The Age of Disinformation

Editor’s Note: This story was requested by the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society for use in their “Freedom of the Press” Constitutional Law teaching seminar at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. (June 20, 2017)

Made-up news stories are as old as our democracy, but in a culture saturated with partisan appetites and viral clickbait, the term “fake news” has become explosively political—and often misleading. From yellow journalism to Facebook algorithms, and from Eastern European web dens to classrooms in Kingston, URI scholars and alumni take a clear-eyed look at today’s media landscape.

By Ellen Liberman

Have you heard the story about the child sex ring that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta ran out of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor? It was conjured out of a WikiLeaks dump of Podesta’s emails by conspiracy theorists on a social media message board. The idea began to shift shape into a news story, floating through the internet on sites like InfoWars, picking up details that involved occult practices, and intensifying on Facebook and Twitter.

This made-up, unhinged story—through repetition and virality—acquired the gloss of truth for some. Edgar M. Welch, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, showed up at the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor last December with an assault rifle and a handgun, to save the imaginary child sex slaves. Welch shot three bullets into the restaurant and pointed his gun at one employee. No one was injured, no kidnapped children were found. He was charged with multiple felonies. In an interview with the New York Times, Welch refused to concede that the story was fake news. But, Alex Jones, the host of InfoWars, issued an apology for promoting the story and Welch pleaded guilty to weapons and assault charges.

In late March, the specter of “Pizzagate” also rose in a Chafee Hall lecture room, where Journalism Department Chairman John Pantalone offered it as “Exhibit Number One” at a teach-in on an old phenomenon with a new name that has risen as a topic of scholarly interest and civic worry.

Six types of fake news: disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, satire/parody, partisanship, and inaccuracies in journalism.

“Fake news is a deliberate effort to mislead, and the internet has magnified it, because it’s an open highway—anyone can get on. It makes me crazy,” he says. “Sometimes I think the internet should just melt away.”

There’s little prospect of either the internet or the false stories that circulate on it going away. In fact, it’s been boom times for the fake news business. But, the academic community has taken up the challenge of using this moment in the culture to define the terms, to study the impact, to keep the conversation going and set the strategies for combatting its influence.

What is Fake News?

The Wyoming Institute of Technology (WIT) bills itself with gravitas as “one of America’s first independently-owned nuclear science facilities…at the forefront of scientific research and advancement in the United States for more than seventy years, serving as a leading voice in a wide assortment of fields, from environmental issues to medical science to consumer tech and beyond.” And its “About WIT” tab chronicles a distinguished 75-year history.

If the reader misses the acronym, the articles like “Gender Change Procedure Now Available for Pets,” and authors, such as Dr. Richter DasMeerungeheuer (German for the sea monster) give the game away. That didn’t stop credulous readers from circulating its stories on social media widely enough to be debunked regularly on No, there is no study showing that one out of every three Americans has been implanted with an RFID microchip, the fact-checking site assured the Internet. And, the American Journal of Medicine Blog was forced to print a story disclaiming a WIT article reporting that the AJM was about to publish a study conducted by an institute scientist linking Asperger’s syndrome to a predilection for murder: “Since the Journal’s editorial office has been contacted about this fake research article, we felt the need to clarify that this story is completely false. No such article was ever submitted to the Journal, and as far we know, the blog post is meant to be a spoof,” the Journal’s editors wrote.

The WIT website is satire, but its parodies were passed along as truth. Is WIT fake news?

“It’s a really slippery concept, and the reason it is so slippery is because it means different things to different people,” says Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Scott Kushner.

The Age of Disinformation
“It’s a really slippery concept, and the reason it is so slippery is because it means different things to different people.” Scott Kushner, URI Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
Communication Studies professor Renee Hobbs leads a seminar 
on misinformation with international journalists and researchers 
at the U.S. Embassy in Rome this spring.
Communication Studies professor Renee Hobbs leads a seminar on misinformation with international journalists and researchers at the U.S. Embassy in Rome this spring.
click·bait •/
click·bait •/’klikbāt/• noun informal (on the internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage.

Renee Hobbs, professor of Communication Studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media and an internationally recognized authority on digital and media literacy education, has cited six types of fake news: disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, satire/parody, inaccuracies in journalism, and partisanship.

