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Full transcript: CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter on Too Embarrassed to Ask

Fake news, alternative facts, gray areas — whatever you call it, media consumers need to be able to tell the legit from the not.

Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump Campaigns In Cleveland, Ohio Justin Merriman / Getty Images

On a recent episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask with Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, Brian Stelter, the senior media correspondent at CNN, stopped in to try to answer the question, “What can we do about ‘fake news?’” The three took questions from listeners and agreed that “fake news” shouldn’t be called news at all. In fact, the term should be retired altogether.

You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.


Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.

Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.

KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about tech.

LG: Because really, there are no embarrassing questions. We want to help you answer them. It could be about gadgets or apps or the smart home, or self-driving cars, or whether Kara Swisher will run for president someday.

KS: Yes.

LG: Okay, that’s not tech, but she’s got my vote.

KS: All right. That’s a good thing. You better. Twice. Vote twice so that we can do fraudulent voting, because that’s a thing, apparently. Send us your questions. We really do read them all. Find us on Twitter and tweet them to us @Recode to myself or to Lauren with the hashtag #tooembarrassed.

LG: We also have an email address. That’s tooembarrassed@recode.net. Friendly reminder: Embarrassed has two Rs and two Ss.

KS: While you’re at it, have a listen to our previous episodes, too, which you can find on iTunes at iTunes.com/tooembarrassedtoask.

LG: Today we’re talking about something that might initially make you ask, “What exactly does this have to do with tech?” It does because of the way information is now distributed online and shared on social networks.

KS: That’s correct, because we’re going to talk about the phenomenon of fake news. I know you’ve gotten tired of this term, but it’s a really important issue. It’s important as social networks and internet companies really do dominate how news is distributed and read by most citizens. We want to know how it came to be, whether it’s a real thing or a new thing, and it’s not, why it became such a huge topic in our new political environment and, most importantly, what you can do to spot fake news and not get duped.

LG: That’s right. We’ve brought in a special guest for this episode, Brian Stelter. Brian is the senior media correspondent for CNN and the host of “Reliable Sources” on the same network. Prior to CNN, he was a star media reporter for the New York Times. Brian, thank you for joining us today.

Brian Stelter: Thank you very much.

KS: Brian, we’ve known each other a long time, and you’ve covered media for a long time. We’re going to take questions from our listeners in the latter half, but first, let’s talk about this phenomenon of fake news. We know it’s not a new thing, but what’s spurred the more recent rise of misinformation and, in some cases, totally bogus articles? Can you give people a primer?

It felt to me, last fall, we saw this real focus on the specific kind of fake news that was seen during the campaign. I would put it into two buckets. There’s this profit motive, these people that write made-up stories, really just fiction that they’re writing, that are intended to get advertising and make a quick buck.

Then there’s the propaganda version, which is more politically motivated, trying to change the outcome of an election or hurt a rival. I think we became more aware collectively, as an industry, in the fall, about these fake sites that were trying to make money off the ads and, to some extent, aware of the propaganda efforts. Although I think the attempts by folks connected to Russia and other countries to create fake stories to hurt Clinton, there wasn’t as much awareness of that before election day as there was after election day.

I would say certainly thanks to the efforts of Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed and to others in the fall, in the September-October range, there was certainly a heightened awareness of these fake, totally made-up sites. Now, of course, as you said, the term has been sort of retired. It’s been exploited, it’s been misused by people to mean, “Anything I don’t like, anything I disagree with is fake news.”

KS: Yeah, President Trump uses it.

The president has now kind of taken over the term. I think Margaret Sullivan and the Washington Post is right. We shouldn’t be using the term fake news so much anymore. We should let that one go and use more specific language like, “These fictional sites that are trying to make money are creating hoaxes and trying to fool people.” I think we can be more descriptive. The problem is still very real and very there.

LG: What are some specific examples, for people who are listening? You’re talking about the difference between fake news that’s complete, utter fiction online versus something that maybe more falls into the bucket of propaganda. What are some specific examples of those two different types of fake news?

I think we saw attempts to create uncertainty about Hillary Clinton’s health in the summer and the fall. Some of that was coming from conservative talk radio hosts, who are not propagandists, who are not working for a foreign government. They were just trying to support Donald Trump and raise questions about Clinton.

