News

Searching for Truth in the Age of Partisanship and Fake News

  • author Mark Nestmann
  • calendar July 6, 2021

Last week, I went to dinner with a group of liberty-minded friends to discuss the topic of censorship.

One member of our party had recently volunteered to assist in the “forensic audit” now underway of 2.1 million Arizona ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election. The audit was authorized by the Arizona Senate and the contract awarded to a data security firm called Cyber Ninjas. The firm isn’t certified by federal election administration regulators and has no prior experience vetting vote counts. Doug Logan, its CEO, has posted extensively on social media his belief that the election was stolen.

Other than those facts, which we reasonably believe to be accurate, the truth surrounding the ballot process isn’t easy to discern. My friend who participated in the audit said he personally witnessed it being run impeccably, utilizing security and surveillance procedures he felt were unimpeachable. This isn’t the place to discuss specifics, but if you’re interested, you can review this highly opinionated account of it.

On the other side, a new report published by the States United Democracy Center details numerous examples of how the audit departs significantly from standard election practices. Barry C. Burden, Director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the report, concludes that the audit “deviates so substantially from a proper audit or recount that the results simply can’t be trusted.”

What is the “truth” in this case? Is it the most secure forensic audit ever made? Or a scam perpetrated by conspiracy-minded Republicans who believe that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump?

We don’t know the answer to these questions. But in a microcosm, this is the world we find ourselves in. There is no longer “news,” only “viewpoints.” And finding the truth is harder than ever.

There’s another important factor at work here, although it’s often ignored: American intelligence agencies have long sought to manipulate the news. A notorious example is Operation Mockingbird, a CIA initiative beginning in the late 1940s in which the agency paid journalists to write and distribute fake news for intelligence purposes. Essentially, its goal was to program Americans to believe the news our minders wanted us to believe.

The program was exposed by The New York Times in 1967, but has never been officially discontinued. According to Glenn Greenwald (one of the journalists who helped NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden expose massive illegal domestic spying at that agency), it continues today at CNN and other mainstream media networks.

Another dimension of these “mind control” efforts is the use of artificial intelligence tools to manipulate public opinion. We witnessed this in the 2016 presidential election, when both parties employed a sophisticated strategy of creating fake social media accounts to sway undecided voters towards one candidate or the other. The accounts were additionally programmed to automatically monitor and repost, like, tweet, or comment on news stories or other social media postings.

Then there’s the “deep fake” phenomenon. Check out this video of Tom Cruise. It’s not really Tom Cruise, but a sophisticated (albeit acknowledged) fake. Indeed, it’s so good that publicly available deepfake-detection technology failed to flag it as counterfeit.

Once you understand the role a person’s overall belief system plays in their understanding of the news, along with the role of the government and sophisticated AI tools in shaping it, you can begin to understand how difficult it can be to learn the “truth.”

So how can you learn the real, unvarnished truth about some current or historical event?  One way, of course, is if you personally witnessed it, although even then it’s helpful to try to set your personal or partisan feelings aside so that you can interpret it more accurately. Otherwise, the more viewpoints you’re willing to consider from people who personally witnessed the event, the closer you’ll likely be to learning the truth.

Also consider the news source. Mainstream sources are ripe for infiltration by law enforcement and intelligence agency operatives. Be especially suspicious of narratives calling for American intervention in someone else’s war or trying to explain away American atrocities once intervention occurs.

A case in point is Ken Dilanian, a correspondent for NBC. His former employer, The Los Angeles Times, acknowledged in 2014 that he had collaborated with the CIA. For instance, Dilanian repeated the CIA’s false claims that President Obama’s drone warfare campaign wasn’t killing innocent civilians. These claims were proven false by documents leaked from human rights groups.

Thus, while we still use mainstream media to monitor day-to-day “news” events, to understand the deeper currents that may be in play, we tend to pay more attention to independent media sources. They’re still opinionated – that’s impossible to avoid – but likely too small to be of much interest to intelligence agencies.

Substack is one of the sources we personally use. It’s an online platform for subscription newsletters. Some of the writers we follow regularly on it are Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, and Matt Taibbi. We don’t agree with everything they write. But we appreciate the efforts they make to research and publish what they believe is “truth.”

There’s also a potential cure for the burgeoning problem of fake news, including deep fakes like the incredibly deceptive Tom Cruise video we just described. It’s the same solution that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies with a “distributed ledger” use: to authenticate media content on transparent networks and create an immutable chain of custody to identify the ultimate source of a news item, photo, or video. Such efforts are only now taking shape, but they’re already being embraced by journalists and other participants eager to learn whether news or digital media has been tampered with or faked.

The news will always be full of partisan opinion and shaped by increasingly sophisticated tools of behavioral manipulation. Protect yourself by getting as close to first-hand accounts as you can, considering the source of the news you view, and being aware that others are trying to manipulate your beliefs.

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