications, and

(4) news that people want others to think is fake so they can peddle their own fake news.

Did genuine, unequivocal fake news affect the 2016 election—that is, the first kind, the kind peddled by hoax sites like The News Nerd, and the Macedonian junk like the story about the Pope endorsing Trump?  There’s no evidence that would suggest or support that. Many voters are naive, gullible, ignorant fools, but still: how many actually changed their votes based on complete fiction? It’s impossible to tell, but stating that this was the case is itself a form of fake news.

Democrats and partisan pundits had been using the “fake news” device to mute the voices of journalists who didn’t follow in lockstep to the mainstream media pro-Democratic march. The IRS scandal, which is real and damning, has been largely ignored by the mainstream news media and called a “nothingburger” in Obama Administration talking points.The assertion that it is a myth that the IRS is using its power to suppress conservative dissent is …..fake news.

Because Fox is the only major news outlet (I do not count the slimy Breitbart websites) that was consistently critical of the Obama administration when it deserved it (and sometimes when it did not), Democrats not-quite-successfully-enough set out to marginalize Fox, calling it “faux news” and pushing the Obama narrative that it wasn’t even a legitimate news source. Obama, in an interview with Rolling Stone (speaking of sources of fake news!), blamed Clinton’s loss in part on “Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country.”

Isn’t that amazing? What gall. It isn’t the fact that the debt (that Obama promised to reduce) is now just short of 20 TRILLION dollars, with Obama adding a record $7.917 trillion to it, it’s that the one news source that actively exposed that fact was available to middle class voters that led to Hillary’s loss.  It wasn’t that the Affordable Care Act didn’t let Americans keep their health care plans as Obama repeatedly swore it would, it was that Fox News kept reminding its viewers of that (as the rest of the news media soft-peddled it) , while also publicizing that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, one’s health care insurance was less affordable unless the government was paying for it. It wasn’t that Hillary Clinton had lied about her e-mail tricks for over a year, the problem was that Fox was responsibly reporting that she was lying, unlike CNN, NBC, and the rest.

You know. Fake news.

As part of an organized effort up and down Democratic groups, ranks, allies and media operatives to de-legitimatize Donald Trump’s victory, the definition of “fake news” has been conveniently expanded. The Washington Post published a jaw-droppingly sloppy, partisan piece last week alleging that

The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.”

It would not be unfair to call the Post report “fake news.” That was my immediate reaction to it; I apologize for waiting this long to address the irony. Despite the sensational claim, the article specified no particular example of the election-swaying “fake news,” which would be a necessity in a legitimate and credible report. “There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump,” said the Post, “but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.”

But the troves of hacked e-mails were not “fake,” and if the seamy machinations of Clinton’s campaign, the DNC and its collusion with the media sowed voter distrust, that distrust deserved to be sown. As for undeniably fake news, the only alleged example cited is this non-fake story:

“Some of the first and most alarming tweets after Clinton fell ill at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York, for example, came from Russian botnets and trolls, researchers found. (She was treated for pneumonia and returned to the campaign trail a few days later.) This followed a spate of other misleading stories in August about Clinton’s supposedly troubled health.”

What? Clinton did not fall ill, she was ill—not fake—her campaign put out a fake explanation that she was “overcome by the heat” —that statement was exposed as fake by actual video footage and tweets from the scene–not fake!—and eventually Clinton’s team admitted that she was in fact, suffering from pneumonia, which gave credibility to those who believed that an ongoing cover-up of Clinton’s health had been a feature of the campaign.

That’s it? That’s the smoking gun? That’s the best evidence the Post can cite for the proposition that “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say”? This is worse than fake news; this is bullshit.

Meanwhile, about those “experts”…in an excellent piece, Fortune mercilessly unraveled the Post’s addition to the Clinton/Democrat narrative that they were cheated out of the Presidency…

The case starts to come apart at the seams the more you look at it. One [of the two groups cited by the Post as its sources] group is associated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank known for its generally hawkish stance on relations between the U.S. and Russia, which says it has been researching Russian propaganda since 2014. The second group is something called PropOrNot, about which very little is known. Its website doesn’t name anyone who is associated with it, including the researchers who worked on the report. And the Post doesn’t name the group’s executive director, whom it quotes, because it says he is afraid of “being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”PropOrNot’s Twitter TWTR -2.43% account, which tweets and retweets anti-Russian sentiments from a variety of sources, has only existed since August of this year. And an article announcing the launch of the group on its website is dated last month….A number of the “allies” that PropOrNot lists on its website—including the investigative blogger Eliot Higgins, who runs a research entity called BellingCat that has used crowdsourcing to track Russian government activity in Ukraine—said they have never heard of the group.

…And what about the evidence of this orchestrated Russian intelligence effort to hack the outcome of the American election? Much of it seems flimsy at best.

…What the report seems to be saying is that Russia took advantage of the social web’s desire to just share things without reading them. It may be true, but so does every other media outlet.There’s also little data available on the PropOrNot report, which describes a network of 200 sites who it says are “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda,” which have what it calls a “combined audience of 15 million Americans.” How is that audience measured? We don’t know. Stories promoted by this network were shared 213 million times, it says. How do we know this? That’s unclear.That number is almost certainly inflated by the inclusion of The Drudge Report, a right-wing aggregator that is also one of the most popular websites in the world, with an estimated 1.5 billion monthly pageviews..In effect, both of these groups want to portray anyone who shared a salacious but untrue news story about Hillary Clinton as an agent of an orchestrated Russian intelligence campaign.