Then, next to all of that conservative media conversation about her health, there were also tweets and comments and blog posts and articles from outlets like RT and from some of RT’s spinoffs, RT being Russia Today. You would see efforts by groups of trolls to raise doubts about Clinton’s health and to suggest that she was in much direr straits than she actually was. We all remember that video where she nearly collapsed at the 9/11 Ground Zero ceremony. For people to take that video and then go 10 steps further, we were seeing these online bands of trolls do that. That certainly did look like efforts by some external entity. It’s hard to say exactly for sure who is behind this stuff. Certainly there was an appearance of a propagandistic campaign to undermine her health.

Then, of course, the profit motives. These are stories saying that the pope has endorsed Trump. Those sorts of stories that make people feel good, they want to believe them and want to share them, and thus click on them. I think that was more clearly visible during the campaign.

KS: There’s been more of this idea of gray news. I think people like Mark Zuckerberg used the [term] gray areas. Then you had Kellyanne Conway, astonishingly, call things “alternative facts,” which really was appalling and something she’s used during the interview. There’s more than something is just fake. Hillary Clinton is not a lizard. I think we can all agree on that, although maybe no we can’t, but the pope …

LG: Right, the Pizzagate scandal was not real.

KS: Yeah, the pope did not support Trump. There’s some things that are easily provable, and then there’s this idea of alternative facts, which they tried to put around the inaugural. It’s very clear the crowds weren’t as big, but they tried to pretend that it was. Talk a little bit about that, because that’s where you get into real trouble, I think, here.

Yeah, I wonder if the term is a “spectrum.” I wonder if it’s best to imagine these stories as being on a spectrum, and the totally fictional, made-up, just ridiculous stories, those are the easy ones to identify at the far end of the spectrum. Those are the really easy ones to spot and attempt to weed out. That’s what Facebook’s focused on and what Google’s focused on.

The much harder ones are these stories in between, somewhere between real news and complete BS. I think that’s where the attention needs to be focused now. Just a very personal example, a story about me that had one paragraph of real quotes that I actually said on TV, and then four paragraphs of made up quotes. How is a reader supposed to know where the —

KS: What was it about?

It was basically saying that I criticized Trump much more aggressively than I actually had. It took an essay and then went wild with it. I don’t know how the reader is supposed to judge where the truth stopped and where the lie began if I myself had to go back and check the transcript. I’m at least able to know where the transcript is and how to find it. These tech companies are right now dealing with the worst of the worst sites, as Facebook has said. I agree that the harder story is in the middle, and the middle is where there’s going to be more and more growth.

LG: I’m curious, Brian how you feel the new administration, so far — how the relationship is going with the press. I realize I’m asking someone who works for a network that President Trump has called out by name — which, by the way, is not a new thing. I should also note we were just rereading Marie Brenner’s story about Donald Trump and one of his earlier marriages in Vanity Fair. It was an article from 1990. Even in that article, he was specifically lambasting CNN and saying reporters were writing vicious things about him. His contentious relationship with the press goes back decades at this point. How do you feel it is going so far?

Right. [sigh]

KS: That’s a long sigh.

Maybe a roller coaster is the right image here, with the loops and the flips and the sudden jerkiness and the sense that you might throw up. Maybe that’s the right image to convey. Certainly, we’re seeing an enormous amount of news in the administration. We’re seeing the audience hungry for that news. We’re seeing viewers coming to the cable networks, coming to the web looking for this information, but we are seeing the administration continue to try to delegitimize the press. I hate the word delegitimize, even though I use it all the time. What we mean by that is trying to strip away our authority and our credibility, and deny that what we’re doing is valuable and accurate. Trump was —

KS: Is that different than the Nixon administration? I remember “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which was a great term.

I was about to say, I thought the point about Trump during the ’90s is really interesting. The difference now is [that] he has tens of millions of people who are inclined to believe it when he says it. I think the difference between the Nixon administration and now is, of course, the internet, and specifically social media, which adds a layer to all of this. I’m finding myself sometimes getting into a cab or walking into a building hearing it said, “CNN, fake news.” The other half of the time, though, people are saying, “CNN? Why does the president pick on CNN? CNN is the best.” It’s created a dividing line. I think that’s true for other news outlets as well, the New York Times and others that he has focused on. It’s created this dividing line in the culture that’s not healthy for the democracy, that you’re either with a news outlet or against it.

