A standing-room-only crowd packed the Imagine Nation Brewing Company last Thursday for a Humanities Montana-presented panel titled Fake News in a Post-Truth Era. Moderated by retired University of Montana broadcast media director William Marcus, the panel comprised Missoulian editor Kathy Best, UM journalism professor Dennis Swibold, and Jaci Wilkinson, UM assistant professor and web services librarian.
The majority of the crowd looked like the average Imagine Nation crowd—neighborhood activists, a couple of City Council members—though one regular who walked in wearing a Make America Great Again hat was disappointed to see that his usual bar seat wasn’t available. Imagine Nation owner Fernanda Menna Barreto Krum announced to the bar before the panel began that if anyone just wanted to drink beer, they could move to the back room.
Marcus began by asking the panelists to define “fake news,” a term that has morphed from describing hoaxes to one that news consumers use to dismiss stories that don’t support their opinions. Best said she’s seen it used to describe errors that are corrected and acknowledged, as in the president’s Fake News Awards, while Wilkinson said it’s a term she forgoes in favor of “disinformation” to describe deliberately misleading stories.
The discussion was much more generally about news reporting and consumption habits than about the mechanics of disinformation. Wilkinson said she often hears complaints about advertisements making websites difficult to read. On the other end of the ad spectrum, sponsored content posts are so unobtrusive and blend in so well with editorial content, she said, that young students are susceptible to using them as sources for school reports.
One questioner asked about what to recommend to low-income citizens who can’t afford the time or money to subscribe to reputable sources. Wilkinson said the public library remains an excellent resource. Best recommended taking advantage of the 5 to 10 free stories the public can read each month on paywalled sites.
There were notable absences from the conversation, and little discussion of social media (the subject of Facebook algorithms didn’t come up until 10 minutes before the panel ended, during the Q&A portion of the evening) or web literacy aside from a brief mention of the flattening effect of the internet, where a satirical site’s masthead can look as polished and professional as that of the local paper.
Also unaddressed were some recent high-profile examples of how journalists themselves fall for hoaxes or mistake jokes for real incidents, which would have provided a chance to talk about two ways that people can easily fact-check apparent news: Read the URL, and don’t accept a screenshot or photo as proof. In December, a group of Native American activists created a series of copycat websites mimicking Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and the Washington Post to publish false stories about the Washington Redskins changing their name to the Washington Redhawks. A shocking number of journalists took the bait, not bothering to look at the web addresses (espnsports.news, sportsillustrated.news and washpostsports.com), none of which is that of the imitated outlet:. It’s the sort of simple check everyone should have learned to do eight years ago, the first time they got fooled by a celebrity death hoax.
Then, in January, when Michael Wolff’s Trump chronicle Fire and Fury was released, Twitter user Pixelated Boat tweeted a screenshot that appeared to show a paragraph from the book describing how Trump’s aides had been required to make a fake “Gorilla Channel” for the TV-loving president. Again, people took the bait without bothering to look at the book or even the user’s timeline, which is full of jokes, for context.
Those subjects may have been deemed too insidery for the general public chat, but it was truly surprising that there was no mention of the mailing list missive railing against the media that Secretary of State Corey Stapleton sent out on Wednesday. He didn’t directly call the news “fake,” but his intent was clearly the same as Trump’s fake news awards: to dismiss and discredit potential critics. The Twitter feeds of Montana’s working reporters were aflame about it this week, and if one of those reporters had been on the panel, it might not have gone overlooked.
Video of the event is available on Humanities Montana’s Facebook page.