There are biblical references to false statements and rumors. It is not a new issue, but currently the problem is amplified by an electronic twist. The printed word on paper has been a mainstay of the American experience since well before the American Revolution. Ben Franklin was in the printing business in the 1720s. The print medium, including newspaper, has survived the advent of radio, television, and computers. The news content of all of those media was generally subjected to editorial review to ensure accuracy. But a new development, electronic social media, gives people the capability to intentionally circulate false information to millions of people in a few hours. There is no reliable system to screen all of the postings for accuracy and truthfulness. There is no editor.
It has been well-established that foreign interests spawned false news items on social media during the 2016 election cycle. Some domestic sites also purveyed false information. The purpose or, at least, the result tends to divide Americans. Of course, we have differences and always will, but America or any society works best when we avoid emphasizing those differences. Another salient fact is that we are losing our trust in government and in institutions that serve our needs, the news media among them. Professor Allcott, New York University, and Professor Gentzkow, Stanford University, conducted research on social media and false news. They report in the Spring 2017 edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives that, overall, only 30 percent of us trust the mainstream news media. However, it is noteworthy that the report indicates that 82 percent of adult citizens trust local news media, e.g., our community newspapers.
The capability to deceive may be even greater in the very near future. Nathan Bomey writing in his book After the Fact cites information from Jeff Clune, director of an artificial intelligence laboratory at the University of Wyoming and from a 2016 presentation by Adobe Systems at a San Diego conference. Computer scientists have developed software that, after being exposed to a person’s voice for a few minutes, can rearrange the sounds and put together different words and sentences that the speaker never uttered. It is indistinguishable from the person’s real voice because it is the person’s real voice. Researchers are working to combine that type of audio with video images of the person. They can manipulate facial expressions to match the spoken words. That presents an opportunity for serious mischief. Think of the confusion it might cause in a criminal court proceeding. Think of the damage that could be done to an innocent person or to an honorable public servant. Think of the damage to our trust of government and trust of each other which is already eroding.
The surge to social media inflicted punishing financial injury on newspapers limiting their capability to hire reporters, fact checkers, and supporting personnel. Every human activity needs accountability; we are not perfect. Newspapers have traditionally provided a wide range of accountability for communities including monitoring of government activities. We are in danger of losing that service, and no one has invented a replacement. We need newspapers.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.