Fake News Has Become an Existential Threat

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The scene in A Few Good Men with Jack Nicholson going off on handling the truth has been coming to mind way too often of late. Sadly, this is the world we are living in right now, and social media is at the heart of it.

I recently noticed a headline that implied a lot of people had taken exception to something Gal Gadot, the woman who impressively portrayed Wonder Woman in the movie of the same name, tweeted about Stephen Hawking. I fell for it — only to discover that the clear majority of folks actually supported what Gadot had tweeted.

I can’t speak for you, but I am so tired of being lied to. So, this week, I’m going to cherry pick some of the things that just annoyed the hell out of me last week and debunk them. You see, I think you can handle the truth. I also think that if just a few of us constantly work to debunk fake news, then maybe — just maybe — the truth really will set us free.

I’ll close with my product of the week: Snopes, one of the few websites you can visit to find out if that email or social media post is real before you assist the liars by spreading it to your friends.

No Bigotry in Gal Gadot’s Tweet

Gal Gadot is the woman who played Wonder Woman in one of the most powerful movies ever created with a female lead, and one of the most successful movies ever released. Stephen Hawking was a real-life superhero who did not let his extreme disabilities stop him and accomplished more in his lifetime than 99.9 percent of able-bodied humans manage to do.

Upon Stephen’s death, Gadot posted what appeared to be a respectful, heartfelt tweet:

View image on Twitter

So far, around 53K people have liked the tweet — yet the media reports have focused on the small fraction of people, counted in the hundreds, who took exception to it. Some claimed it was bigoted against disabled people, while others attacked Hawking’s views on religion or his positions on Israel.

The problem for me is that the headline that drew me to the tweetstorm was “People aren’t thrilled with Gal Gadot’s tribute to Stephen Hawking.” Yet the statistics indicate that around tens of thousands were thrilled with the tribute and a very vocal few hundred weren’t — some who drifted substantially afield of the tweet to take exception to it.

So, while the headline is accurate in a sense — because some people weren’t thrilled — the fact is that a massively larger number of people supported it than took exception to it. Further, it obfuscated the fact that a significant number of those who took exception to it had invented reasons that had nothing to do with the tweet.

Saying “Most Everyone Liked Gadot’s Tribute Of Hawking” just wouldn’t pull enough clicks, I guess. Perhaps the more accurate “A Handful of Assholes Accuse Gadot of Being a Bigot” was too long?

Fishy Findings on AMD Security Problems

The media reported that CTS Labs had found a series of serious security problems with AMD’s processors. This report was dumped on the market and on AMD at the same time, before being vetted. It moved AMD’s stock down — and yet just taking a few minutes to look into CTS Labs should have raised red flags.

CTS Labs is staffed with ex-spies and one ex-spy hedge fund manager. The firm doesn’t even appear to have the skills needed (microprocessor engineering) to locate the questionable security exposures that were reported. Apparently, while the security problems were real, their significance was not. The problems paled against the issues reported by more credible firms on Intel’s parts back in January. (Intel even faces a class action lawsuit tied to this mess.)

While I think it is likely Intel is behind the misinformation (AMD is believed to be taking significant share at the moment), equally credible is Linus Torvalds’ opinion that the CTS Labs report was an illegal attempt to manipulate AMD’s stock price. Nothing says we can’t both be right.

In the end, while the security problems are real, they are obvious and easily preventable. An analogy would be saying your car has a security flaw because if you leave it unlocked with the keys in it in a bad part of town, it will be stolen. In the case of the CTS Labs claims, according to Torvalds, a systems administrator would have to be criminally negligent to allow these flaws to become a threat.

Whether Intel is behind the questionable report or it was an attempt to manipulate AMD’s stock price, the problem is that it was taken at face value by a bunch of news services that spread it without vetting it — doing significant damage to AMD investors and AMD itself just for clicks. That’s crap.

The right headline, “Unknown Security Firm Tries to Smear AMD,” would have been even more interesting and likely not caused harm to the market.

