Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Fake News

THE THOUGHT-CLICHE of "Fake News" (which TOF will endeavor to spell "Fake News [sic]" at least until he tires of doing so) which was launched by the old-school dish-it-out media has faded somewhat as the old-school media discovered it bounding back on them like eager little puppy dogs.
Most ironic of all ... was the outcry against "fake news," said to be fostered and encouraged by their upstart rivals in the social media, possibly with the assistance of Russian or Macedonian hackers (experts said) plying gullible Trump supporters with disinformation (or accurate but purloined information) tending to the disadvantage of Mrs Clinton. Worst of all, these dark, clandestine forces were causing a drop in readership and in newspaper advertising revenue and so endangering the livelihood of proper journalists, like the criers-out.
"The internet-borne forces that are eating away at print advertising are enabling a host of faux-journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news items," thundered Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times on the day before the election.
--James Bowman, "Faking It and Making It" The New Criterion, Jan 31, 2017)
The first example to pass before TOF's optics was one played on the network news regarding a pizza parlor in Washington DC said to host a satanic child pornography ring run by DNC officials, identified by no less reliable a source than a guy in his pajamas in his mother's basement: i.e., a blogger. This so evidently inspired a bloggee that he went there with a rifle to "self-investigate the claims." At least no one did so wretched a thing back when the mainstream media was propagating similarly bootless calumnies -- quoting real-life officials who self-investigated -- about satanic day-care centers. They used firearms and juries to clap innocent people in jail. Satanic child-care is always a winner in stirring folks up, whether it is a blogger or a district attorney who does the stirring.

But it seemed to TOF that a certain taxonomy of the species was called for. We know what a fake pass is, but just what is fake news? What follows is not a complete analysis, but perhaps it is the beginning of one.

We take for our fundamental categories, the Court Oath, in which a witness is called upon to tell "the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing-but-the-Truth." (Ponder for a moment why all three must be called upon.) It is not for mere poetry. Inverting the Truth to the False, therefore, we have three distinct species of "Fake News [sic]", videlicet:
  1. Fake simpliciter. A fundamentally fabricated news story: e.g., Elvis is abducted by space aliens.¹
  2. Fake by Omission. A story which is true, but which omits crucial information necessary for its understanding and so gives a false impression: e.g., US President orders US residents put in detention camps.²
  3. Fake by Addition. A story which is true in part, but to which false information has been appended: e.g., Major accident on Parkway near Exit 136.³
1. Elvis. Okay, so we can't prove he wasn't. But still...
2. Detention camps. No, not FDR. Woodrow Wilson in 1918 ordered German residents, including some German-American citizens, detained without trial. Crucial information necessary to understanding: German residents, under orders from Berlin, had participated in acts of sabotage against munition plants. 
3. Accident on Parkway. A map was included in the article showing the location of the accident. However, TOF was stuck in the traffic, wound his way past the smashed cars and exited on Exit 135 to pick up the Incomparable Marge at her then-work place, well short of Exit 136.

Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Each category can be serious or venial, deliberate or inadvertent. Deliberate is easy to grasp; inadvertent may be due to multiple reasons. News reporters and especially bloggers (take note, Intrepid Reader!) are not typically experts in the matters they report upon, especially when one's own prior commitments are involved. Anyone who is knowledgeable in a subject or who was present at a reported incident [such as the accident in Note 3, above] will recall that the reported story often contained errors or distortions. Michael Crichton described the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect as follows:
“You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

― Michael Crichton
Thus it is helpful to keep in mind when reading or listening to any story the question hammered in statistics classes: How do you know that? What are the data?

TYPOS. Since the word "fake" carries connotations of deliberateness that "false" does not, Fake News [sic] does not usually include typos or other mechanisms by which information is merely inadvertently incorrect, such as getting the exit wrong in the accident story. For example, a story noted by Joseph Moore about a fire at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California last October was posted on a news channel web site as a fire at the First Congressional Church for several days before finally being corrected. This might have been due to auto-correct spell-checks or to misunderstanding of the word¹ on the part of a reporter who had no clue about American religious sects. In an era when many have learned to read by "whole word" methods, it's plausible that a reporter can glance at a sign reading "Congregational" and see "Congressional." That the reporter would not wonder afterward, "Congressional Church? WTF??" is a sign of an even deeper miseducation. The chances are the reporter let his fingers to the typing and he was not aware, even afterward, that his muscle memory had entered the wrong word.²
1. Not to be confused with "misunderstanding of the Word." It was a church building, after all.
2. not aware, even afterward... The connotation that news stories are written in a zombie-like trance may not be too far wrong.

