Fake News: Heard Everywhere From Politicians To Pundits To Punchlines

Recent Pew data shows that
the majority of Americans consider fake news
to be a problem, even greater than
things like racism, climate change and
even violent crimes. (fast-paced music) – Hi, I’m Scott Leadingham, thanks for joining us
in the Unique Northwest. And that is not fake
news when I say that, but what is fake news
is a lot of what people are seeing online over
the last few years, and researchers
such as Sam Rhodes are looking into
the prevalence of it and how people respond to it. Sam Rhodes is a PhD from
Washington State University and currently teaching
and researching at Utah Valley University. Thank you so much for
joining us today, Sam. – Thank you so
much for having me. – Sam, let’s jump
right into it with seemingly the obvious question, but we hear a lot about
this term from pundits, from politicians, from punchlines and comedy, what exactly is it
from your standpoint, “fake news”? – Well, you’re right, there are a lot of
competing definitions for what this term is, but most scholars would
agree that fake news is information that is
demonstratively false, it’s just not real. But it has the trappings
and sort of the sense that it could be real news. For example, many real fake news
websites that are out there employ a stock ticker or a
weather ticker with a logo, and if you were to click on it and you weren’t,
you know, any wiser you might suspect
that that is in fact a real piece of journalism, but it is in fact all fabricated and is usually
created to advance some sort of political goal. – So you’ve done a lot
of research on this topic when you were at
Washington State University and continuing now, give us some of the
top line findings of what you’ve found
in your research. – Yes. Well, scholars have
suggested for some time that echo chambers, being a member of a group, for example on
Facebook or Twitter, where you are usually
connected with people that shared the same sorts
of political ideology that you do and the
same sorts of views, that if you’re a member of
one of these echo chambers that you are perhaps
more susceptible to believing fake news than you otherwise would be. And my research shows that that is in fact the case, that when you’re
surrounded by people who think the way that you do and act the way that you do that you are perhaps
less critical than you would otherwise
be of fake information. – So we think that there could
be a generational balance… imbalance in play, or it might seem that way. And I’m just curious
from your research, does it show that that maybe younger generations
who grew up on the internet are they less susceptible to
being victims of fake news than their older counterparts? – You’re correct. And my research is not the
only one that shows that. There’re others out
there that have found that older Americans are
more susceptible to believing and sharing fake materials
than younger Americans. Perhaps you’re correct, that might be an effect
of younger people just being more aware of what fishy stuff looks
like on the internet and they’re more keen on that than perhaps older Americans, who didn’t grow up
on the internet, that maybe didn’t have
a media literacy course in high school or something, or in college, are just more likely
to believe this stuff. – Obviously the
600 pound gorilla, or whatever pound gorilla
it is in the room, is Facebook, and it takes a lot of
heat from politicians, from people in the media, from perhaps researchers
such as yourself, but let’s be honest, Facebook isn’t the only
tech company out there that is big and has a lot
of influence in daily life. Is Facebook really the main, I hate to say, culprit, ’cause it sounds like
they’re causing it, but disseminator of
this sort of thing, or are there others? And if Facebook, say,
went away tomorrow and there was nothing left except for all the
other tech companies, would this issue still
persist and in the same way that we’ve seen it before? – I imagine if
Facebook went away that we would find these
problems on other platforms, if something became more
popular down the road. But you’re correct, Facebook, by and large,
the largest portal for fake information. People share that stuff
in Facebook groups, in Facebook Messenger, just on their
regular news feeds, and then from there there’s
a link to fake news websites. But this isn’t necessarily
being caused by Facebook, as you say, they’re just very popular. We found that in 2016
it was the first time that more Americans
got their news from places like Facebook, social media sites, than they did from
traditional avenues, and that is the trend that
shows no signs of reversing. – So there’s been a
lot perhaps reaction, not yet regulation from a
Lincolnistic standpoint, but at least reaction in
the popular news media, you know, of hearings
being done on Capitol Hill pulling in Mark
Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook and holding him to task
and his feet to the fire, and it sounds like they’ve said that they’re going
to make changes and they’re going to, you know, rejigger things a little bit, so they aren’t as… it isn’t as easy
to deceive people and share this misinformation. I just wonder if
from your standpoint, is that really an honest
effort on their part? – Well, you’re right to
be somewhat suspicious, because immediately
following the 2016 election and some evidence that
there was a large, substantial amount of fake news, there’s some
research showing that more fake news articles
were shared on Facebook in the last few
weeks of the election than the real news articles. Facebook was originally
dismissive of this and said that there
wasn’t a problem and that hardly
anybody read this, and we now know
that not to be true. Facebook seems to be
taking corrective action, they are actively involved
in research, for example, looking at how to better
strengthen their fact checking, if someone shares a fake
story that maybe they’re able to do some sort of
real-time fact checking. They’re involved in research. I recently saw some
