Beware of those "Local" news stories on social media

It's the newest frontier in fake news & propaganda:

Some misinformation in local news comes from foreign governments seeking to meddle in American domestic politics. Most notably, numerous Twitter accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency were found to have impersonated local news aggregators during the 2016 election campaign.

A recent Senate Intelligence Committee report found that 54 such accounts published more than 500,000 tweets. According to researchers at N.Y.U., the fake local news accounts frequently directed readers to genuine local news articles about polarizing political and cultural topics.

I know I've ticked off more than a handful of friends by correcting them when they share hinky stuff on Facebook, but I mostly do it via private messages these days instead of the comment thread. I really don't want to be "that guy," but when the person posting it has several hundred friends, the misinformation can spread like wildfire. And it's not just those dastardly Russians doing it; the (U.S.) Conservative election machine is now cranking out a ton of this material as well:

Domestically grown dubious outlets are also proliferating. Last week, The Lansing State Journal reported the existence of a network of more than 35 faux-local websites across Michigan with names like Battle Creek Times, Detroit City Wire, Lansing Sun and Grand Rapids Reporter.

These sites mix news releases and town announcements with rewritten content derived from other sources, including the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank in the state, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

All of them originate with a company called Locality Labs L.L.C., which created similar networks of questionable local websites in Illinois and Maryland, and state and local business and legal sites around the country. There’s little information about these sites. They typically lack mastheads, local addresses and clear disclosure of their ownership or revenue sources.

Voters could easily become confused about the origins of information from these seemingly innocuous local-sounding outlets. In 2016, for example, websites in the Illinois network interviewed Republican candidates favored by a conservative state political committee, which then paid to mail print newspaper versions of the sites to voters without identifying them as political advertising.

Most of the people reading this are probably sharp enough to sniff out the inherent bias after reading the articles. The problem is, people have developed a habit of sharing news stories they haven't actually read, because one of their friends posted it and said something like, "Look what they're doing now!" or even something as ironic as, "Pay attention! This is what's happening while we are wasting time worrying about ____!"

Setting aside the fake news for a moment, let's take a look at the social psychology of trust:

Researchers in social psychology differentiate between two kinds of trust – affective and cognitive. Cognitive trust is based on our knowledge and evidence about those we choose to trust. Affective trust, on the other hand, is born out of our emotional ties with others, including the security and the confidence we place in others based on the feelings generated by our interactions. Sometimes, the differences of cognitive and affective trust have been described as trusting with your head (cognitive) and trusting with your heart (affective).

There's a hell of a lot more to say on that subject, but let's stick with the two types of trust as they come into play with dissemination of information. We all have friends/family who are definitely not rocket surgeons. We might love them to death, but wouldn't ask their advice on who to vote for. By the same token, we have acquaintances, some we have never met in real life, that we have come to trust explicitly. At least as far as information-gathering is concerned.

Now, let's say they both posted a link to the same news article. Which one would you feel the need to double-check before sharing? The correct answer is both. For two reasons, actually, the first being obvious: To make sure it's valid. The second reason should also be obvious, but it rarely is: A headline and a blurb is not enough information. Your friend's possibly long-winded summary/diatribe is also not enough. Everybody has pet peeves that tend to color our perceptions, and you have to assume you're only getting a thin slice of the information provided in the original article.

You can't get rid of trust, and you shouldn't even try. It's a critical part of our psycho-social health. But so is critical thinking and the independent evaluation of new information.

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