Dr. Melissa Zimdars the creator of the fake news list discusses the media industry
In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election, “fake news” was blamed as a major reason for Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton. A wide range of players, from Russian propagandists to paid partisan puppeteers, were accused of fabricating stories which were then widely circulated via social media to influence the hearts and minds of voters.
A national debate then raged — and still does — about whether “fake news” truly exists and, if so, should it be tolerated. And, immediately after the election, a number of major media outlets, including Google and Facebook, announced planned steps to block ‘suspect’ content sources on their platforms.
Amidst this tumult, a college professor compiled an aggregated list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources”, which quickly became known as the “fake news list”. The mainstream media immediately latched on to this list of culprits, and circulated it heavily across the headlines of major outlets like CNN, The Washington Post, Fox News, The Boston Globe, New York Magazine, USA Today, Business Insider and The Dallas Morning News
(Full disclosure: this website, PeakProsperity.com, was initially included on the list. We’ve learned it has since been removed.)
So many questions have been raised by this list. Is naming these sources a public service? Or it is censorship? What criteria are used to declare content “fake”? Who comes up with those criteria, and who is making the decisions? What are their qualifications? Is it the media’s job to “protect” the public from information? Or is it the reader’s responsibility to judge for themselves what is and isn’t a trustworthy source?
To explore answers to these — and many more — questions, on this week’s podcast we discuss the “fake news list” with its creator, Dr. Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communications at Merrimack College.
Chris’ line of inquiry is brutally direct. And many of Dr. Zimdars’ answers are more nuanced then many of her critics will expect. Wherever you fall on this topic, you’ll find this an exceptionally open, frank debate of the key issues at stake on the public’s right to information in the modern age.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Dr. Melissa Zimdars (33m:57s).
Chris Martenson: Hello, everyone. And welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host Chris Martenson and it is April 13, 2017. Fake news. Now, it hit the airwaves in the weeks especially after the election of 2016. And we’re gonna be talking about fake news today.
A website, opensources.co, assembled a list of fake news sites and was flooded with new entries in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. In November and December of 2016 news organizations extensively featured that list, with The Los Angeles Times headlining a story, “Want to Keep Fake News Out of Your News Feed? College Professor Creates List of Sites to Avoid.” News organizations such as CNN, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Magazine, USA Today, Business Insider and The Dallas Morning News, all cited the list in their articles. Full disclosure, Peak Prosperity made it on that list for a brief period of time in what was called the unknown category but has since been removed. However, other websites you will know remain on the list.
Speaking with us is Dr. Melissa Zimdars, who is an assistant professor of communications at Merrimack College. Dr. Zimdars, welcome to the program.
Melissa Zimdars: Thanks for having me.
Chris Martenson: First, right at the top, what is fake news?
Melissa Zimdars: Yeah. So fake news, originally actually communication and media, referred mostly to satire or tabloid press, but through the election it became a term used to describe outright false information, sort of fabricated to circulate basically any kind of information online in order to generate profit. And, of course, we’ve seen the term fake news now expand to include a lot of different definitions, some more accurate than others.
Chris Martenson: Well, you mention the profit motive, but there’s also sometimes political motives, are there not? I’ve noted, in times past, political parties on both sides have circulated things that have proven to be untrue as part of campaign cycles. Are you – would that be included as well?
Melissa Zimdars: Yes. So I think when the fake news frenzy really took off, a lot of people, especially in mainstream news organizations, were focusing mostly on the Macedonian teenagers producing a lot of news, the St. Louis suburban dad who became famous for circulating news, but you’re right in that fake news can also be released by various political organizations or really far sort of information sources, often in the form of propaganda.
Chris Martenson: Okay. Great. So this list. First, what made one necessary, in your mind?
Melissa Zimdars: So, it wasn’t actually supposed to be a list originally. This all started as media literacy exercise in my Intro to Mass Communication course. I felt like my students were having a difficult time determining the credibility of sources.
Because most people now get their news on social media, and social media kind of democratizes information in the sense that it all looks the same as we see it coming through our news feeds. So, I created some tips, some that I thought of, some that I took from media literacy resources or elsewhere, and the goal of the original document I created was to have students try to figure out what these sources were. And then that took off, inaccurately actually, as a fake news list when it never was. And so that’s why OpenSources sort of developed, to try and delineate between different kinds of sources, ranging from outright fake news to political information that is still credible, because partisan information is inherently problematic, and just more neutral, credible sources.
Chris Martenson: All right. So we have a list and it consists of websites almost entirely. But they’re categorized in various ways. As you say, fake news was this catch-all bucket. But it was more granular than that. What are those categories?
Melissa Zimdars: So, the categories are: fakes news, and that can be any kind of political orientation. A lot of fake news does target different political parties. It can also be very – sort of more the click-bait style, sort of just outright fake, how to lose ten pounds in ten days for ten dollars type stuff.
Then it can also include conspiracy information. So, this normally encapsulates fairly well-known conspiracy theories, such as the flat earth theory or Ken Trails. And again, conspiracy can travel across the political spectrum.
And then junk science. So, this was mostly information that is contrary to established medicine or scientific knowledge. So, stuff like anti-vaccines or vaccines causing autism.
And then click-bait, which even reputable organizations sometimes use.