LG: I want to turn this next question to Kara, because I don’t think anyone is quite as well sourced in Silicon Valley as Kara here. I’m not just saying that because she’s sitting across me from right now, staring me down.

Kara, what responsibility do you think that social media companies, companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google, have when it comes to the distribution of information that is just blatantly false at this point?

KS: As you know, I’ve been super vocal on this issue. I’ve talked about it a lot. I scared a poor Facebook executive at a conference in Germany. He went back and said, “Kara scared me,” essentially.

I think they’re completely abrogating their responsibility. I think they have a huge responsibility. They have nearly wrecked a lot of the media business from a financial point of view, and they aren’t taking up the responsibility they have as media companies. They don’t want to call themselves media companies. They prefer to call themselves “platforms” or “pipes.” They’re “dumb pipes” or, “We’re just a platform.” I think they are absolutely responsible for what happens and what occurs on their site.

Brian, I don’t know if you agree with me, but I think they are willfully ... They’re not ignorant. Internally there’s all kinds of debates going on. Externally they’re pretending like they have only partial responsibility. I think they have huge responsibility.

Do you think we should be giving Facebook some credit for how far it’s come in the past year? I say that because I remember, in the summer, I asked about filter bubbles. These executives essentially said they have no responsibility whatsoever to ever pop a person’s bubble and show them something they disagree with. Now, at least, they’re trying to put warning labels on BS stories.

KS: This is typical of Facebook. They do everything super ... You don’t remember Beacon, but that took forever to just say, “This sucks.”

No, I remember Beacon, yeah.

KS: Yeah, I was with someone this morning who worked there a long time ago. They were like, “Ugh, we actually knew it was a problem before we launched it. Everyone just shut it down. We kept saying it’s going to be a problem.” This is typical: Facebook walks things very slowly forward.

Interestingly, Google can just get rid of those fake news sites instantly. You don’t even know they’re doing it, because they just tweak their algorithm. Who knows what they’re up to back there at the Googleplex.

I think the problem Facebook has is that they promised their users an ability to do whatever they want on their platforms. That’s like, “Go ahead, throw poop on the wall.” Really, you can’t throw poop on the wall. They haven’t made the rules necessary to do something.

In the case of Twitter, they’ve allowed it to become a screamscape. They didn’t do anything about bullying. They didn’t do anything about Anonymous. They didn’t do anything about ... It’s just a screamscape.

LG: At what point do these companies, if they start to get a little bit more stringent about, I guess, the distribution of information on their sites, at what point do they cross that line into censorship?

KS: It’s not censorship. That’s the typical thing. You know what? We have a city, you can’t run screaming naked down the street. You just can’t, sorry. That’s our little rules. I think there are rules; that is not censorship. I think they have built — they go on and on about these being online communities, if they’re cities, and this is the city. They want to run a city? They better run the city. They better not let it create a situation. They just abrogate responsibility and then suck up all the money. At some point I think they really do have to understand they have a role in this, in civic society.

I get their argument about it. That’s where these Libertarians go with this. “Oh, everyone should be able to do what they want.” Everyone should be able to click on what they want. Everyone should be able to be a dick, to watch as much Google News or whatever they want.

What they don’t tell you is that there’s 1,000 Google engineers, 1,000 Facebook engineers manipulating you every single day. This Libertarian stuff is crap. It’s just crap. They literally want you to be engaged on those platforms, because their business is all about advertising. Advertising and engagement are their goals. Whatever it takes is whatever it takes. I do think, inside the companies, there are people [who] really care and worry about this. I think to pretend otherwise, they’re just lying.

LG: The way things are going currently, it’s hard to imagine a company like Twitter actually taking these steps that people have been asking for, allowing for the removal of abusive tweets or abusive accounts entirely coming from figures of authority that have been maybe abusing the platform.

KS: Now they have broken glass all over the floor.

LG: Earlier today, a report emerged that Fox News removed one of its tweets at the request of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was regarding the shooting that happened recently at a mosque in Canada. Fox News had apparently tweeted something like, “One of the early suspects is Moroccan.” Justin Trudeau said, “That is absolutely incorrect.” He sent a strongly worded letter to them asking them to remove the tweet. They did remove the tweet, and that’s something that you could argue is completely false. It’s hard to imagine Twitter having done that on its own, right?

