By Dr. Mercola
Unless you've been living under a rock or hiding beneath the covers in your bed for the past couple of months, you've undoubtedly heard the war cries against "fake news."
Facebook — being the largest social media site on which news is shared among millions — has vowed to take steps to limit the amount of "misinformation" that can be spread on its site by forwarding suspected fake news stories to fact-checkers like Snopes.1,2,3,4,5
So-called disputed stories would then be "buried" lower in people's newsfeeds. However, while verifying celebrity deaths or disputing urban legends — Snopes' specialty — is a pretty easy task, debating matters about health and nutrition is an altogether different matter.
If Snopes, whose office is reportedly filled with junk food,6 is now the arbiter of truth when it comes to health — you can expect to see massive censorship of natural health and general promotion of industry talking points.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that if he were ever to decide between a government without newspapers or newspapers witthout government he would not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.
Remember that 90 percent of U.S. media is controlled by six corporations, making it virtually impossible to get any information that is not consistent with their agenda to maximize their profits. The only bastion of hope to find out the truth is the uncensored internet.
It seems these corporations are taking advantage of the current sense of confusion, and are using their existing control to silence disagreement in a manner that strongly reminds me of Senator Joseph McCarthy's efforts in the 1950s to accuse many innocent people of being communists.
The Murky War on Fake News
By definition, fake news stories would be articles that are figments of someone's imagination or contain outright falsehoods. On the one end of clear-cut fake news you have The Onion, a well-known satire site.
On the other, you have RealTrueNews.org, which claims to create intentionally fake stories "to make those who share fake right-wing news … more aware that they're susceptible to stories written in [their] language that are complete, obvious [and] utter fabrications," The Daily Beast reports.7
In the middle, you have shoddy journalism in general, where bias, corporate and political influence, unreliable sources, malleable ethics and general laziness or plain lack of experience result in a wide array of news of questionable quality and accuracy.
The main difference is that everything in this middle gray-zone usually claims to be based in fact and truth. But is censoring or blacklisting the best way to address so-called "fake news" — especially when a vast majority of it falls in this gray zone?
Of course, people are also allowed to express their opinions (ideally, journalists should make such statements clear), which cannot be arbitrated as true or false per se.
As recently noted by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, the solution to fake news is teaching people critical thinking — not censoring what they read.8
"The problem of fake news isn't solved by hoping for a referee but rather because we as participants, we as citizens, we as users of these services help each other.
The answer to bad speech is not censorship. The answer to bad speech is more speech. We have to exercise and spread the idea that critical thinking matters now more than ever, given the fact that lies seem to be getting very popular," Snowden told Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Facebook Clamping Down on Fake News — or so It Thinks
Facebook has announced it will stem the tide of fake news stories — the magnitude of which is estimated to be a fraction of 1 percent of the network's content — by allowing users to flag a post as fake news. Flagged posts would then be handed over to a coalition of fact-checkers.
But who exactly are these fact-checkers, and do they have the appropriate qualifications to arbiter "truth?"
It's difficult for any given individual to determine what is 100 percent accurate without significant personal insight into the topic at hand, and the ability to accurately sort through scientific research, should such a thing be necessary.
Attention to detail, an inquiring mind and following a thorough process that includes looking at things from many sides would also be helpful. There's also the issue of bias. A professional fact-checker can have none.
With all of that in mind, the coalition of fact-checkers selected by Facebook to police our news feeds — which include Snopes,9 PolitiFact, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org and ABC News — raises concerns.
Most if not all of these organizations tend to political left-leaning bias, as does Facebook, if we're to believe The Washington Post.10
When it comes to fake information, it is ironic that Facebook and Google relentlessly promote "fake" information in the form of advertisements for pharmaceuticals and other businesses — their primary form of revenue earnings. Will Snopes also be verifying the validity of their promoted advertisements?
It seems nearly every ad they perpetuate contains "fake" information, yet they have no concerns raking in the cash by promoting pharmaceutical and other industry perspectives.
The Twisted People Facebook Entrusts With Controlling What You Read
The danger of giving certain entities the power to tag a news story as "fake" or "real" is clearly demonstrated by recent revelations about Snopes.11 After Facebook announced Snopes would be used to fact-check stories, The Daily Mail12 questioned Snopes' façade as a paragon of truth.
Snopes was created in 1995 by Barbara and David Mikkelson to explore the truth and fiction behind myths and urban legends (see video above). According to the Daily Mail's investigation into the company, the couple posed as "The San Fernardo Valley Folklore Society" when they first started — a society that, in fact, does not exist as a legal entity.
