Can anything be done about obviously disinformational news outlets?

After seeing the role that obviously wrong, inaccurate, and frankly fraudulent news sources like Newsmax, Fox News, OANN, Daily Caller, etc… have played in a lot of recent events, is there anything that can be done?

The reason I ask is because it seems like there’s a fundamental difference between say… an editorial spin on things, which all reputable news sources have, and being a propaganda arm for a political philosophy or even more than that, being an active source of deliberate misinformation and FUD.

I mean, I understand the First Amendment, but I sometimes wonder if outright lies are/should be protected, especially when they’re meant to subvert the very institutions that constitute our government and way of life.

The reason I say this is because it seems to me that the right-wing has almost literally engineered their own alternate reality, and there’s a big chunk of the population who believe the nonsense. I mean, it seems to me that journalistic ethics would indicate that they have an obligation to report the truth, and what they’re doing on these other sites and channels is more along the lines of entertainment programming, being as divorced from reality as it is.

Is there any way that these outlets could be required to run some kind of disclaimer/large banner saying that this is not news, but entertainment, or that anything presented here may not have any basis in fact?

I like your idea, but implementing it would mean determining whether the stuff they’re showing is news or is not news. Who is going to be the one to make that call? If the President of the United States can’t tell the difference, who would you nominate? More importantly, who would you nominate that would be acceptable to all the news outlets that we’re complaining about?

I think legit news outlets need to take some responsibility here and have a blanket policy that disqualifies for employment ANYBODY who has worked at a news outlet that spreads disinformation. That means journalism students will need to choose whether they want a career as a journalist or a propagandist before they even take their first job.

All networks have published garbage at various times. You want to remove anyone who worked for NBC or Dateline?

Forever? Even murderes come sometimes free after some years. And what if they amend their evil ways, repent and ask for mercy or forgiveness? If they acted as whistleblowers? They were young and needed the money? Is there a boundary between the evil ones and the good ones? Who draws it? Does the distinction include so called social media? Radio? TV? Blogs? School newspapers? Fanzines? (There must be tanTrump fanzines…) Graffiti? Comics and cartoons? Bumper stickers? T-shirts?
Don’t get me wrong: I like your idea. I am just afraid it is not executable. It is the public which must make this choice, and they seem to like being duped. Not all of them, sure, but enough of them. And skewing consistently in one direction.

There’s a bid difference between various times and all the time. Some let bogus stories through because of inattention; others do it as standard operational procedure.

I don’t think any of Fox News’ castoffs had to repent in any way to find work in legit news - though most didn’t last long outside the ignorance bubble they were used to.

Since there is no simple factual answer to this, let’s move it to Great Debates rather than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Dewey beating Truman comes to mind.

I think really what I’m getting at is the intent to do so. I mean, NBC hasn’t had a long-term scheme to discredit the auto industry by intentionally running fraudulent, questionable or otherwise bogus stories.

The right-wing outlets seem to have the intent to discredit normal media outlets AND a whole side of the political spectrum, and are using their mantle as “news organizations” as a way to co-opt people’s long-term trust in news outlets and simultaneously build distrust of mainstream news outlets.

I mean, to me this is the biggest threat we face- not Trump or Trumpism, but rather the right-wing bubble that isn’t actually dealing in reality. We’re seeing this play out right now- they’re claiming the election’s been stolen, there’s widespread fraud, etc… when in actual fact, there’s no evidence of either. It serves their purposes to keep the faithful wound up about non-existent things, because they stay engaged, and probably more important they distribute this nonsense to right-leaning people who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, and thus sow fear, confusion and doubt about their opponents.

I don’t know how to deal with it, and it scares me. How do you build consensus or reconcile a nation where one side is not even dealing in the same reality as the other? I mean, it’s a setup that’ll entrench and perpetuate both sides continually being at loggerheads with the other.

