March 5, 2017

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 en route from JFK airport to Paris went down off the coast of New York. The theories of what caused the third deadliest aviation disaster came fast and furious (the result of several years of investigation was that it was an exploding air/fuel combination in a fuel tank). And one of the people putting forth far more sinister theories was Pierre Salinger, former Press Secretary to Kennedy and Johnson and then ABC News correspondent.

Salinger announced that he had "proof" that TWA 800 was a victim of terrorism. His proof? Some French conspiracy site on the relatively new internet. He waved pages printed from this site in front of the camera, thus beginning the meme "Pierre Salinger Syndrome":

Bolstered by eyewitness accounts and the Internet, the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York 10 years ago spawned a slew of sinister conspiracy theories, most notably the belief that a missile from a U.S. Navy ship was responsible.

So prevalent were these theories that the term "Pierre Salinger Syndrome" -- the belief that everything on the Internet is true -- entered the lexicon.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Pierre Salinger during this election season and how even 20 years after his reputation took a fatal hit (he ended up resigning from ABC News in disgrace and spending his final years in France), we Americans haven't learned the lesson to think critically about news.

Note, I'm not talking about the balkanization of the media where you only believe news when it comes from "your" side and immediately dismiss it when it comes from the other side, although that is also a problem. No, this is actually the ability to evaluate news sources for accuracy, or fact checking it before forwarding it on.

"Fake news" sites (not the kind Trump complains about, where they ask tough questions, but the kind that make up stories entirely) are popping up every day, and they're becoming even more sophisticated, mimicking the look, the style, even the URL of actual news sites. It takes a lot of work to figure out if the site is real or not and more people (especially millenials, who get their news almost exclusively from social media) don't have the time to do so.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the Trump campaign has been masterful at manipulating that lack of critical thinking, relying on "argument by anecdote" to conflate to generalizations in the mind of supporters. So the rapists 'being sent here from Mexico' insidiously turns into all immigrants being Latinx AND criminals. And all Muslims being potential terrorists. And all transgendered people into predators haunting public restrooms. There doesn't need to be a data to support it, just an anecdote that people want to believe it.

Jamieson also wants to rename and reframe these fake news sites as "Viral Deceptions" or VD, identifying them as the destructive, debilitating force they are and as she warns host Brian Stelter they are really guilty of identity theft, stealing not only the consumers, but the integrity and public trust of actual news sites.

It's a fair point and one that will last far longer than Donald Trump will in the White House.

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