“Each has potential risks and harm,” Hobbs says. “The term is a problem because fake news lumps together all of those different kinds of information without considering the purposes, the motives and the outcomes.”

For example, disinformation—intentionally misleading “news,” often used in wartime—is very different from hoaxes—hilarious deception in service to cultural criticism—which again are different from partisanship, defined as a mix of news and opinion with a political slant.

According to Google trends, the search term fake news took off after the November election, but the concept is older than Guttenberg’s printing press. In the sixth century, Byzantine historian Procopius’s Secret History trashed his patron Emperor Justinian, passing off as true some alternative facts, such as that Justinian could make his own head disappear. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sought to sway British public opinion to his case for reparations by printing a fake newspaper supplement with two articles chronicling Native American atrocities—a shipload of scalps gifted to King George—committed against the colonists at the behest of the British government in quelling the Revolution. In 1890, a circulation war between the New York Journal and the New York World helps to gin up a real one, by framing the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine off the coast of Cuba as a deliberate act of Spanish aggression.

Historically, says Department of Communication Studies Chair Kevin McClure, the press had been an active purveyor of slander, gossip, and outright falsehoods—to its detriment.

“In the 19th century, any politicians worth their salt had their own newspaper,” he said. “The parties ran newspapers. It was messy and ugly and all kinds of untruths were spread about.”

The 10-week Spanish American War ended with Spain ceding ownership of all its colonies outside of Africa—Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines—to the U.S. And the battle for newspaper readers between Journal publisher William Hearst and World owner Joseph Pulitzer resulted in a backlash against yellow journalism and the development of more sober journalistic standards of objective and factual reporting. But the media landscape is always changing. More recently, while the expectation has been that mainstream newspapers will stick to the facts, television outlets like FOX News and MSNBC more liberally mixed opinion and straight news reporting.

The presidential election saw the rise of a new trend: fake news sites created by young webmasters in Eastern Europe and elsewhere abroad, looking to make a buck on the advertising. They discovered that there was no better clickbait than stories vilifying Hillary Clinton and praising Donald Trump.

“In most instances, they were not launched to achieve a political aim, but to achieve an economic aim,” says Kushner. “They could build websites and use Facebook algorithms to drive traffic, to use human attention to sell advertising.”

Social media may only be a decade old, but it has emerged as the primary fuel of fake news, experts agree.

“We have a pool of content that is no longer controlled by the mass media. It’s controlled by a network of friends, using the criteria of their social network,” says Hobbs. Universal human processing factors like confirmation bias and selective exposure—the tendency to seek out information that already confirms one’s existing views, while avoiding contradictory information—create a petri dish for fake news virality.

“In the old days, news that got shared had authority or expertise. The authority had a title or credentials we understood as expertise. Now we are transferring that to an attention authority. It’s clear that the ability to control other people’s attention is surpassing the old forms of authority or expertise,” Hobbs says. “When news is consumed as unbundled snippets, we are less likely to ask those media literacy questions: Who is the author and what is the purpose?”

The Age of Disinformation

Antagonism, In Caps

On a March Saturday, at 6:15 a.m., one day after an outwardly uncomfortable press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Donald Trump tweeted this:

“Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes…vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

The press, from Fox News to the New York Times, had reported the publicly accessible portions of the first state visit between the President of the United States and the de facto head of the European Union, and noted that Trump had repeatedly criticized Merkel in the past. For instance, when Time magazine picked Merkel as the Person of the Year, Trump tweeted that she was “ruining Germany” and he has called her a “catastrophic leader” on other occasions. But some news outlets also reported that the encounter was awkward, relating details such as that Trump avoided eye contact with the Chancellor during the press conference and ignored several requests from photographers to shake hands, a routine image captured at these events.

“It can complicate our jobs when consumers are hearing things contrary to what we are telling them, but there’s that old cliché: In time, the truth will come out.”

John King ’85, CNN’s chief national correspondent, shown while reporting from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Age of Disinformation

So Was That Fake News?

Kushner observes that politicians like Donald Trump have deployed the term like a weapon, disparaging news stories he dislikes as fake—and at the same time, critics point out, making claims he’s been unable to back up.

“Journalists make mistakes sometimes, and in good faith publish things that are not true,” Kushner says. “What has gained currency, in the attempt to discredit the press, is to pounce on honest errors as fake news. That’s the weaponization.”