Facebook researchers presenting at a political
science conference in Washington, DC. They’re doing more
than they used to. Whether or not that’s enough to make a substantial
difference, we’ll probably know
in the 2020 election. – You’ve also looked at
the idea of what are called deep fakes, we’ve heard more about
those in recent months than in the last year or so. Basically, how technology
has evolved to allow such, you know, simple ways of creating and also
disseminating things that are frankly false
but look very real, videos of people, audio recreations, things like that. There was a prominent
example somewhat recently with the Speaker of
the House Nancy Pelosi and other things. As we go into the 2020 election, what are researchers such
as yourself looking at in terms of how to combat
the idea of deep fakes. – Yes. So, deep fakes are tricky. And part of the problem
is that they’re so new. Some of these technologies
are thankfully still out of reach for most people, it does require a level of
technical sophistication and knowledge that most
people don’t have yet. For example, you know, part of the reason
why fake news articles are such a problem is because it has
become relatively easy in the last few years to just
open up a WordPress website and register at dot com, and it takes very little
technical knowledge. Deep fakes are still
somewhat out of reach but it is concerning. There are researchers
looking into this, but thankfully this is still
somewhat of a small issue and hasn’t gone
mainstream quite yet. But scholars are looking
at it quite closely. Some of these deep fake
videos are quite convincing, but for example, the Nancy Pelosi video
that you referenced didn’t take much
technical sophistication, whoever made that
all they really did was slow down the audio to make it appear that she had some sort of speech impediment or had some sort of
mental deficiency. That isn’t that difficult to do, it’s just simply cranking
down the speed on the video. But to create a video that
is synced with audio of, for example, Barack
Obama saying things that are just knowingly false, just made-up things, that is a little more difficult, and that, I imagine, would be easier for people
to spot and be suspicious of, because it’s so difficult
to make convincing videos. However, in time, I imagine the technology will
become more sophisticated and easier for the
average user to use, so in time we’ll see
just how problematic these deep fakes are, but right now I’d say that
the verdict is still out and we’re not exactly
sure how this will impact things like the 2020 election. – I’m curious about when you
mention the technology angle that is the technology to detect these sorts of things, deep fakes, behind the technology
to create them, meaning the malevolent
actors will always be ahead of the benevolent ones, or at least the ones you
are trying to rooted out, is there some power
imbalance there? – I think with any
new technology, any new phenomena, such as even generic
fake news articles that the malicious
actors will always be one step ahead of
the rest of us. That’s unfortunately how
this is going to play out in my imagination. And I believe that the
best solutions for this are things like media literacy, a good civics education. For example, if you were to see Barack Obama saying
something that you know is just downright silly or really out of
character for him, if you already
possess that knowledge then you’re probably
gonna be suspicious than say someone who doesn’t
know what his views are or doesn’t really
follow politics. So, while the technology
might be sophisticated and new and novel, I believe the solution, and I think many
other researchers
would agree with this, the solution is
somewhat old-fashioned good education, good civics knowledge, good media literacy, taking a journalism class, taking a civics course. These are the best
defenses that society has against these sorts of tools. – I’m glad you bring up
the idea of media literacy, because I wanted kinda
close out on that point. What are states,
such as Washington, maybe Idaho, Oregon from
your knowledge doing to boost the idea
of media literacy and education in those fields, not necessarily just STEM, in recent years? Or is it in a response
to this in recent years? – I would argue that the
media literacy actions taken by states like Washington, have been likely
in direct response to the sorts of problems
that we’re seeing with fake news in
the 2016 election. And I’m happy to see that. Washington is actually a
trailblazer in this regard, they have done really
above and beyond the call of good media literacy, putting resources
for example online for teachers in any
school district to use, not just in the state
but outside the state. I recently learned
that here in Utah media literacy is a
required subject now in public high schools. That’s good. And this is evident that both, red and blue states, are paying attention
to this problem. Recent Pew data shows that
the majority of Americans Recent Pew data shows that
the majority of Americans consider fake news
to be a problem, even greater than
things like racism, climate change and
even violent crimes. And I believe that it can
only grow more powerful And I believe that it can
only grow more powerful if it’s coupled with
not just media literacy, but also American
civics classes. How does Congress work, how does a bill get passed, with this sorts of information Americans can really
increase their defenses against being
manipulated be both domestic and foreign
actors with fake news. – Sam Rhodes, thank you so
much for joining us today, it’s been fascinating
talking with you and hearing about your research. – Thank you so much, Scott. It was a pleasure. – Sam Rhodes is a PhD, Political scientist
and researcher who studies fake news at
Utah Valley University. For more information
on this topic and for general news items come to our website nwpb.org. Thank you for joining us
here in the Unique Northwest. (upbeat music)

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