Jesse Robison

Jesse Robison

The Martians have invaded America and they speak Russian. Orson Welles, in his famous 1938 radio broadcast “War of the Worlds,” detailed a Martian invasion that frightened some listeners who mistook it to be true. Although the show contained a disclaimer, he could be considered an early purveyor of fake news.

What is hoax news? A good definition from PolitiFact states: “Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”

The Robert Mueller testimony confirmed what the majority of Americans now understand. Our president and his campaign consorted with Russia to try and steal an election. Behind all of this pathetic maneuvering was the pursuit of filthy lucre for individual players (many now convicted), and the lifting of sanctions for the Russians (the pursuit of even more filthy lucre).

Mueller’s testimony revealed the president of the U.S. is a liar who engaged in criminal conduct.

However, what should be of utmost concern at this point is Robert Mueller’s emphatic assertion the Russians and others are at work this very moment to disrupt our next election cycle.

Congressional intelligence committees identified 3,500 false ads that were purchased by the Russians on social media during the last presidential election. The purpose behind the ads was to aid Trump’s election while fostering conflict amongst the U.S. electorate. Although it is difficult to measure the full impact, it is fair to say the Russians endangered our political system and remain a threat.

One gullible reader, Edgar Welch, went so far as to shoot up a pizza establishment in Washington, D.C., after reading fake news that it was being used as a cover for a pedophilia ring led by Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. He was sentenced on March 24, 2017, to four years in a federal prison.

A University of Tennessee, Knoxvillle, study funded by the Defense Department found Trump had polling upticks during the 2016 campaign that correlated with social media activity by Russian trolls and bots.

Our enemies have figured out they don’t have to wage war against America’s superior military capacity. It’s far easier to keep our country in constant turmoil by generating internal conflict. The stability and survival of our democracy is at stake, and we must do everything possible to protect the sanctity of our election system regardless of the president’s blind culpability to the problem.

Given Trump’s expressed disdain for the “lying media,” and his having called the press the “enemy of the people,” it is important that we maintain a free press that provides us with reliable information. Our founding fathers included protection of the press in the Bill of Rights because it was considered a bulwark in the maintenance of liberty. One of the first things despots do is seek to control the flow of information.

Trumps regularly calls negative reports about his administration fake news to divert attention from the failings of his leadership. It’s ironic how much Trump promotes distrust of the media given that his manipulation of the press helped to get him elected. His attacks and sensationalist tweets are calculated to garner constant attention, and the press unfortunately snaps at his toxic messages like piranhas in blood chummed water.

In the past we traditionally obtained our news from trusted media sources that were required to follow strict codes of practice. The internet has changed the rules of the game by enabling us to obtain significant information through sources that have virtually no regulation or editorial standards.

The majority of Americans obtain their information online (62 percent according to a PEW Research Center study from November of 2017), and approximately half claim they no longer trust the media because of inaccuracy, bias and fake news. Way too much news is also delivered these days in an opinion based format on both sides of the political spectrum which increases public distrust of media.

Besides initiating protective reforms to our election procedures and reading trustworthy news sources, we should all be on the alert for fake news. In a busy world dominated by social media, with virtually no controls, how does one spot this insidious stuff? The reality is it can be more difficult than people realize.

One study reported that over 25 percent of Americans visited a fake news website during the 2016 presidential election. Buzz Feed found the top 20 fake news stories about the 2016 election received more engagement from readers than the top 20 election stories from major media outlets. Another Buzz Feed study of high schoolers determined most of the students were confident they could spot and ignore fake news. The students are perhaps overconfident.

My legal training taught me to seek the facts and verify, but as I think back to the last presidential campaign I have this uneasy feeling I read several false news reports without discernment. The inherent danger lies more in accepting stories with subtle shading of the facts rather than sensationalist claims that trigger our “b.s.” monitor.

Not wanting to de duped and desiring factual accuracy in my columns, I went online to read about how to spot fake news. After reviewing several articles, I offer the following summary of their best tips.

Develop a critical mindset and read beyond the headlines. Make sure to check your own biases against the content. If you read an article that Congress has voluntarily imposed term limits upon its members, you can be assured this is hoax news. When things sound too good to be true they are typically false.

Always check the sources and citations in the piece along with the age of the article. A good safety check is to see who else is reporting the story. If you find a number of sources reporting the same information odds are it’s true, but even that has some risk as major media have been fooled by fake news on occasion.

As a final resort, you can look to the pros for help by utilizing information checking resources like FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com or snopes.com.

There is nothing wrong with writing satire. The Onion is a well recognized source for satirical stories designed to entertain. When I was a college student we created an entire edition filled with fake news at the Idaho State University college paper. We made fun of everyone, including ourselves, and it was a nice break from life’s more serious pursuits.

However, most Americans want our country’s dysfunctional national government to provide less fodder for satire. Electing effective leaders with integrity is more likely to happen if we have accurate information when entering the ballot box. Do your part by spending a bit more time to ensure the reliability of your information. No one wants to be a patsy played by Martians who speak Russian.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.