The Nature of News

A GREAT DEAL OF NEWS consists of displaying the press releases of various interest groups -- industry and trade organizations, activists, government agencies, et al. -- as a sort of courtesy. The "tell" is that in the first graf there is a statement like "the White House announced..." or "scientists claimed that..." or "according to high-placed intelligence analysts..." This means that the news reciters or their people were in the audience or were the recipients of the information fed to them by the White House, the scientists, or the intelligence analysts... Often, those groups even provide "packages" to the news reciters that include ready-made copy. This eliminates the need for expensive investigative journalists and ensures more uniform reporting across multiple news vendors. Hence:

Another "tell" is when the same term or phrase shows up again and again across multiple platforms and for multiple days. For example, the current president issued an executive order to temporarily suspend the issuance of travel visas for people from seven counties whose administrative processes for visas had been deemed especially unreliable by the previous administration.¹ Every reference to this EO, without exception, used the phrase "primarily muslim countries" or "majority-muslim countries," until that meme was thoroughly hammered into the public consciousness.

Naturally, it made no sense. It was not the motivation for the order, and the news reciters for the most part carefully avoided saying so. There were lots of majority-muslim countries not on the list, such as Saudi Arabia, perhaps the Most Muslim of them all, and Indonesia and Pakistan, the largest muslim countries. Bloggers, who are under no obligation to be rational, raised the issue of Oil -- oil-rich countries were exempt! -- but Egypt and Jordan, which have no oil, were also not on the list. Neither was Morocco. Or skeedy-eight dozen others. Notice that was was not a question of whether a country had "ties" to terrorism. Just about all of them do. So do Germany and California. "Ties" is such a loose term.²

What the seven countries did have in common was that their internal governments were either in shambles (e.g. Libya) or were overt sponsors of terrorism (e.g. Sudan) or both (e.g. Somalia). That is, the State Dept. might not hold them dependable to vet travelers properly. The Obama administration had prepared the list originally under INA 217 for this reason and had applied it to residents of various countries (mostly European) who were otherwise eligible for travel to the US without any visa at all and declared that if they even so much as set foot in the indicated states, they could not use the visa-free program. The proposed EO simply proposed a "holiday" for regular visa issuance for the problematic countries while the procedures already in place were reviewed.
1. visa issuance. Such a mundane reason does not present government as the shining Savior of the American People, so both the previous and current administrations cited Making America Safe From Terrorism as the reason. The press could quibble about this -- and did in the latter case, though not in the former.
2. ties a loose term.
When your ties are loose, you can more easily trip over them.

The Third Tell

Another tell for Fake News [sic] is when issues are raised in one context, but not in another. For example, if Smith makes a claim and Jones makes a claim, but the media demand substantiation only in the case of Jones. Smith's claim goes unsubstantiated, but is repeated often enough that the news-consumer is left with the impression that it has been substantiated somewhere along the way. For example, the attentive viewer may recall that when first mentioned, the "Russian hacking of the election" was mentioned as an unproven allegation; but it has since graduated to an unquestioned fact despite the lack of any presented evidence. How the Russians were able to so cleverly target the Rust Belt and white women has never been explained.

Oh, yeah. The Wikileaks. The Russians were supposed to have arranged that. Now, Julian Assange said that the source was a whistleblower, not a hacker and not a state actor, and has shown concern lately over the murder of Seth Rich.¹ But then-DNI Clapper said it was the Russians, and he would never lie to us.

This is the same John Clapper who, in sworn testimony to Congress in 2013, when Senator Ron Wyden (D OR) asked, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" responded "No, sir."

Three months later, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was engaged in a secret program to collect tens of millions of Americans' phone call records. Further revelations followed of NSA programs collecting Americans' web browsing histories, chat logs, email usage and even their physical locations.

But today, Clapper would never throw shade on Trump, oh no.

TOF does not remember seeing survey results estimating how many people were dissuaded from voting for Clinton because of the Wikileaks. We are more inclined to think the ineptness of her coronation campaign responsible.

BUT A MORE INTERESTING EXAMPLE, because it was more adroitly underplayed, was the hometown demonstrations in favor of Obamacare held at various town hall meetings of Republican congressmen during the break. News reciters showed us crowded meetings with people standing up, denouncing the congresscritter, and shouting that Obamacare should be kept. The Media dutifully reported this as mass resistance to modifying the law and Republican congressfolk getting an earful from their constituents. But, to use a phrase now commonly employed in selected instances, it was "not independently verified" that the folks leaping to their feet were in fact constituents of that congressperson.