While obviously impractical given the political climate, the first amendment could be amended (or another amendment added) such that only truthful speech is protected by “Freedom of Speech” aspect of the first amendment. From there it would be possible to impose criminal penalties by law for publishing lies. Obviously, there’s a danger of such a law being overreaching. We do not want children who say they didn’t take a cookie from the cookie jar while having cookie crumbs on their mouths to create a liability. The goal is to target things like “Wearing a mask doesn’t stop the spread of COVID-19, and in fact, harms the wearer” or things like the flat Earth, birther nonsense, Qanon, etc.

Barack Obama spoke on this subject in an interview with The Atlantic promoting his book.

On the demise of local newspapers:

"What happens is that they see you through the dominant filters and news sources, and those news sources have changed. Even as late as 2008, typically when I went into a small town, there’s a small-town newspaper, and the owner or editor is a conservative guy with a crew cut, maybe, and a bow tie, and he’s been a Republican for years. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for tax-and-spend liberals, but he’ll take a meeting with me, and he’ll write an editorial that says, “He’s a liberal Chicago lawyer, but he seems like a decent enough guy, had some good ideas”; and the local TV station will cover me straight. But you go into those communities today and the newspapers are gone. If Fox News isn’t on every television in every barbershop and VFW hall, then it might be a Sinclair-owned station, and the presuppositions that exist there, about who I am and what I believe, are so fundamentally different, have changed so much, that it’s difficult to break through.

I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story. We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.

Remember, after Iowa my candidacy survives Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright, and two minutes of videotape in which my pastor is in kente cloth cursing out America. And the fact is that I was able to provide context for that, and I ended up winning over a huge swath of the country that has never set foot on the South Side of Chicago and was troubled by what he said. I mean, that’s an indicator of a different media environment.

Now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring. This stuff takes root. I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories. The fact is that there is still a large portion of the country that was taken in by a carnival barker."

On tech companies, social media and digital age of information

Goldberg: Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?

Obama: I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy. I think Donald Trump is a creature of this, but he did not create it. He may be an accelerant of it, but it preceded him and will outlast him. I am deeply troubled by how we address it, because back in those Walter Cronkite days—

Goldberg: Forget Walter Cronkite days; how about 2008 Iowa? I’m not sure that a person with your name and your background could walk into Iowa today and get a 10-minute fair shake.

Obama: It’s a pretty drastic change. Part of the common narrative was a function of the three major networks and a handful of papers that were disproportionately influential. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things. It becomes hard for us to say, “Hey, we have a pandemic here; it’s deadly; it’s serious; let’s put partisanship aside; let’s listen to Anthony Fauci because he’s been studying stuff like this for a long time. We may not get everything exactly right, because science works iteratively, but let’s hew as closely as we can to the science. Let’s do what science tells us to do to save lives.” That becomes harder to do.

Goldberg: Do you hold the companies responsible?

Obama: I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic , I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse. If you can perpetrate crazy lies and conspiracy theories just with texts, imagine what you can do when you can make it look like you or me saying anything. We’re pretty close to that now.

Goldberg: It’s that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit.

Obama: If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

I can have an argument with you about what to do about climate change. I can even accept somebody making an argument that, based on what I know about human nature, it’s too late to do anything serious about this—the Chinese aren’t going to do it, the Indians aren’t going to do it—and that the best we can do is adapt. I disagree with that, but I accept that it’s a coherent argument. I don’t know what to say if you simply say, “This is a hoax that the liberals have cooked up, and the scientists are cooking the books. And that footage of glaciers dropping off the shelves of Antarctica and Greenland are all phony.” Where do I start trying to figure out where to do something?

I had never seen that quote before. I so greatly agree. I’ll have to keep this one handy.

