Here is the full transcript of investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson’s TEDx Talk titled “How Real Is Fake News?” @ TEDxUniversityofNevada conference.
Listen to the MP3 audio: How Real Is Fake News by Sharyl Attkisson @ TEDxUniversityofNevada
Sharyl Attkisson – Investigative Journalist
As an investigative journalist, I found myself with a few questions about the emergence of fake news as a phrase and as a fad.
Number one: What is fake news and what is not?
Number two: When did fake news begin?
And number three, most interesting of all, I’ve investigated the shadowy multi-billion dollar industry that seeks to manipulate all of us through news, social media, and online.
So I wondered who’s behind the massive effort to direct our attention onto fake news? Is fake news real?
First, the definition of fake news depends on where you sit. It’s not as if there’s an extreme dictionary authority that gets to decide for everybody. Though some are trying, more on that in a moment.
But when did fake news under anybody’s definition begin?
Well, fake news has always been embedded in our culture. It just wasn’t called that. The supermarket rags gave popularized blatantly fake news, with front-page images of aliens impregnating unsuspecting usually large breasted earthling women. Most people probably believe little to nothing of what they read these publications. A few people might have believed everything.
But there are countless examples of fake news surfacing in mainstream news. Example: in 1996, a news media frenzy wrongly blamed a security guard named Richard Jewell for the Atlanta Olympic bombing. We later learned that poor Jewell had actually been a hero, moving people away from a suspicious backpack before it exploded.
On 9/11, a network TV news reporter falsely reported that a terrorist plane had crashed in the presidential retreat Camp David. Never happened.
The internet revolutionized fake news, whether we’re talking about a rumor or intentional disinformation, or biased sloppy erroneous reporting. What would have circulated amongst a relative few could now develop a global following overnight.
Example: in 2012, 26 people were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. Blogs and social media immediately began circulating rumors and images insisting the whole thing was a hoax drummed up by the government and staged by actors.
In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine reported on a sensational case of a fraternity gang rape that turned out to be so unsubstantiated that Rolling Stone retracted the article and the reporter was found guilty of malice in a defamation lawsuit.
And whatever you think of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, even the Obama Justice Department eventually ruled that the entire hands up don’t shoot scenario which blanketed the news day in and day out was probably fabricated, and as a police officer acted in legitimate self-defense.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that the actual phrase fake news was introduced to the American public on a national scale. Liberals were first to heavily promote use of the phrase referring to conservative disinformation and right-wing websites, and there’s certainly plenty of that.
Example: as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battles out, a website called the Conservative Daily Post published a huge amount of pro-Trump anti-Clinton propaganda, as the name and likeness of a former beauty queen named Laura Hunter. The real Laura Hunter says she didn’t write any of those articles. She claims imposters turned her into a spokesman for a radical right-wing website that pedals fake news; she sued them.
Meantime, Trump and conservatives counterpunched with their own notion of fake news meaning biased, sloppy, erroneous reporting as committed by the mainstream media and the left, plenty of that too.
Example: on President Trump’s first day in office, a Time magazine reporter falsely reported that Trump had removed the bus statue of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office. The White House quickly tweeted out a photo showing statue was still very much there.
The reporter perhaps blinded by his own bias had followed the most basic tenets of beginning journalism: check your facts.
So if fake news by other names has always been around, why does it suddenly become the stuff of daily headlines during the 2016 campaign?
I did a little digging and I traced the effort to a nonprofit called First Draft, which appears to be about the first to use the phrase fake news in its modern context.
On September 13, 2016, First Draft announced a partnership to tackle malicious hoaxism fake news reports. The goal was supposedly to separate wheat from chaff to prevent unproven conspiracy talk from figuring prominently in internet searches to relegate today’s version of the alien baby story to a special Internet oblivion.
Exactly one month later, President Obama shine did. He insisted in a speech that he too thought somebody needed to step in and curate information in this Wild Wild West media environment. Nobody in the public have been clamoring for any such thing, yet suddenly the topic of fake news dominates headlines on a daily basis.
It’s as if the media have been given its marching orders. Fake news — they insisted was an imminent threat to American democracy but as somebody who studied the industry that seeks to manipulate all of us on behalf of paid interests, I know that few themes arise in our environment organically.
A noted propagandist told me it’s like a movie, he said, and it gave me chills at the time. Nearly every scene or image that crosses our path at daily life, he said, was put there for a reason, often by someone who paid a lot of money to place it there.
What if the whole anti-fake news campaign was an effort on somebody’s part to keep us from seeing or believing certain websites of stories by controversializing them or labeling them as fake news.
But who would want to do such a thing?
In connecting the dots, I find it often helps to follow the money. I wanted to know who was funding the nonprofit First Draft in its anti-fake news effort. I found the answer. It was Google.
Google’s parent company Alphabet was run by a man named Eric Schmidt. Eric Schmidt, as it happens, had devoted himself to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, offered himself up as a campaign adviser and became a top multimillion-dollar donor to it. His company funded First Draft around the start of the election cycle.
Not surprisingly, Hillary was soon to jump aboard the anti-fake news train and her surrogate David Brock of Media Matters privately told donors he was the one who convinced Facebook to join the effort.
I’m not the only one who thinks the whole thing smacked of the rollout of a propaganda campaign. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept wrote: The most important fact you need to realize is that those who most loudly denounced fake news are typically the ones most aggressively disseminating it but something happened that nobody expected.
The anti-fake news campaign backfired. Each time advocates cried fake news, Donald Trump called them fake news until he’d co-op to the term so completely but even those who originally promoting it started running from it, including the Washington Post which in January of 2017 wrote: it’s time to retire the tainted term fake news.
In fact, it’s now commonly misreported that it was Donald Trump who thought up the phrase. Actually it was just a hostile takeover.
Suffice it to say that each side now defines fake news and terms that call the other guy into question.