TOF also noted that there were actually only a few such outcriers, but they were spaced around the meeting hall in such a way as to appear more plentiful . Perhaps it was TOF's keen statistical eye, but their spatial distribution seemed curiously uniform. Well, apparently it was carefully planned and carried out. By Organizing for Action, a group founded by former President Barack Obama and featured prominently on his new post-presidency website. "[B]e ready for recess," they advised supporters. "Representatives are going to be in their home districts from February 17 - 26—stay tuned with Town Hall Project 2018 to learn where you can meet your lawmakers in person."

They even had an instruction manual
The manual, published with OFA partner “Indivisible,” advises protesters to go into halls quietly so as not to raise alarms, and “grab seats at the front of the room but do not all sit together.” Rather, spread out in pairs to make it seem like the whole room opposes the Republican host’s positions. “This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus.” It also urges them to ask “hostile” questions — while keeping “a firm hold on the mic” — and loudly boo the GOP politician if he isn’t “giving you real answers.”
So the reportage on these Town Hall disruptions was Fake News [sic] because alternative facts [i.e., facts not presented in the news dispensing process] would have cast the meaning in a whole different light. It was less a matter of grass roots than of Astro-Turf roots.
1. Julian Assange was a hero as long as he was leaking about the misdeeds of George W. Bush, but has now been re-imagined as an agent of the International Communist Russian Conspiracy, mostly because the Guardian seems to have deliberately misconstrued an interview in an Italian magazine. Go figure. Always ask: How do they know that? Where do they get that from?
For the usual thing among men is that when they want something they will, without any reflection, leave that to hope, while they will employ the full force of reason in rejecting what they find unpalatable.-- Thucydides IV, 108

A Fourth Tell

This is not actually a tell, but a caution. We tend to believe more readily a news story that plays to our prior beliefs, but will nitpick to death one that goes against them. A Clinton supporter will make excuses until the cows come home for a story about laundering foreign donations through the Clinton Foundation, but will swallow an entire camel of stories about how Trump's second cousin's wife's brother once had his hair cut by a Russian barber with "ties" to the Kremlin. Likewise, one enamored of a president from the Forbes 500 will believe six impossible things before breakfast provided they reflect well on the Chosen One while they will split more hairs than the aforesaid Russian barber to avoid a discomfiting conclusion.

News purveyors, public and private know this and are quite able to play to the audience. And since they themselves are subject to the same ills, may fall victim themselves. In the TV series Major Crimes, the premier episode of the current season (Season 6/Episode 1) treats us to a scene in which the crime is reported by four or five news channels with four or five different slants, depending on their audiences particular prejudices.

This takes the form of fitting the story into a preconceived template and simply "filling in the blanks." A favorite template these days is Catholic-Church-Abuses-Children, and so the spate of stories about the bodies of 800 children found dumped into a septic tank on the grounds of an orphanage for out-of-wedlock children in the West of Ireland. Naturally, a newspaper like the Guardian swallowed the story whole because Catholics. They did not pause to ask how you could fit 800 bodies, even of infants into a normal sized septic tank. The story apparently began with a local historian trying to account for an estimated 800 infant deaths at the orphanage. She found only one in the local cemeteries and concluded the others may have been placed in a mass grave somewhere on the grounds.

No bodies were actually found, but by the time the story reached the NY Daily News, not only did the paper announce that 800 dead babies had actually been found, but the crypt had morphed into a septic tank, conjuring up horrific visions of devout nuns damning their own immortal souls by desecrating the bodies of the dead. (This strikes those who know such things as so freaking unlikely that the whole story stinks worse than the septic tank.) The Alternative Media went even further than the Mainstream Media and demanded investigations of the Catholic Church for mass murder and crimes against humanity.

Once cooler heads began to ponder the story, the sensationalism began to unravel as reported in several places.

All the deaths were dutifully recorded and reported. All were due to natural causes. In the aftermath of the Irish Civil War money - for everything, not just orphanages -- was scarce in Ireland. In the overcrowded facilities babies died of TB, measles, and the like and were placed in a mass grave. When the septic tank was shut down and cleaned out (after 204 of these deaths had already occurred) and the facilities shifted over to regular sewage treatment, the old tank was apparently converted into a crypt, but two boys who broke into it in 1975 reported seeing only about 20 skeletons, wrapped up and laid on shelves.

