‘Fake news’ headlines fool Americans 75 percent of time, says seminary professor

By Bob Zyskowski | For The Compass | April 17, 2019

St. Norbert College presentation is part of Miller Lecture Series

DE PERE — “Fake news” and “alternative facts” are undermining what people believe to be factual, a Chicago Theological Seminary professor warned, and those who create fake news are getting better at it.

One consequence, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite said, is that the polarization of U.S. society is accelerating.

Speaking at St. Norbert College, she offered a variety of ways individuals can address fake news and counter what is dividing people who have differing opinions.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, discusses the proliferation of fake news and “alternative facts” as part of the Miller Lecture Series at St. Norbert College in De Pere on April 9. (Corey Wilson | Courtesy of St. Norbert College)

Thistlethwaite delivered the Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding on the De Pere campus April 9. Begun in 1993, the lecture series aims to promote unity, communication and tolerance among different cultures, religions, ethnicities and traditions.

Thistlethwaite previously served a 10-year term as president of the seminary at which she continues to teach. Her lecture was titled, “Fake News and the Coming Information Apocalypse.”

Public trust in media drops

She pointed out that between 1997 and 2016, public trust in traditional news media dropped from 53 percent to 32 percent.

“Fake news headlines fool American adults 75 percent of the time,” she noted, and a reason they do is the desire for news stories that confirm one’s ideology, she added. People reject the news they don’t like and are more apt to accept as factual news that confirms what they already believe.

This “confirmation bias” makes worse the division among those with differing ideologies, she said.

Sporting a T-shirt that read, “MAKE ORWELL FICTION AGAIN,” Thistlethwaite urged the packed lecture hall audience to read George Orwell’s novel “1984,” and, if they had already read it, to read it again. The novel, first published in 1949, is relevant today, she said, because the language Orwell used satirically is being used to justify the denial of facts.

As a prime example, Thistlethwaite pointed to a White House press secretary justifying the creation of “alternate facts” when a member of President Trump’s communications team was proven to repeating a falsehood.

Orwell’s novel, which has seen a surge in sales in recent years and risen to the top of the Amazon best-seller list, is known for quotes such as, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Thistlethwaite quoted Orwell, saying, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Your face in a porn video?

She also warned about “deepfakes,” a recent phenomenon in which women’s faces are transposed on porn stars’ videos, often done so well the substitutions are difficult to detect. The technologies of artificial information and machine learning are being used to switch the faces of women — celebrities such as actress Scartlett Johansson and singer Taylor Swift, for example — with the women in pornographic films. An app has been released that simplifies the technology to create the false video images.

“Experts are anticipating fake videos during the next election campaign,” Thistlethwaite said.

Even women in less public roles now can have their faces substituted in such videos, with the potential negative impact on their job prospects, relationships and mental health, she said, adding, “Protecting yourself from the internet is no joke.”

Fake news and deepfake videos are believable to segments of society, she said, due to misogyny, an ingrained prejudice that women are inferior to men. “Deepfake works because of the hatred of women,” Thistlethwaite said.

The situation is not unlike racial prejudice, she added.

Fake news plays on prejudice

“We have not dealt with the deep racism of our society,” Thistlethwaite said, and that leaves some people vulnerable to fake news in social media that plays upon racial prejudice. Many fake news items have been traced to creators in Russia, she said, with the intent to divide U.S. citizens and weaken the U.S. democracy.

“Until we understand our own deep racism, the Russian bots are going to play us,” said Thistlethwaite.

She rattled off a list of suggestions for dealing with fake news, including tweeting the contradictions to fake news using photographic evidence and joining movements, something she herself does as an activist for social justice causes.

She also urged people not to get caught up in the constant, 24/7 flow of information. “Don’t play,” she suggested. “Set your own pace for taking in the news.” Rather than react to every social media post, stay on grassroots issues you care about, she said.

Pointing out that communication technologies, including email as well as social media, make it easy to develop negative connections (and more difficult to have positive connections) with others, Thistlethwaite urged meetings in person.

“You don’t move away from people with other ideology, you move closer to them,” she said. “You’ve got to talk to the person who doesn’t agree with you, face to face.”

Thistlethwaite addressed lying (of which fake news is one form), noting how it can be linked to creativity — and how it can destroy or smooth social relationships. (“Does this T-shirt make me look fat?” she quipped.)

“We’ve developed the capacity not only to lie to others. We developed the capacity to lie to ourselves,” she said, adding that people must choose between self-consciousness and self-deception.

In response to a question from the audience, Thistlethwaite closed with a few additional suggestions.

“Live truths through imagining more,” she said. “We don’t have to live like this. Come closer to the conflict. Realize your own confirmation bias.”

Finally, she said, “There are some great things this country was founded on. We have lived through these truths for a very long time. So place your money on democracy and live it.”

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