On September 19th, Sonoma County citizens of all kinds — students and locals, gathered in Ballroom D of the Sonoma State Student Center for a special presentation by the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit based out of San Rafael that works to protect free speech and the press. The presentation touched on the importance of recognizing fake news and was sponsored by the Ethics, Law and Society Forum at Sonoma State University and presented by Karl Olsen, Paul Gullixson, Annika Toerniqvist and David Snyder.
The coalition was created by journalists and educators to protect the right of free speech and to assist in creating a more open, connected government to its citizens.
‘Fake news’ is a phrase that has been made common from the 2016 presidential election and the resulting Trump administration. The special topic discussed both the dangers of the president and government being able to claim any bit of information about them they disagreed with as ‘fake news’ and the spread of actual false news and information, contributing to dialogue of determining what news we can trust and what news we shouldn’t trust.
The FAC and Sonoma State Star – the student run newspaper, describe the process of fake news as a news report published or released with knowledge of its falsehood, or willful disregard for its accuracy and with the intent to deceive the public.
“With fake news, reporters have woeful disregard for correct information,” said Gullixson. “And it explains the intent behind the author’s piece, particularly when they only want to stir people towards their own beliefs.”
“Facts are important now more than ever,” said Snyder. “You can find almost any information through people, regardless of whether they value that information being accurate. In addition, this can be shown through what people filter and choose to have on their timelines on social media. Their exposure to false information can vary.”
The presentation featured a couple of websites explaining satirical articles, tabloids and a clear refusal to consider correct facts. These included Daily News with a false article on crabs filling the streets after Hurricane Irma and a website called “Land of The Free” posting an article claiming, “Black Lives Matter activists were blocking emergency vehicles to Hurricane Harvey,” which was not only false, but contained recycled false information to frame the activist group in a harmful matter.
Then the topic prominently focused on how fake news articles were especially prominent throughout the 2016 election, including what assisted in President Trump’s win for the White House. More articles were displayed, from “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons To ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!!”, to “Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump for President.”
Presenters then led to a discussion about one of the most infamous cases of fake news, “Pizzagate,” a propaganda piece created claiming Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring in a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. They explained the reactions to the articles, including how a man ended up going to the pizza parlor with a gun and threatening to shoot up the place and claiming it was due to the accounts.
“A Buzzfeed News Analysis has shown that when these fake election stories generate, it creates a lot of misguided engagement with the election at best, to people bringing literal harm at worst,” said Olsen. “This is clear not only with ‘Pizzagate’, but with states as well-there has been a bit of a connection between the traffic on those articles coming from Michigan, and how Trump won Michigan in the election.”
However, that wasn’t the only consequence described from the analysis Olsen brought up. It was also described how people’s engagements with Facebook increased during the election, and how Facebook contributed to allowing inaccurate articles to flow. “According to the analysis, between August 2016 and Election Day almost 8.7 million people engaged with fake news, whether they were aware of it or not,” said Olsen. “Fake news is not protected, but too normalized to be stopped.’
It was then discussed along with other various accounts of fake news throughout history (from false stories of animals escaping from the zoo to Holocaust denial), to Toenerqvist presenting a slide on the importance of fact checking websites (such as FactCheck.org and snopes.org).
“It’s an important responsibility to recognize fake news when it’s in front of you,” said Toenerqvist. “It is a complex experience, but when it’s taken care of, it prevents a lot of damage.”
She then presented a slide on “How do I trust a story?”, which taught people several steps to recognize the accuracy of an article: recognize if the site/author it comes from has received any awards, if it has an archive and a date, links to credible sources, correct spelling and grammar, and can you find the author elsewhere on the web.”
For more information on the FAC and their presentations, or to learn more about these topics, visit firstamendmentcoalition.org.