Fake news takes center stage at Stanford’s third Cardinal Conversations event

Fake news and the “toxic” influences of opinion, ideology and propaganda in journalism were topics of a lively conversation at Stanford University on April 9 among journalists Anne Applebaum, Ted Koppel and Jessica Lessin.

Moderated by Stanford political scientist MICHAEL MCFAUL, the discussion was part of the Cardinal Conversations initiative, a series of talks sponsored by the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) that highlight some of the most critical issues of the day. The spread of misinformation is one of those relevant and pressing problems.

“With technological advances, the blending and the blurring of reality and virtual reality, fake news and real news is going to become much harder,” said McFaul, who is also a Hoover senior fellow and director of FSI.

How new is “fake news”?

For Koppel, former anchor for ABC’s Nightline and the 2018 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford, “fake news” is really about the difference between news and political propaganda. Likening the internet to a “weapon of mass destruction,” Koppel said that “from a propaganda point of view it has a far more exalted goal these days than it used to in the past and that goal is quite literally undermining our confidence in the institutions of our nation.”

Ted Koppel
Ted Koppel speaks at a Cardinal Conversations event sponsored by the Hoover Institution and FSI. (Image credit: Holly Hernandez)

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum emphasized, it has always been possible to create “fake news.” She pointed to a famous disinformation campaign led by the Soviet government in the 1980s that attempted to prove that the CIA invented AIDS.

“It’s not that different from today except it happens much faster,” said Applebaum, noting how technology has disrupted the news cycle. Applebaum is currently a visiting professor at the London School of Economics where she runs Arena, a program dedicated to defeating disinformation.

“You’ve always had fakes, you’ve always had mistakes, you’ve always had people pretending to be who they weren’t. But the number, quantity and speed have made them into something different, which is that you can now live online in an alternate reality,” Applebaum said.

Koppel also underscored how the internet has drastically altered the news cycle.

“The greatest change that has taken place in the last 10-20 years is that there has been a democratization of the process of journalism,” Koppel said. He elaborated about how the web has transformed how journalism traditionally operates: “Producers, fact-checkers, editors – there was a discipline of journalism that existed 50 years ago that has been largely dissipated by the internet.”

News as entertainment

Another challenge is the blurring of news with opinion and entertainment, said Jessica Lessin, founder and CEO of the Information, a publication that reports on the technology industries.

“What people are relying on for facts is really just designed to be engaging to occupy as much time and clicks to thrive in the ad-based business model,” said Lessin, who worked for eight years at the Wall Street Journal covering the technology and media sector. “The vast majority of what we think of as news even today I think is really more designed to entertain and that’s another challenge in addition to fake news I think we need to tackle.”

The entertainment factor has enabled opinion to enter the news cycle, McFaul said. He pointed to personalities like Fox News’ talk show host Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s news commentator Rachel Maddow.  Are they considered opinion or news? McFaul asked.

“This drifting into ideology rather than fact has been the toxic icing on the cake,” Koppel said.

The internet has also contributed to the blurred distinction between news and opinion, said Applebaum. She described a “flattening” of journalism where content can look so similar across computer screens that it can be hard for readers to distinguish between different types of content.

“The old markers that we had don’t apply anymore,” she said.

Said Lessin: “You can label something news analysis, but what does it mean?” But, she said, for a news outlet to be considered credible, demonstrating trust and transparency to news consumers is critical.

The panel also addressed the influence of “clickbait” journalism, the perils of social media, shifting trends in news consumption and the changing business model of news outlets.

“Too many things are being done because it’s profitable to do it,” Koppel said.

The next Cardinal Conversation will take place on May 23. Philosopher Christina Sommers and journalist Andrew Sullivan will discuss “Sexuality and Politics.”