It’s even worse than that. I have read article after article, post after post, that calls stories about the Clinton Foundation’s influence peddling and Clinton’s flagrant breach of responsible e-mail polices at State and security-risking practices “fake news,”  though not in so many words. In truth, these stories were in the third and fourth categories I mentioned above: news that some people call fake because they don’t like its likely effects or implication, and news that people want others to think is fake so they can peddle their own fake news.

We find ourselves back, yet again, to observing the effort by some significant forces on the Left to control information and clear the decks for its own propaganda. “Fake news” is increasingly defined as “news that hurts Democrats and progressives, or supports Republican positions and policies.”  When the Times’ columnist David Brooks issued the much quoted assertion that “President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him…,” did the news media point out that this was fake news (of the second kind, at least, if not the first), or did it dutifully nod and pass it on as truth? Are not outright falsehoods spread by the American news media more serious than unspecified, alleged fake news facilitated by the Russians? How many Americans still believe that, as Susan Rice said, the American prisoner of war that the President took in trade (without consulting with Congress, a scandal) for five dangerous terrorists “…served the United States with honor and distinction…’? (UPDATE: Bowe Bergdahl is facing a court martial). Was that the kind of fake news the media is railing against?


Taking its cues from Democrats, the news media is defining “fake news” as news and opinions that hurt, may have hurt or justifiably hurt Hillary Clinton and Democratic prospects for power. There is no reason to believe that we would be seeing any of these somber reports, accusations or warnings about “fake news” if Clinton had won.  Underlying the effort to blame lies and falsehoods, aka. “stories that were embarrassing to Democrats or exposed the ugly underbelly of its politics and methods” on the party’s reversals are faint drumbeats for  censorship. Once “fake news” is extended to cover categories 2, 3 and 4, then those non-partisan arbiters of truth Google, Facebook and Twitter can commence banning Fox News reports, making President Obama so, so happy.

I am not being an alarmist. (Wait—this post must be fake news!) Prof. Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, argued in a recent article that “fake news” shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, giving the government the option of banning it. It’s an ominous article, reminiscent to me of the bland, detached, academic  manner in which Nazi judges wrote opinions declaring that Jews had no right to property or life.  (Is Feldman a Democrat? Gee, I don’t know; after all, it’s academia, and he could be anything. Flip of a coin, really…your guess is as good as mine…)

He writes in part,

The question is whether government regulation of fake news would be justified and lawful to fix this market failure. Obviously, it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own, which is why attention is now focused on Facebook and Google. But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.

Under current First Amendment doctrine, that wouldn’t be allowed. The Supreme Court has been expanding protections for knowingly false speech, not contracting it. And it would be extremely difficult to separate opinion from fact on a systematic basis.

But we shouldn’t assume that the marketplace of ideas works perfectly. And given that, we shouldn’t be slavishly committed to treating the marketplace metaphor as the basic rationale for free speech. Maybe we should be thinking more about the competing argument offered by Holmes’s contemporary, Justice Louis Brandeis. Brandeis asserted “that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.” For him, it was “the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” False news that hinders public discussion and encourages irrationality may have a role in the marketplace; but it doesn’t contribute to the good functioning of democracy.

I will leave it to you to speculate how the equivalent of the Obama Justice Department would treat news stories about Hillary’s e-mails and influence peddling under the professor’s suggested “regulation” of “fake news.”


9 thoughts on “Fake News Ethics: A Quick Audit

  1. Great. Harvard Law School wants to control the media as well as staff the Supreme Court. Wonderful.

    I’d never even heard of “fake news” until Obama brought it up in Germany, of all places. Pathetic. Interesting how he can criticize Fox News but any adverse comments about the media by President Elect Trump is a constitutional crisis and an existential threat to the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment. Give me a break.

  2. “[R]esearchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders.”

    Ironically, even today this describes perfectly the Soviet disinformation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s that hopelessly warped the thoughts of Western students, including those who now run our progressive organizations. See, for instance, the reaction to the death of Fidel Castro.

  3. According to the principle: IF the Left is accusing the Right of doing it, odds are the Left is already doing it or plans very soon to start doing it.

    This is probably an apt situation to apply this to.

      • This is human nature: an otherwise proscribed act is conceivable if you have done it yourself.

        I have observed Liberals doing this (especially the Clintonistas) my entire adult life. They accuse the Republicans of doing, or wnating to do, something, and later we find out the Democrats actually did do that.

        I have begun to predict what scandal will come next, after listening to what the Democrats accuse the Republicans of doing. Much of the time, at Democrat already did do whatever the accusation is.

        I am correct a depressingly large part of the time.

  4. “the American prisoner of war that the President took in trade (without consulting with Congress, a scandal) for five dangerous terrorists…”

    Don’t you mean Freedom Fighters?

  5. Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true,” Hughes said. “And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts.”

    She went on, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”


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