DarwinCatholic gives several other examples of Fake News that flourished because they fit some prior narrative:
"One of these stories is totally made up, the other two are based on massive mis-reporting and selective reporting of the facts (which ends up with the stories as reported being basically false) but the way that people interact with them is the same. For instance, the last of these got wide play online because Star Trek actor George Takei shared it with his massive audience of Facebook followers."

A Fifth Tell

When a news story that ought to report numbers relies instead on Victims' Tearful Stories and anecdotes 
A classic example of Fake News is the Love Canal story, which supposedly resulted is greatly increased rates of cancers. But after the hoo-hah had died down, a commission chaired by IIRC Andrew Cuomo, then the son of the governor, reviewed the actual cancer rates and found them no higher than western New York State in general. Similar, more recent stories, have reported that suicide rates in the military or the police are much higher than among the general population without informing the Reader that the military and police have a much higher proportion of young males than they general population and young males commit suicide more frequently than children, women, or the elderly, who make up a sizable proportion of the general population.

A Sixth Tell

TOF meant to write down examples of this, but grew weary, and so this is left as an exercise for the reader. The basic technique is to present two statements as if they were contradictions or in opposition when in fact there is no conflict between them. Often, A and B were saying two different things and not disagreeing at all; but it suited the Narrative to present them as if they were. A simple example is this one from several years ago:
“Maine’s crime rate has fallen 19 percent in the past decade, but its prison and jail populations have jumped 50 percent during the same time period…  That seeming paradox is among the dozens of findings in the 2003 Crime and Justice Data Book.”
-- Reuters News Service
Why is it a "seeming paradox"? If Maine emptied its prisons and the crime rate went up, would that also be a seeming paradox?

Well, that's enough, sports fans. If TOF remembers, he will try to capture an example from the news soon of a False Conflict. Meanwhile, happy hunting.


  1. I remember non-misleading news that was pointing out military suicides had jumped so they were equal to the general population when corrected for sex and age. Guess that didn't sound impressive enough. :(

  2. Wait, what, you're saying Elvis WASN'T abducted by aliens ...???

    You mention that the president issued an executive order suspending the travel visas of people from seven counties. I hope those seven were the five boroughs of New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles. And I hope it isn't temporary.

    Speaking of typos. And dysfunctional governments.

  3. I am reminded of a fairly recent irksome hybrid violation of "typos" and "across multiple platforms" regarding Olivia Newton-John, who fell out of remission from her decades ago breast cancer. The cancer has moved to her spine.

    Multiple news sources reported that she was undergoing "photon radiation therapy".

    Now I undergo photon radiation therapy every time I exit my house during daylight hours.

    When my 10-year-old cousin Savannah died about eight years ago from Ewing's sarcoma [a bone cancer] she had earlier traveled to Boston to receive **proton** radiation therapy.

    Not so incidentally, Michael, you violated Muphry's/Skitt's Law above by writing "finder to the typing" [Zombie reporting] and "she dound" [Irish septic tank].

    Coming to Philcon? RBS, Jay, and I will be attending.


    1. Reminds me of a review of Vonda N. McIntyre's book Superluminal, mentioned on her blog, that rendered the title as "Superliminal". One of these words means "faster than light"; the other is presumably the opposite of "subliminal" (so, conscious thought, I guess?).

    2. The use of "photon" in this case is actually correct as the electromagnetic spectrum encompasses more than just those waves within the visible spectrum. In this case, it would have been less confusing to the layman had the reporter used the term "x-ray" as this would have more specifically identified the type of photons that most medical linear accelerators spit out.

    3. Or if they'd taken a few seconds to (searchengine) it, and just said "targeted radiation treatment."

  4. It can be sort of fun to trace a story back along its route by finding a key phrase that shows up everywhere-- the proton/photon messup being especially easy to spot.

    It's amazing how many newspapers are doing a would-get-you-kicked-out-of-school level rewrite of the AP's reports, and how incredibly bad a lot of them are. It's like when kids "rewrite it in their own words" and treat loose synonyms as having the exact same meaning as the original word!

    1. Thesauruses, or "Devil's Catechisms" as I prefer to call them, inculcate the vile habit of treating synonyms as 100% interchangeable. This is reinforced by bad movies like Dead Poets Society, which actually says to say "morose" instead of "very sad"—never mind "morose" means "sullen and irritable", not just "sadder than might be expressed by just 'sad'".


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