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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Fighting back against fake news in the era of post-truth

Oxford Dictionaries said Nov. 16, 2016 that editors

Oxford Dictionaries said Nov. 16, 2016 that editors have chosen their word of the year: "post-truth," a term sometimes used to describe the current political climate. Credit: AP / Caleb Jones

Word nerds like me look forward to the unveiling of the word of the year.

The choice is supposed to speak to our culture and national mood, as determined by the esteemed Oxford Dictionaries. The 2015 winner was actually a pictogram, one of those smiley-face emojis, and it captured the zeitgeist.

This year’s selection has a heart of darkness but is no less apt after an election in which lies and alternate realities steamrolled facts:

Post-truth.

Oxford noted a 2,000 percent rise in its use, fueled by Britain’s Brexit vote and our presidential election. Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.”

That goes to the atmospherics surrounding facts. Implicit in the definition is another meaning — that those appeals to emotion are themselves post-truth. In other words, falsehoods.

Two things to note here. One, this is about far more than Hillary Clinton’s typical political doublespeak, Donald Trump’s breathtaking mendacity and the potential to embolden others. Two, growing concerns about this are not sour grapes; the well-documented spread of fake news that infected this election season — which studies show favored Trump by a 5-to-1 ratio over Hillary Clinton — employed tools that can be used by anyone, on behalf of anyone, in service to any cause, at any time. That’s a threat to democracy that people of all political persuasions should fear.

Most alarming was the sophisticated Russian campaign, detailed by two groups of independent researchers, that used botnets to spread false and misleading stories that helped Trump. One report, described in The Washington Post, said Russian-planted stories got more than 213 million views on Facebook.

It wasn’t only the Russians.

More than 100 fake news political websites were run by bunch of teens in one town in Macedonia. Two of their stories — a false quote from Clinton that she wanted more “honest” people like Trump to run for office, and a false story that she was about to be indicted — were among the most-viewed during the election season. Stories like the one that had Pope Francis endorsing Trump.

BuzzFeed News found that the 20 best-performing election stories from legitimate news sites received far fewer shares and comments on Facebook than the top 20 false stories on hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs.

Sometimes, the fake news wasn’t even intentional. A Texas marketing executive tweeted the day after the election that a bunch of buses he saw in Austin had delivered anti-Trump protesters to a nearby rally. It went viral. But the buses were bringing people to a software conference. Few noticed the marketing executive’s correction two days later.

As author Jonathan Swift noted more than 300 years ago, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it . . . ”

There are two parties to a falsehood — the teller and the one who doesn’t question it. Unmasking purveyors is important. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg retreated from his initial skepticism about his site’s complicity and has come up with some steps to deal with the problem, including third-party verification services and more efficient ways for Facebook users to flag hoaxes.

Then there’s us, the audience. Many of us are not particularly discriminating readers. We accept more readily information that confirms what we already think and reject what does not. We need to learn to read more critically.

George Orwell once said, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

So is demanding it. It’s time for the post-truth revolution.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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