And some journalists see this label as an imprecation. In accepting an international press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, CNN international correspondent and Harrington board member Christiane Amanpour ’83 made a cri de cœur to her peers to fight against “the tsunami of fake news sites,” and to “recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear or favor—on the issues.”

Harrington board members Bill Loveless ’73, an independent energy journalist and contributor to USA Today, and John King ’85, CNN’s chief national correspondent and anchor of its Inside Politics program, see fake news as not so much a professional threat as a reminder to stick to the fundamentals. They cite the techniques they learned in URI’s journalism program and as staffers at the Good 5 Cent Cigar.

“I don’t know if it rises to the level of a crisis, but I would say it’s worrisome,” Loveless says. “It’s a prevalent point of view. The polls all seem to say that journalists aren’t held in high regard. Attacking the press in derogatory terms is only going to promote that point of view and make a reasonable discussion in society that much harder to achieve.”

Loveless, who got his start at the Cigar covering anti-war protests, adds: “This debate over fake news really makes me stop and think about what I do. I’ve been a journalist since I was 19 years old, and in many ways, I operate the same way as I did when I was a reporter at The Pawtucket Times. The technology changes, but I always go back to those standards of fairness and accuracy. They are more important than ever.”

King, whose network has been specifically cited by Trump as putting out fake news, points out adversarial relationships between politicians and the Fourth Estate have always been part of a journalist’s reality.

“The language may be new, but the goal is the same: to intimidate and influence,” he says. “We live in a time of fractured politics, and Trump just takes the practices of the past and puts them on steroids. Stay calm, defend your brand and get it right—and if you get it wrong, fix it immediately and transparently.”

Ultimately, King has confidence that news consumers will be able to discern the factual information.

“It can complicate our jobs when consumers are hearing things contrary to what we are telling them, but there’s that old cliché: In time, the truth will come out. Most of the people consuming the news are interested, active citizens and they will figure it out.”

Toward a More Media Literate World

It has always been communication lecturer Jerry Jalette’s practice to let his media research students choose the topic they want to explore in the last two weeks of the semester, and it had always been the students’ decision to examine sexual content in media. But last fall, they unanimously chose fake news.

“I thought it was striking. I’ve been teaching for a long time and typically they choose sexual media, but it was pretty overwhelming—they wanted to talk about fake news and what the research says. I think it was because it was in the news all the time, and they were tracking the election.”

The current climate means these have been busy days for Hobbs also. In early March, she joined a News Literacy Working Group co-convened by Facebook and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to discuss long and short-term strategies to combat the spread of misinformation. From there she spent a week in Rome at the invitation of the U.S. State Department to lecture and present on the subject of media literacy and fake news, and whether the negative impact of fake news could be blunted by better algorithms and educational strategies to address the problem.

“We can’t do much to change the attention economics,” Hobbs says. “But Facebook intends to label content and use algorithms to suppress the real junk. Whether or not that will be effective is a controversial debate right now.”

As fake news alters the civic discourse and the course of history with a heretofore unmatched ease and speed, URI is responding—not only in individual classrooms, but through its general education requirements and by sharing its expertise.

Following a new academic requirement promulgated by the regional accreditation body of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, as of last fall, undergraduate students are required to take courses which support a learning outcome of developing “information literacy to independently research complex issues.” Identifying credible sources of information is now among the core competencies students are required to develop.

“It’s not just news information, but scholarship,” Kushner says. “Is it reliable or should we discard it? It’s something all students have to study while they are here.”

In January, the URI School of Education was among the sponsors of a two-day invitation-only symposium to explore digital literacy in higher education. This summer, the URI Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies will host its fifth Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, a 42-hour intensive program for K-12 and college faculty, librarians and media professionals.

The March teach-in, entitled “Finding Reliable Information in a Post-Fact World,” was the brain-child of Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies Karen Stein, who remembered these information exchanges fondly when she was a young faculty member in the late 1960s. Stein says that the civic engagement post-election and the onslaught of misinformation inspired her to organize the event.

“There were teach-ins everywhere—students were hungry for knowledge,” she says. “I’ve just been appalled by everything that’s been going on and I thought: we need an old-fashioned teach-in. This campus is much too quiet.” •

The Age of Disinformation