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Editorial: Be wary of a web full of phony news
When Russians, political groups try to pass off propaganda, readers should be on guard
Facebook has unwittingly allowed groups backed by the Russian government to target users with ads. That’s after it took months to acknowledge its outsized role in influencing the U.S. election by allowing for the spread of fake news. Now it is under siege, facing questions from lawmakers and others seeking to rein in its enormous power and demand more transparency. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) - photo by Associated Press

Maybe Donald Trump was onto something when he coined the phrase “fake news” during his presidential campaign.

While we might not all agree on the president’s definition of what qualifies, it’s safe to say there is a lot of it out there right now — some of it flowing from Russia, some from Hollywood and some even from his own party. Suffice to say, don’t believe everything you read and hear, if you ever did.

It was learned last week that fake Facebook accounts traced to Russia, whether directly or indirectly guided by the Vladimir Putin regime, had paid thousands of dollars for some 3,000 ads with political messages on the site. Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to turn over information about the ads to Congress and implement measures to reveal such sources.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address April 12, 2016, at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. - photo by Associated Press

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee from both parties plan hearings ahead of legislation aimed to keep foreign interests from influencing elections via social media. This, of course, follows the Russians’ hack of the Democratic Party’s server last year that led to the release of embarrassing emails that some feel hurt Hillary Clinton’s election chances.

Keeping such forays into U.S. politics transparent and at arm’s length is a worthwhile goal, but there are a lot of gray lines to be colored in here. What Facebook defines as a sponsored ad posting could link to a legitimate site or news story; who determines what constitutes “interference?” And if the goal is to deter foreign interests, where exactly is that line drawn in a cyberworld without clear borders?

Zuckerberg cautions that no padlocks on his site will keep all questionable material from being seen.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to,” Zuckerberg said.

In other words, readers beware. Which isn’t a bad habit to get into.

But not all of the phony news ghouls are from Gorky Park. Closer to home, a new online publication called The Free Telegraph recently was launched, described on Twitter as “bringing you the political news that matters outside of Washington” and on Facebook as a “Media/News Company.”

What it turned out to be was a way to distribute political ideas from the Republican Governor’s Association, though its source wasn’t originally identified as such until media outlets began asking questions. The site was originally created through a company that allows originators to shield their identities, which seems to mimic the Russians’ trolling efforts.

Two recent headlines on the site read: “With no message, Democrats struggle to compete in state races,” and “Michael Moore makes a fool of himself again.” However one may feel about Moore or Democrats’ fortunes, it’s hard to call these “news items” anything but subjective. In fact, there seem to be more negative stories about the opposition than positive ones about the site’s sponsors.

The group describes the website as routine political communication, which usually is provided by governors’ own communication staffs. Though the content may offer little that’s new, the way this site delivers it has sparked  critics, even some Republicans.

“It’s propaganda for sure, even if they have objective standards and all the reporting is 100 percent accurate,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP communications veteran.

The proliferation of media outlets and platforms are usually guided by the free market, where anyone with a story to tell and the resources to follow through could weigh in. The idea of elected officials trying to crack the news business raises concerns, whatever your beliefs. Political activism from a party organization is expected, but should be honest and transparent for what it is. Yet very little in politics seems to meet that standard these days.

Readers get more than their share of political propaganda during election seasons when candidates can make their case and let their accomplishments speak for themselves. Jumping into the “fake news” landscape beyond that just adds another screaming voice to an already confusing chorus.

This is just part of a media world suddenly overflowing with activists and experts of all stripes, be they sports figures, late-night TV hosts or rock stars. Celebrities are welcome to use their soapboxes, but let’s not credit them with having expertise on such matters just because they’re on TV. They are no more “in the know” than the rest of us, just folks with their own points of view and the means to broadcast them.

This is why it’s important for the wise news consumer to separate facts from opinions. That’s harder than ever in a 24/7 news cycle when cable news channels, radio programs and websites are full of talking heads spouting their ideas rather than digging for information. Unless viewers make that distinction, they run the risk of being led astray by anyone with an ax to grind and the persuasive gift of gab.

It’s a challenging time for the First Amendment in a world where anyone with a microphone or a laptop aspires to be the Cronkite of the 21st century. Free expression doesn’t produce clean labels of what can and can’t be trusted, nor define what’s truly “fake news.” 

As always, it’s up to a discerning public to strap on their skeptical filters and try to determine who knows what they’re talking about.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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