David has admitted they created the fake society, with official-looking stationary and all, "to help make the inquiries seem more legit." The Mikkelsons divorced in 2015, but are still locked in a heated legal battle over corporate and private funds. Barbara claims David embezzled $98,000 of company money, allegedly spending it on "himself and prostitutes," and used corporate funds for his personal use, including attorney's fees, without consulting her.
David, on the other hand, claims he's been underpaid, and is demanding an "industry standard" rate of at least $360,000 per year. He's currently making $240,000 a year from Snopes. He also accuses Barbara of taking millions of dollars from their joint bank accounts to buy property. According to the Daily Mail, David's attorneys have also "blasted Barbara as 'a loose cannon who simply must have her way.'"
Who Are Snopes' Fact-Checkers?
According to the featured report, David's new wife, Elyssa Young — a former escort, self-proclaimed "courtesan" and porn actress who ran for Congress in Hawaii as a Libertarian in 2004 — is now employed as a Snopes administrator. Despite that, David claims Snopes still has no political leanings.
Young is also said to maintain a website that offers her escort services, although "it is unclear if she is still working as one," the Daily Mail notes. Another former sex-blogger known as "Vice Vixen" (real name Kimberly LaCapria) is one of Snopes' main contributors.
According to her blog — which she describes as being focused on "naughtiness, sin, carnal pursuits and general hedonism and bonne vivantery" — she has performed her Snopes duties while smoking pot. In all, Snopes is said to have six employees "scattered across the U.S."13
Snopes Unfit to Arbiter News
Ironically, as noted by the Daily Mail, "The two also dispute what are basic facts of their case — despite Snopes.com saying its 'ownership' is committed to 'accuracy and impartiality.'" They even had a fall-out over the arbiter they'd appointed to settle David's income dispute. " … [M]eaning that arbiter cannot even agree on its own arbiter," the Daily Mail notes. The Daily Mail contacted both David and Barbara for comments and confirmation of their disputes. According to the article:
"David said he was legally prohibited from discussing his ex-wife's allegations. 'I'd love to respond, but unfortunately the terms of a binding settlement agreement preclude me from publicly discussing the details of our divorce,' he said. Barbara Mikkelson said: 'No comment.'"
Forbes contributor Kalev Leetaru got a similar response. He writes:14
"When I first read through the Daily Mail article I immediately suspected the story itself must certainly be 'fake news' … if any of the claims were true … companies like Facebook would not be partnering with them … Thus, when I reached out to David Mikkelson … for comment, I fully expected him to respond with a lengthy email in Snopes' trademark point-by-point format, fully refuting each and every one of the claims in the Daily Mail's article and writing the entire article off as 'fake news.'
It was with incredible surprise therefore that I received David's one-sentence response which read in its entirety 'I'd be happy to speak with you, but I can only address some aspects in general because I'm precluded by the terms of a binding settlement agreement from discussing details of my divorce.'
This absolutely astounded me. Here was one of the world's most respected fact checking organizations, soon to be an ultimate arbitrator of 'truth' on Facebook, saying that it cannot respond to a fact checking request because of a secrecy agreement. In short, when someone attempted to fact check the fact checker, the response was the equivalent of 'it's secret.'
It is impossible to understate how antithetical this is to the fact checking world, in which absolute openness and transparency are necessary prerequisites for trust. How can fact checking organizations like Snopes expect the public to place trust in them if when they themselves are called into question, their response is that they can't respond?"
New York Times Shows Disappointing Lack of Care
Did you know that anyone, regardless of background, can be hired by Snopes? Indeed, the company does not have any set professional requirements for fact-checkers. Disturbingly, David has admitted they do not even have a standardized procedure for conducting the actual fact-checking.15,16
Surprisingly, not everyone appears to care about the integrity of fact-checkers. The New York Times17 published a puff piece in Snopes' defense, side-stepping any and all concerns raised by the Daily Mail and Forbes — a strange choice after its November 13 promise to:18
"…[R]ededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism … to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you … to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly."
Snopes is about to be given the power to decide what's true and what's not, yet The New York Times doesn't raise or answer a single question about its lack of professional requirements or fact-checking procedures. How can that be? Personally, I'm dismayed by it. If you agree, I suggest letting The New York Times know they're already falling behind on their promise to "report … honestly, without fear or favor."
Snopes Is Just Another Voice for the Status Quo
A perfect example of why Snopes should have nothing to do with arbitrating health news is its "debunking" of safety concerns about aspartame.19 This case also demonstrates the insidious and dangerous effect of bias, which can come from the very highest levels. Snopes bases its decision on the 1999 testimony of David Hattan, Ph.D., acting director of the Division of Health Effects Evaluation in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Clearly, he is a person of authority. And yet he's wrong. Entire books have been written delineating the cover-up and political shenanigans that allowed aspartame on the market and has kept it there ever since, despite warnings from scientists both before and after its release. Reputable scientists have also refuted a number of Hattan's comments, such as the idea that aspartame may only cause problems in individuals with a rare genetic disorder.
