Commentary

Do Not Conflate Mistakes With Fake News

A report this week issued by a cybersecurity company and the University of Baltimore says the direct global economic cost from fake news is about:

$9 billion annually from health misinformation

$17 billion from financial misinformation

$9 billion in reputation management

$3 billion from platform safety efforts

$400 million from fake political advertisements 

Moreover, the report estimates that brands will lose about $235 million this year from unknowingly running ads alongside fake news.

To deduce how they arrived at these numbers, I read through the report and found this eye-opening example:

Fake news caused stock market losses of $300 billion in a single incident…in December 2017, when ABC reported that “National Security Adviser Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, would testify that Donald Trump had instructed him to contact Russian government officials during the 2016 election campaign.”

Following the story, from 11:06 to 11:34 a.m. the S&P 500 dropped by 38 points. Multiplied by the S&P’s number of equivalent shares this was a loss of $341 billion. It turned out that this “bombshell report” from ABC was false. ABC did not retract the news until after the trading day, at which point the loss was lessened to $51 billion.

Nowhere is it explained why this blockbuster amount was not added to the annual loss from financial information, but let’s give them an A for effort.

I might posit that there is a big difference between “fake news” (that which is created to purposely mislead the audience) and honest journalism mistakes (like what happened with the ABC story). 

Unfortunately, certain elements of our bifurcated society eagerly conflate fake news with mistakes to condemn the American press in general and use this as proof the media have an agenda to end the reign of certain criminals who occupy the White House.

In fact, one gets the impression there are dozens of congressional interns doing nothing all day except searching for stories with mistakes, which can be held up in hearings as “proof” of the left-wing press plot to remove from office someone who by all rights should never have been there in the first place, and has done nothing since the election but prove that he belongs in jail, not in office (regardless of the tax break, which we will be paying for as a country for decades).

As I have written repeatedly, the American media is not perfect. Over the years it has made some spectacular mistakes, from declaring that “Dewey Defeats Truman” (when he didn’t); publishing Hitler diaries that simply weren’t; declaring a rape crisis at the University of Virginia that was proved wrong. Then there were journalists who faked interviews and facts because it was easier than doing real reporting. There is no excuse for any of it, and in general those guilty of such conduct are usually shown the door. 

Yes, there are fringe publication and websites (and at least one cable news network) that routinely report fake news in order to advance the owner’s agenda, but I would not count these as part of mainstream American media. 

At the same time, audiences need to discriminate between news (which should be accurate) and opinion (which is expected to be biased).  Many have stopped trying.

The American press is the best in the world. It is comprised of human beings who occasionally will make mistakes, but by and large it can be trusted not to produce fake news.

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