At this point in American political history, many of us have become inured to misinformation and proliferation of fake news.
Still, it was startling when the “West Wing Reads” email from the White House hit my mailbox at 12:16 p.m. on a Friday.
“Adam Schiff and Democrats are Twisting Words to Smear Trump,” the email’s subject read, showcasing a range of quotes from conservative news media presenting inaccuracies and blatant lies. (To be clear: if a Democratic or Independent administration presented lies in this obvious fashion, I would be equally horrified.)
“Schiff made up and fabricated his own transcript that he read at the hearing, which sought to create the quid pro quo that Democrats have accused the president of making,” the White House cited Kristina Wong of Breitbart News.
This claim is easy to check. While Schiff did provide a summary of the transcript, he wasn’t wrong. And the original transcript was pretty damning. So the subject of the email and its contents, sent from the highest office in the land, are misleading.
“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” Trump told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the official transcript. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
This may seem like business as usual or a political fight limited to Washington, but it’s worth acknowledging in this moment in history where the fight over veracity of information and images at the highest level is more heated than ever before — around the world.
Let’s not allow this conversation to devolve to “fake news” finger-pointing.
With impeachment proceedings underway and political infighting intensifying, it is important to acknowledge which actors are routinely distributing lies and misinformation to not just their email subscribers, but the American public at large.
The administration that has coined the term “alternative facts” is now continuing to wage a war against the media, which is an integral part of the democratic process. Every week, this administration questions and looks to undermine the integrity of journalism as a profession and public service. Last week, Trump mocked the press again at the U.N.
Thirty separate investigations are ongoing into this presidency, and the war with media over what constitutes the truth is likely to get uglier.
It’s high time to ask what we can do about it — as media, startups, entrepreneurs, news consumers and media investors.
As a media startup that covers the most urgent issues and promising technologies from a social impact perspective, Karma recently featured a number of companies that are looking to disrupt and strengthen democratic processes at a time when these are needed the most.
The startups include ventures that connect candidates and voters, tackle disinformation and voter outer outreach, and work to improve polling. One company called Prism creates content about issues of importance to people of color and publishes stories about criminal justice.
We have also covered technologies like Truepic, a Blockchain-based technology that aims to authenticate images and tackle issues like deepfakes.
No single technology or startup can fix all the problems, but there is an increasing urgency to address them.
It’s also important to try and frame a conversation in a way that we’re able to address the challenges. And we can no longer remain on the sidelines as this war for truth rages.
‘Fake News’ Is a Tech Problem
The media organizations get plenty of things wrong from overdependence on tech companies to lack of diversity in bylines, but “fake news” is not merely a headache for news organizations to solve.
A recent report published earlier this month by NYU warned that U.S.-based social media platforms present a bigger misinformation threat to than any foreign actor.
Given how reliant media organizations have become on the tech giants, is that a surprise?
“A greater volume of disinformation probably will come from domestic U.S. sources,” the researchers warned ahead of 2020 election.
Let’s not allow this conversation to devolve to “fake news” finger-pointing. That is weaponization of news and information that serves nobody, except the people spreading lies and seeking to wreak havoc on democracies around the world.
Voter Education Is a Critical Issue
A recent study by University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 39% of American adults could name the three branches of the federal government. And that’s a slight improvement to previous years!
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, called the results “dismal.”
“The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry,” she said. “And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”
This is why it’s great to see initiatives like Verizon’s sponsorship of New York Times’ subscriptions for high school students.
We need more public and private initiatives that directly address systemic educational challenges, not only criticize and take apart what the media outlets are getting wrong.
Media Still Has Work to Do
To be sure, news organizations still have a lot to improve. Newsrooms can be more diverse and do better with polling and ease their reliance on big tech companies like Facebook and Google for distribution, audience engagement and analytics.
But the fact is that all of the media landscape has become a political battlefield, whether we admit or not.
Truth and facts are under attack and it’s up to all of us to fix it. The question is no longer academic about the need to be aware of fake news as readers, entrepreneurs, journalists or media investors.
The more urgent issue is how soon we can start formulating and implementing solutions to address specific challenges at the heart of our societies’ problems.