At the very least, Snopes would need to read the books and review the aspartame research that shows harm, and there are many such studies. Instead, they took the easy way out. As a result, a lot of people are not properly forewarned and may be hurt.
Ditto for Roundup. On November 16, 2016, Snopes looked into claims made by Food Babe that the FDA might have shut down its residue testing of glyphosate due to complaints from Monsanto. "False," Snopes declared. Ironically, the page declaring that no corporate influence played a role, AND that "the broad scientific consensus is that [glyphosate] is not a risk," contains a prominent ad for the Bayer-Monsanto merger.
This clearly demonstrates the danger of having advertisers. Even if they don't tell you what to say, their ad makes it appear as though they most likely did. In this case, the nail in the proverbial coffin is a Twitter exchange20 that clearly shows the fact-checker for Snopes, Alex H. Kasprak, got his information about glyphosate's safety from Kevin Folta, Ph.D.
Folta, a University of Florida professor and a vocal advocate of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), who vehemently denied ever receiving any money from Monsanto, was caught lying about his financial ties to the company in 2015. In fact, the evidence suggests he purposely solicited the funds with intent to hide the source.
Everyone knows that with the money comes influence, and Folta himself promised a "return on investment" in writing. This just goes to show that part of fact-checking is background-checking your sources as well, and considering the many different angles available.
What About Mainstream Media Flubs?
A number of people have also questioned how mainstream media would be dealt with in this war on fake news, and rightfully so. As noted by The Daily Beast:21
"Mike Cernovich, who popularized the #HillarysHealth hashtag during the presidential election, helping to spread various theories about her rumored ailments, told The Daily Beast that other news outlets, which have reported things that turned out to be false, should also perhaps be banned.
'Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Should The New York Times be banned from Facebook?' Cernovich said in a direct Twitter message to The Daily Beast referencing erroneous reporting about the lead-up to the Iraq War.
'Rolling Stone created a nationwide hysteria surrounding the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone created a rape hoax. Should Rolling Stone be banned from Facebook? Should the so-called journalists who linked to the hoax article be banned from Facebook? …
Sometimes people are wrong. Being wrong is different from spreading fake news. If a person is legitimately trying to reason her way to the truth, even if misguided, then she is not spreading fake news — even if it seems 'kooky' to outsiders … The entire media enterprise has become dishonest. We define one another based on … a bad judgment call or two … In that regard, all of media is fake news.'"
We Should Be More Concerned About Algorithms Filtering Our Reading Material
Forbes' contributor Jordan Shapiro takes it a step further, calling the "fake news" scare a case of fake news. His excellent article, which I recommend reading in its entirety, reads in part:22
"Don't worry about fake news. The whole scare is, itself, fake news. Don't believe a word of it. Could it be that the news media is still trying to distract us from their own poor performance? After all, if inaccuracy makes a thing 'fake,' then all the pundits' and pollsters' pre-election day predictions were pretty bad offenders.
Or perhaps we should define fake news as the process of intentionally producing false stories for rhetorical reasons, in order to persuade people to shift perspectives. Which would make most of the advertising industry guilty …
While well-meaning people run around trying to protect children (and gullible adults) from so-called 'fake news,' anyone … who actually leans totalitarian must be ecstatic … Once the citizenry accepts the conceit that some news is 'real' (and therefore, good) while other news is 'fake' (and therefore, bad) they'll voluntarily submit to censorship. Freedom of the press can easily be replaced by sanctioned propaganda …
[T]he real problem is not falsehoods or inaccuracies, but rather that everything about the popular landscape of digital media currently encourages us to see the world the way we want it to be. Combine that with an education system which pays little more than lip service to critical thinking … and you end up with a population that's been encouraged to live with poor vision … Democracy's biggest threat is not tyrants, but rather citizens who are satisfied with their own limited view of reality."
We are all flawed individuals with our own perspectives and biases. To suggest that any person or group of people could be put in charge as "arbiters of truth" is a dangerous and inevitable path towards censorship.
Google and Facebook's foundations were built upon crowd-sourcing free thoughts and actions. It now appears their creative beginnings are transforming into a censorship authority that controls what information may be viewed by the public. We all find our inner truths differently, and to allow Snopes and similar groups to become the internet's watchdogs will result in biased censorship and will be a devastating mistake for Facebook and Google.