Fake news, hate speech winning battle

By Chris Cobler - Guest Column
Sept. 30, 2017 at 7:57 p.m.
Updated Oct. 1, 2017 at 6:01 a.m.

This meme was widely shared yet again last week on Facebook. The catch? Jerry Jones never said this.

This meme was widely shared yet again last week on Facebook. The catch? Jerry Jones never said this.   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

A news story about a protest is fairly formulaic.

A reporter talks to the protesters about their concerns and then gets the other side of the story. You can expect some controversy because the story is about a protest, after all.

In the social media age, though, it is increasingly popular to go after "the media" rather than discuss the merits of what the protesters or the supporters have to say. Victoria College Lyceum speaker Kris "Tanto" Paronto did this on his Facebook page after the Victoria Advocate published a story about an unusual silent protest of his talk this Monday at the Welder Center.

In standard style, the Advocate story presented a critic's view of what she considered to be Paronto's "divisive rhetoric." The story went on to extensively quote Paronto and his supporters, including the Victoria County judge, who called him "an American hero."

Yet, Paronto posted that a "real reporter" would have asked tougher questions of his critic and that the story was what you would expect from the "leftist media." He tagged the Victoria Advocate's Facebook page in his post, so we felt compelled to respond on his page, which has almost 260,000 followers.

Of course, Paronto's post encouraged his supporters to also criticize your locally and family-owned newspaper, which I can assure you is not part of any liberal media conspiracy. On the Facebook thread, virtually no one actually discussed the contents of the story, although we tried to steer the discussion in that direction.

One Paronto fan argued all news stories should be devoid of any opinion. We explained that is not the standard for a news story. Instead, journalists typically present a variety of people's opinions about an accepted set of facts. The standard is that the reporter doesn't include his or her opinion in the news story.

After her interview with Paronto, the reporter told a friend she thought he seemed nice during the phone call. In the opinion of this editor (remember, this is not a news story), the reporter is probably the sweetest person in the newsroom. She's a Bloomington High and University of Houston-Victoria graduate who embodies the strong character of most Crossroads residents.

Yet, in the Facebook discussion, Paronto went on to write, "I guess your writer supports terrorism by their tone. That is something I won't stand for and I believe the majority of people in Victoria TX don't either."

Whoa. Supports terrorism? How did we get from a straight news story to an attack on the writer's character, morals and integrity?

Paronto is a soldier in the bombardment of journalists, which comes at a time when we also are under siege from fake news. Much of the battle is being fought - and lost - on Facebook. Fake news swirled fast last week around the controversy that followed President Trump calling out the handful of NFL players still kneeling during the national anthem. One popular item shared by my Facebook friends was what appeared to be a direct quote from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In it, he threatened to fire any player who protested.

The only problem is Jones never said this. At the Monday night game, Jones led his team in a creative protest by kneeling beforehand and then standing with locked arms during the anthem.

The bedrock of America is a robust and vigorous exchange of ideas. Sadly, the worst of social media shakes our foundation by promoting name-calling and blatant deception. As a staunch defender of the First Amendment, I don't have the answer, but I know the problem when I see it, to loosely paraphrase former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

During the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas' annual conference Sept. 14 in Austin, I led a panel discussion on "Real News vs. Fake News."

On the panel, Art Markman, University of Texas-Austin marketing and psychology professor, talked about research into how dangerous fake news is because of the way it sticks in your brain.

"It turns out it takes a lot more work to get people to stop using a piece of information they heard than it takes to get that piece of information in in the first place," Markman said.

Because politicians, celebrities and talk show hosts have been pushing the propaganda that legitimate news organizations can't be trusted, this has set the stage for people to be all the more susceptible to fake news, Markman said.

"We have created a whole series of echo chambers in which people can just pay attention to the sources that tell them things they already want to believe," he said.

Some of Paronto's 260,000 followers probably now believe an Advocate reporter supports terrorism. Our traditional formula for good journalism somehow isn't enough anymore.

Chris Cobler is the editor and vice president of content for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at 361-574-1271 or ccobler@vicad.com.


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