Monday, May 21 , 2018, 10:02 am | Mostly Cloudy 62º


Ron Fink: Can Government Stop Fake News?

Politicians recently discovered that a variety of people seemed to be putting out false information about them during the recent election. Now they intend to “do something about it;” but what? Losing candidates seem to be more concerned about this than the winners.

What is fake news? A fake is commonly defined as a “imitation, artificial, synthetic, simulated, reproduction, replica, ersatz, faux, man-made,dummy, false, mock or bogus” declaration of fact. This would seem to indicate a conscious effort was made to misrepresent something as fact.

If the weather guesser tells us on the evening news that there will be a blizzard in Lompoc, is that fake news? Only if the weather personality made it up. If on the other hand, he/she acquired this information from a reputable source like the National Weather Service, then it would just be a mistake that could be attributed to the source.

Suppose someone was to post information on one of the millions of blogs on the internet or write something in print media and represented it as fact when it could be easily proven to be false. If that person originated the false information, then it would indeed be fake. If the person repeated it without fact-checking, then it’s incompetence.

Now to political campaigns: the higher the office being sought, the more money the candidate generates to create adds that put his/her competitor in a bad light. No matter which political party, all campaigns try to dig up the one thing that will create doubt in people’s minds and cause them to vote for one candidate or the other.

The last campaign was just the latest example of political candidates making points by smearing their competitors with hard-to-verify “facts.” This can be done via news releases, paid advertising or political action committees, and the public should be wary of all these sources.

Back in the early 1800s or late 1700s, the only way to effectively disseminate information was in the newspaper or by word-of-mouth. The men who owned these papers were politically active and often favored one candidate over another; their reporters and editors were obligated to put the ideas of the publishers in print.

Truth was often stretched to the breaking point to impress readers with the publisher’s point of view, and sensationalism ruled the day.

Today’s purveyors of “news” use electronic media to dissect speeches and publicly recorded statements into tiny bits of disconnected sentences that frequently misrepresent the thoughts, legislative history and ideas of the candidate. Because the words were actually uttered, it may not be made up, but to say partial statements constitute a factual representation of a person’s opinion isn’t credible.

The latest revelation is that a foreign government, most likely Russia, interfered with the election. What they are really saying is that they may have been the originators of fake news, some call it propaganda. It should be no surprise to anyone that a foreign government would try to interfere in our affairs or that the United States wouldn’t do the same.

So, what could politicians do about fake news? Could they regulate the dissemination of fake news?

If they tried to do that, it may run contrary to the First Amendment which says Congress, or any political body, may not make laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In other words, even if it is an ”imitation, artificial, synthetic, simulated, reproduction, replica, ersatz, faux, manmade, dummy, false, mock or bogus” declaration of fact, U.S. citizens have a right to say or print it.

So, that leaves it up to the recipient and/or repeater of the information to determine what is fake and what is not fake.

Even though the information sources seem to be infinite on the internet, you have to have the ability to separate fact from fiction. Considering information overload, this is a Herculean task and most folks probably don’t have time to figure it out. However, the resources available to news organizations are much better.

I always apply a simple test: If it sounds odd, the blizzard example above would be odd, then I discount it. If it’s plausible, then I look into it further.

The bottom line is: It is up to me and you to determine what’s fake and what’s not.

The government would seem to be powerless to save us from fake news; the originators of this information should police themselves, but this seems unlikely.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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