Witch Hunt: "Fake News" List Touted by CBS Was Faked?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair

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By Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

One of most pernicious means underway to crush independent news sites is the release of software tools that brand them as unreliable. This means that hidden developers and the parties that fed them information are beyond any accountability, yet would serve as censors.

Last week, the Financial Times described efforts to use software to designate certain sites as suspect:

Concern over the impact on voters of soaring amounts of fake news during the US election has sparked a hackathon where the technology industry and the media’s top thinkers are seeking to find new ways to prioritise the truth.

A community has gathered to share ideas around a 58-page Google document started by Eli Pariser, the author of a best-selling critique of social media, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. A professor has circulated a spreadsheet of reliable and less reliable news sources for comment, while hackathons at Princeton and in the Bay Area have produced prototype products that Facebook could copy…

A team of students won a prize sponsored by Google at a Princeton hackathon last week by creating a quick and dirty prototype of a product that does just that: showing Facebook users a “trust rating” for stories they see, based on an online safety rating provided by “World of Trust”.

If you read the article in full, you’ll see it depicts Wikipedia as a gold standard. As Gary Null discussed yesterday in his Progressive Commentary Hour show (we were a guest; the archived interview should e up later today), it is in fact very difficult to get corrections of Wikipedia entries. Similarly, on certain topics, such as economics, Wikipedia minimizes or excludes non-mainstream views even when they have solid empirical underpinnings and have been given a hearing in academic journals and the press.

The faith in coders coming up with a magic bullet for information validation is similarly questionable. The concern about “fake news” on the Internet is almost comical given that more citizens encounter “fake news” via seeing National Enquirer and National Examiner covers in grocery stores than via websites. It is not hard to imagine that much of the tender concern expressed by the mainstream media is commercial: independent news and analysis sites threaten their legitimacy by exposing how dependent they are on stories planted by government or business source that these press outlets often fail to vet adequately.

One approach is browser extensions that flag sites as suspect via undisclosed, unverifiable methods. Browser extensions are a particularly pernicious approach, since many users are not even aware that they have installed them, and they update automagically in the background. Most consumers do not know how to check for them or remove them.

Shadowproof exposed how this technological response is being deployed in a reckless, fact-free, libelous manner against Shadowproof, Naked Capitalism, and other long-standing, well-regarded websites. Worse, this dodgy tool was promoted by CBS News. As Kevin Gosztola reports:

CBS News reported developers increased pressure on Facebook to address its “fake news problem” with a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox called the “B.S. Detector.” It claimed the extension relies upon “a constantly-updated list of known fake news sites, propaganda mills and ‘promoters of kooky conspiracy theories’” as a reference point.

However, CBS News was wrong. The extension is not “constantly updated.” The extension, as developer Daniel Sieradski shared, was created to “make fun” of Facebook. Sieradski “scraped some data together” that included sites, which are not “fake news” websites. (One of those sites was Shadowproof.com.)

“B.S. Detector” displays a red banner that indicates a news website is “not a reliable news source.” Up until publication, the extension still flagged Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthout, and Truthdig, even though Sieradski said they would not be listed in the update….

Sieradski claims he never expected this to achieve the kind of success or interest it has garnered in the past couple weeks. He seems reluctant to own the mistakes made and publish a list of the websites that were wrongly included in the initial launch in order to exonerate them.

It does not matter if the improper inclusion of certain websites was done maliciously or accidentally. The effect is the same, at this point. People who do not know better can install the extension, and if they become a unique or new viewer to Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthout, or Truthdig, they will see a red banner that may discourage them from further reading and visits to these sites.

Gosztola is being unduly charitable in how he characterizes the casual way with which Sieradski went about smearing small websites. Sieradski’s Twitter handle is @selfagency and business name is The Self Agency, LLC.. This page on GitHub, selfagency/bs-dector, contains this astonishing admission:

As I have repeatedly stated in the press, on our repo, and on our homepage, the dataset was somewhat indiscrimintely compiled and we are slowly making our way through it. We are also looking to partner with media watchdog groups to provide research to back up our inclusions and classifications so that it is neither arbitrary nor the decision of a sole authority.

This is an admission of reckless disregard for accuracy for someone who is making himself an arbiter and doing damage to small sites that have worked long and hard to establish their reputations. This is defamation, pure and simple. Sieradski claims that he is not acting as a censor when he is doing precisely that. The fact that he may get others to participate in this witch hunt does not change the fundamental nature of the activity.

In fact, Sieradski’s ability to rationalize that what he is doing here is on the up and up by virtue of his having donated to the EFF, ACLU, and Chelsea Manning’s defense funds is yet another example of Upton Sinclair’s aphorism, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Gosztola points out that the reason that Sieradski was so casual about smearing well-established sites and so unapologetic about reputational harm is that they are assumed to lack the resources to take legal action:

It does not matter if the improper inclusion of certain websites was done maliciously or accidentally. The effect is the same, at this point. People who do not know better can install the extension, and if they become a unique or new viewer to Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthout, or Truthdig, they will see a red banner that may discourage them from further reading and visits to these sites.

The developers also possess a few viewpoints, which may inhibit their ability to develop an extension that is objective and valuable to news readers.

One, Sieradski has no idea how to handle the problem of corporate news media, which publishes “fake news.” Journalist Marcy Wheeler asked Sieradski why “mainstream fake news” was not flagged through this extension. She wondered why “Squawk Box” financial-type news that pushes a made-up “market” narrative is not flagged. Or what about Fox News? Why aren’t they flagged as a “fake news” website?

Sieradski replied, “We’re working on gathering data on all NewsCorp titles,” and looking for “examples of false stories that point to a pattern of intent to mislead the public.”

It is abundantly evident the developers are going through a much more rigorous process to determine whether it is proper to include Fox News than it is going through other independent news media sites that possibly should not be flagged. Of course, their inclusion is much more detrimental to them because unlike corporate news outlets they do not have significant money and resources.

Due to the traditional media’s eagerness to use the “fake news” meme to regain control over what they once called “the discourse,” independent news sites are under the threat of death by a thousand at best uninformed and at worst malicious efforts to silence them. And for a soi-disant progressive like Sieradski to take up this rancid cause is deeply disturbing.


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