Scott Pruitt Unlikely to Be Named Attorney General

Granted, this is on the political side, but the amount of fake news coming out of the current administration is so overwhelming that some, like Bill O’Reilly, have coined the term “Trump fatigue.”

The latest rumor driving a lot of folks nuts is that President Trump is going to replace embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions with embattled Scott Pruitt. The only problem with this “rumor” was that its origin apparently is none other than Scott Pruitt.

That alone should ensure that Scott Pruitt isn’t going to become attorney general. Before media sources gleefully spread this crap around, they at least should seek out the source. I recall a few years back when there was a rumor surrounding the guy who was to be the next HP CEO, which was being spread by the rumored HP exec. He was not made CEO, and he eventually was fired — perhaps at least in part for spreading the false rumor (he never was a contender).

Perhaps the right headline here is “Scott Pruitt Commits Career Suicide.”

Facebook’s Fake News Caused Genocide

I think is it important to point out that false news has consequences. In a United Nations report by Investigator Yanghee Lee, Facebook activity was cited as one of the causes of genocide in Myanmar. Increasingly, governments have been finding that Facebook can be a useful tool to further their agendas — and if that agenda is killing people, so be it.

You might recall that Hillary Clinton recently called out Facebook as one of the key causes of her loss, charging that it basically had worked as an agent for Russia during the 2016 campaign.

I am still amazed that the government can say both that Russia interfered with the presidential election and that it did not change the outcome, without a full audit. The irony is that an audit would have shown Clinton won, but the Republicans tried to do an audit and the Democrats blocked them.

Granted, Facebook clearly says that Russia didn’t impact the election — and of course, Facebook, which would be culpable if this were not true, isn’t exactly the most trusted source for this conclusion.

In short, the massive amount of fake news already has had a material impact on many people’s lives and, as the United Nations has pointed out, may be responsible for ending a substantial number of them.

Wrapping Up

It isn’t just Trump fatigue but fake news fatigue that concerns me. There is so much false information floating around that it is having a material impact on the quality of our lives — and for some of us, how long those lives will be (I did warn you). Our inability to separate what is real from what is false quickly has become an existential risk. Faked news promotes anger, pointless fights and stock market swings. If we don’t get our arms around this soon, both individually and collectively, I’m worried about our survival.

I’ll leave you with another powerful movie clip, this one from A Time to Kill, which focuses on the value of truth. We have lost that value and desperately need to recapture it, because the lies have become an existential threat.

Interestingly, or ironically, they actually may kill Facebook first. I’m slowly coming around to the view that the only way to save ourselves is if social media networks die first. I am hardly alone, which doesn’t speak well to Facebook’s long-term survival.

Now excuse me as I review the latest UFO sightings. Oh crap…

Snopes is our greatest defense against a lot of the fake news that is out there, and it is neither staffed nor funded to take this kind of critical load. Still, I’ve made it a habit to always check Snopes before passing on a juicy tidbit.

Snopes logo

The latest was a friend sending me an email that showed one of the Columbine parents stunned Congress with a plea against gun control. Interestingly, what was false wasn’t the content but the context. Some of this stuff is getting really hard to fact check. However, Snopes called out the false conclusion very nicely, and I wasn’t fooled (and didn’t pass on the largely false story).

Currently some of the “stories” that Snopes is refuting include:

  • validating the “Empty Shoes” memorial in Washington D.C.;
  • invalidating Julia Stiles being transgender;
  • invalidating Harley-Davidson plant closure tied to steel tariffs;
  • invalidating Roanoke City employee firing for gun permit;
  • invalidating President Obama being ordered to pay back US$400M; and
  • invalidating Cadbury products being contaminated with HIV.

You know it is actually almost starting off the day going over the top 50 Urban legends on the site just, so you are ahead of the fake news.

By the way, one of the most interesting this week was that a GOP candidate did call one of the Florida massacre survivors a skinhead and a lesbian (and apologized). Sadly, still, the truth can be even more surprising than the fiction.

Because it helps me avoid becoming part of the fake news problem, Snopes is my product of the week.

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