Exactly. That’s what I’m getting at- when someone says that the scientists have some kind of vested interest in promoting climate change, and that it’s all fake news, all productive discussion is shut right off. It then becomes a question of whether you try and convince the other guy that he’s off base/crazy, as opposed to a discussion about something you both agree is real and happening. And we all know how those sorts of discussions play out. :frowning:

I’ve posted this elsewhere, but think it’s relevant on this thread, too:

I don’t think abridging free speech is the right stance for the US to take. I think the laws that do restrict it are generally adequate, particularly since lawsuits and efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine failed in the arenas of cable TV and the Internet.

[ETA: I don’t think those failures mean the battle is lost. Au contraire: I think we should continue to see if current versions of the Fairness Doctrine are workable … while we fight this fight in other ways.]

I also think (witness: the rise of Parler when Twitter took minimal measures to even flag as questionable or disputed some of The Worst bullshit) driving the extremist propaganda still further into obscurity can cause more harm than good (sunlight being the best disinfectant, and all).

I think we have to recognize that “radical conservatism” is every bit as real, corrosive, insidious, and deleterious as any other radical ideology, and that it may be best dealt with by the same means.

Which I think the PDF explains better than I ever could :wink:

I certainly would not want any sort of government function to determine what is true, and what should be punished as a lie. Can you imagine if we had such a thing right now?

Anyone calling the election for Biden would be being charged with lying.

OTOH, our libel laws do protect liars more than most other countries. You have to prove that someone knew it was a lie, you have to prove that they did damage, and for a public figure, you also have to prove that they knowingly lied to cause damage. And even then, it’s not even close to a sure thing.

We do have independent fact checking sources, but when those sources themselves are considered suspect, there’s not much room left to go.

This is simply unworkable, even if it were true, which it is not.

At all times some people cannot distinguish what’s true from what’s false. There is no time in which nobody can distinguish what’s true from what’s false. We have always lived in the middle.

Open any history book and you’d find a long series of crises of falsehoods. Some are particular, like the Red Scare and the McCarthy era. Others are chronic and pervasive: that blacks are inferior and women can’t handle men’s work and foreigners aren’t to be trusted. These were falsehoods spread by the highest sources of news and opinion for two centuries - and they are not completely eradicated.

Some people have said this means we have never had a true democracy. Others limit that level of crisis for the narrow particular ones. We currently live in an era that mixes both types, which may make it especially dangerous.

None of this means that the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. Of course it does. It always has, but always in fits and starts, unevenly and peripherally, seldom universally and quickly. Marijuana is now accepted as a legal and useful drug in almost every state. Same sex marriage is legal in the entire country and the voices still against it are loudly shouted down. I went from a world in which people smoked everywhere inside buildings to one in which nobody does. Go pick out your own favorite dozen.

We will see health care reforms and expansions, safer and cleaner energy, reduced carbon emissions, and lots of other ideas be enacted over the next couple of decades. If the marketplace of ideas means anything other than a trite slogan - a proposition I wouldn’t bet against - these are examples.

I don’t want to minimize the danger of one party’s adherents believing in a different reality from the other’s. It’s real and it’s appalling. But, a very major but, it’s nothing new and will be overcome just as all the previous gigantic pile of examples.

There is actually a VERY simple solution to this problem and one we had up until quite recently–break the giant media conglomerates up and force them to divest their outlets. It used to be illegal for one company to own a newspaper, radio station and TV station in the same area and for a very good reason–that allows one viewpoint too much access and is absolutely excellent for quelling any dissent, especially in a small market area. Sure, in a huge city it’s harder to own all the outlets but in a smaller city or a rural area it’s easy peasy. Break that monopoly (virtually ALL news outlets in the country are owned by like, six corporations) and force them to sell off their redundant stations and newspapers and let smaller, more diverse voices be heard again in the land. It won’t happen because those six companies write the laws that govern them, but it is a very simple solution and a tried and true one.

To use that analogy, what I’m advocating for is consumer protection measures in the marketplace of ideas- like we have for pure and safe pharmaceuticals, etc… Right now, it’s the Wild West out there- we have people selling patent medicines that are actively harmful.

For any who are interested … two articles I was recently perusing: