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A liberal blogger, a conservative reader, a Facebook algorithm, and 'unreality'

A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. ...

Posted: Nov 19, 2018 4:10 PM
Updated: Nov 19, 2018 4:10 PM

A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

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Media reporters used to spend a lot time writing about TV anchor shakeups, newsroom shenanigans and ratings races. There's a part of me that misses those days.

Today the beat is about political propaganda, viral misinformation, threats against newsrooms and failing business models. It's about shiny tech tools enabling the worst of humanity and echo chambers eroding our common understanding of the world around us. It's about the information war that's raging on our screens.

Hang with me while I walk you through this weekend's examples... Beginning with one of the best stories I've read all year...

"The more extreme we become, the more people believe it"

Christopher Blair is a liberal blogger who writes fake stories. He says he's trying to trick conservative readers. And he says he's making a lot of money doing it. "How could any thinking person believe this nonsense?" he wonders before hitting send.

Shirley Chapian is one of the Facebook users who reads Blair's lies and believes some of it. Believes enough of it to click "like" and "share." Eli Saslow's story for the Washington Post is about both of them -- and it's about what is wrong with the internet in 2018. After you read the story, I'd love to know what you thought of it...

Here are a few takeaways from the story, starting with my own...

→ For years, Chapian "had watched network TV news," but then she went deep down a far-right-wing hole, with Alex Jones, etc. So she traded (imperfect!) journalism for really manipulative entertainment that sometimes poses as journalism. This can do a lot of damage...

→ BF's Charlie Warzel: "The story shows that the viral, platform-based assault on truth is really a story about addiction, too. Like any drug, there are the people who peddle it (who can stand to make a lot of money somewhat easily) and the people who become dependent on the product (in this case outrage)..."

→ WaPo's Tony Romm: Read Saslow's story "to understand how and why so many Americans, especially older ones, are falling victim to falsehoods online. It's not Russian trolls. It's poverty. It's loneliness and isolation. It's poor digital literacy skills..."

→ I'd like to second this comment from Ann Marie Lipinski: "The gullible are not the only problem. Guys claiming 'satire' while getting rich off the ads need to own their role in this debacle..."

Misinfo is a chronic condition

There is no quick or easy fix for these fundamental problems. We have to think about misinformation as a "chronic condition," researcher Renee DiResta told me the other day. Misinfo has always existed, but now "we have an information ecosystem that really facilitates the amplification of that content, that facilitates it going viral," she said. It can't be "fixed," but it can be managed...

Inside Facebook...

Will this week be any better than last week for FB? A few key stories to read...

-- The WSJ's Deepa Seetharaman has a new story describing Mark Zuckerberg on a "war" footing... And detailing "tensions" and "strains" between Z and Sheryl Sandberg...

-- Jim Rutenberg's Monday NYT column says "The Social Network" movie told us everything we needed to know about FB, eight years ago...

-- Felix Salmon's framing for Axios: "Facebook's executive trainwreck"

Leaks about leaking

This is never a good sign. In a Q&A with employees on Friday, in the wake of that damaging NYT story, Zuckerberg "made it clear that Facebook would not hesitate to fire employees who spoke to The New York Times or other publications," according to... yes... leaks to the NYT. Zuckerberg also accurately acknowledged that leaks are usually caused by "issues with morale..."

Brian Wieser's latest

Well respected Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser's Sunday night note: "Advertiser concerns about morality at Facebook are real. Post-last week's New York Times articles on the company, we don't see immediate financial impact, but other risks to the business are elevated on many fronts. We maintain our Sell rating and $125 price target."

Understanding the links

Donie O'Sullivan emails: New emails obtained by CNN this weekend show Steve Bannon's early correspondences with "Leave.EU," one of the pro-Brexit campaigns. The emails raise new questions about the extent of Bannon and Cambridge Analytica's involvement in Brexit. An investigation has been launched into Leave.EU, and its main donor has faced questions about whether any funding came from Moscow...

→ Big picture: British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who led the way on the Cambridge Analytica story, has launched a new podcast called "Dial M For Mueller." She is arguing that the UK needs its own Mueller probe... She summed up her case in this NYRB piece...

Making sense of nonsense

Returning to the "unreality" theme for a moment... I made this point on Sunday's "Reliable Sources..." Fact-checkers are fantastic, but sometimes President Trump seems to be beyond fact-checking. A few days ago he talked about showing a voter I.D. to buy cereal. Over the weekend, while visiting fire devastation in CA, he talked about raking the forests. It is hard to make sense of this nonsense...

"How dark is your mood?"

That was one of Chris Wallace's questions to POTUS in the interview that aired Sunday. Wallace cited the numerous news reports about Trump's anger and isolation.

So "how dark is your mood?" Wallace asked.

"It's very light, it's fake news, it's disgusting fake news," Trump said. "I read a front page story in the Washington Post, they never even called me, nobody ever calls me." Then he claimed the sources were made up. When I hear Trump complaining about reporters not calling him... A comment he made re: the NYT's story about Mike Pence, too... It makes me wonder how much info his press shop is withholding from him...

→ Also note Wallace's quote about Fox being in "solidarity" with CNN and other outlets... While this doesn't seem to apply to Fox's pundits, it's still meaningful...

Today's "potty humor tweet" from the president

How did news outlets handle Trump's tweet about "little Adam Schitt?" Well, the homepage headline says "Trump attacks leading House Democrat in profane tweet." WaPo's headline calls it a "derisive nickname." USA Today labels it a "vulgarity," and Bloomberg says it's a "potty humor tweet."

Read more of Sunday's Reliable Sources newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

Decorus, it is not...

Many reporters immediately pointed out that Trump has been calling for White House "decorum" while posting crude tweets and saying terrible things. (Don't even get me started on his factually inaccurate criticism of Ret. Admiral William McRaven.)

As Carl Bernstein said on "Reliable Sources," "the DECORUM of the presidency has been undermined and defiled by this president...."

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