Home » How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World: Ali Velshi (Transcript)

How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World: Ali Velshi (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of journalist Ali Velshi’s talk: How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World @ TEDxQueensU conference.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World by Ali Velshi @ TEDxQueensU


Ali Velshi – Journalist

So December 26 2016, my family, my wife, my kids, my in-laws and I are getting ready to go to dinner. And my phone starts going off with breaking news alerts.

I only get my breaking news from reliable sources. I’ve been a journalist for 24, 25 years. I only get it from sources that rigorously check their information.

So when I look up and I see this tweet that George Michael has died, I tell my family. My kids look up from their phones like some of you, too young, to understand the George Michael sang every last hopeful song at my high school dances.

My wife does what she often does. She started relating those things that George Michael is known for, sort of an impromptu obituary. My mother-in-law didn’t seem to have a reaction. She was standing over by the side working on her computer sitting –working on her computer.

Moments later, she pipes up that it’s a hoax. He’s not dead. So my first thought is did the New York Times and CNN both get tricked? I mean, George Michael was pretty young, it was believable that maybe he didn’t die. So I quickly walked over to her. I’m looking over her shoulder and the article she’s reading is from a website I’ve never seen before and it’s dated the next day.

So I said I think what you’re looking at is a hoax. My wife is an analyst, she pokes up, pipes up and says actually maybe it’s published in Australia where it’s already tomorrow so the fact that it’s the next day isn’t relevant.

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So now this whole thing is thrown into confusion and we spend a little bit of time trying to figure out whether the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have tricked us. But the fact is that he was dead unfortunately and it sort of points to a bigger problem. And that is that fake news shows confusion that obscures basic facts that prevents necessary debate.

While you’re wasting your time figuring out whether the news is actually true or not, you’re not having the necessary debates whether it’s about whether George Michael was a great artist or not, the fact is this is what it does.

And in this troubled world in which we are in, even basic facts are now up for debate. Now everything that’s not news isn’t fake news. I’m talking about a very specific subset of things. So for instance, we’ve got something called native advertising. You may be familiar with this. It’s advertising, it’s a story that’s paid for by an advertiser placed in a prominent place — in this case, it’s the Atlantic magazine.

And unless you can actually see that little thing that says sponsored content you may not be aware that this isn’t really a news story written by a journalist. So while that’s not terrific, I don’t raise it to the level of fake news, because there’s some signposts there that it is actually fake.

And then there’s this satire. You probably enjoy satire. I enjoy satire. It’s funny, it’s opinionated, it’s not always accurate though. The good news though is that it has some basis in accuracy. If you get all of your news from satire that’s a bit of a problem. But if you use it for some of your news I don’t think it rises to the level of fake news.

The other thing that’s not fake news is a mistake, inadvertently spreading incorrect information, a bad source something like that. If CNN had tweeted that George Michael had died and George Michael hadn’t died it would have been corrected very quickly. There would have been an apology and you would have moved on. So if the intent is not to deceive, I don’t think that counts as fake news either.

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Let me give you another example. Some years ago, 2012, I tweeted out based on information from CNN where I worked at the time relating to a shooting that had happened outside the Empire State Building in New York. And this is what I tweeted. Breaking: law enforcement source tells CNN there appears to be no terrorism connection to the Empire State Building shooting. Except look at that tweet a little more carefully. I forgot the word no. I learned the hard way about the meaning of the word no that day.

That tweet went out and it said exactly what it says there: breaking: law enforcement source tells CNN there appears to be terrorism connection to the Empire State Building. You can imagine the effect that had. That tweet spread like wildfire. It went out there. I deleted it which is not something you’re supposed to do but in that particular case when I knowingly spread — inadvertently spread false information I thought deleting it would be the best thing to do. I apologized, I responded to everybody who forwarded that tweet and everybody who responded to it. I said sorry to my boss. I had a big talking too and I learned the meaning of the word no.

But what nobody accused me of was lying or of spreading fake news, they understood that this whole problem was about my fat fingers. It wasn’t about my credibility.

The real problem is that there is fake news and it’s spread by a wolf in journalist’s clothing. And this wolf would have you believe that the real news is actually fake, and that’s the real problem that we’re facing today.

On December 4, I tweeted this out and notice in the bottom it was retweeted 11,000 times. I tweeted breaking news: the US Army Corps of Engineers halts the Dakota access pipeline work telling the Standing Rock reservation that the current route for the pipeline will be denied. This is a very controversial issue. I had this news earlier than most people did which is why it spread so many times because people wanted to distribute this information.

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But one of the first responses I got to this tweet was what’s your source. Now come on I’m not a journalism student. I’m a veteran journalist in my 24th year of this business. If I spread breaking news that is false or wrong, I am going to at the very least get disciplined and I could actually get fired.

But increasingly I am getting pushed back on social media from people who accuse me of purveying fake news. If you google my — if you put in my name on my handle and fake news — hashtag fake news you’ll see things show up and when you accuse legitimate journalists of being purveyors of fake news of lying, it’s a little bit like asking somebody when he stopped beating his wife. Some of the damage is done in the accusation alone.

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