KS: Right. What do you think, Brian? I don’t know. I feel like —

I thought the Fox thing was a sideshow, to be honest. Trudeau did it for political points. He scored political points, but Fox was not the only news outlet to report that one of the two suspects in that attack was of Moroccan origin. Then it turned out he was just a witness. The Fox tweet came under a lot of scrutiny because it came from Fox.

I had two thoughts about this. No. 1, Twitter still needs to come up with a way to correct and amend and annotate and let people know when something is wrong. They know that’s a problem. They’ve been slow to address it.

My bigger concern here is that whether Fox deletes a tweet or not, or whether Twitter lets you annotate it or not, millions of millions of millions of people wanted to believe that that man was of Moroccan origin and was a suspect. They wanted to continue to believe it even after the facts came out. How do we reach those folks? Can social networks help us do that, or are they going to always be part of the problem? This is the huge billion dollar question that I have no answer to.

KS: A lot of people wanted to believe the world was flat, and that sort of changed over time. You know what I mean? This is the problem. How do you, as a reporter, convince the audience that, “Hey, look. These are clear, provable, real-life facts”?

I saw you do that with quite a lot of strength, actually, and a very stern way you said it about the facts around the inaugural, for example, and what that ridiculous press conference imbecile did. Anyway, you were like, “This was wrong, this was wrong, this was wrong.” I was like, “Yay, but does anyone listen to you?” Talk about that, what you did there.

I find myself asking the same questions and wanting help from academia, frankly, to know: What are the right ways to correct the misinformation? You called Sean Spicer an imbecile, not I, but I would say that Sean Spicer, in that first statement on Saturday, day two of the Trump administration, he said five false things in five minutes. I can say that on television, look into the lens and say it as directly as I can, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to persuade folks that we are right and that he was wrong in that case. I’m not sure the best way to show the work and confirm that it’s true.

Here’s another example. A week later, or a few days later, Spicer said that, yes, the president does believe three million to five million people illegally voted. I said on television afterwards, “This is crazy. It’s crazy to think that three to five million people illegally voted.” Again, I wrestled with, “Is that the right way? Is that the right communication method in order to convey to the audience that we’re well beyond norms here, we’re several miles outside town, in terms of what’s normal and what are facts — or, by saying it so bluntly, am I actually turning people off?”

KS: What, would you say it nicely?

I guess I’m admitting here I don’t know the answer.

KS: What do you think the answer is? There’s no other way to say, “This is a lie, but this is not.”

I like bluntness. I appreciate when the anchors on other channels and on CNN are very blunt about it and take the side of the truth (which is hopefully the side of the viewers), take the side of the facts. That’s my personal preference, but I find myself wondering about alternatives. Maybe part of the answer is instead of saying, “Donald Trump falsely said X, Y and Z,” we have to start out by saying, “X is X, Y is Y, Z is Z. Today, Donald Trump falsely said otherwise.” I wonder, in other words, if we have to reframe the coverage so that we’re not just reinforcing the misinformation that we’re hearing from any person in power.

KS: Repeating the error. Actually in journalism, you don’t repeat the error when you make a correction. I don’t know if you know that.

Right, right.

LG: How does that change the way you report, Kara? Do you feel even in reporting on technology, how you’ve been covering lately the intersection of tech and policy right now?

KS: Yeah, a lot. I feel you have to call them out using the same tactics they use, except truthful. I think Brian’s got a duty as an anchor not to have an opinion, but I have an opinion. I voice it. I probably would be bad for television, Brian, because I would just go, “You crazy,” or something like that. “You lie. Lie.” When they say something, I go, “Lie, lie, lie, lie.” If Kellyanne Conway, every time she’d go out I’d go, “Lie.” I’d start screaming.

Isn’t that interesting? How do you interview someone on television, and when you’re expecting them to say false things, how do you carry a press conference live if you have good reason to believe that there’s going to be misinformation? This is where I think we haven’t seen enough innovation and creativity in news coverage in the past few months.

KS: Someone asked me what I would ask Donald Trump if I got him onstage. It’s never going to happen. My first question would be, “You seem to lie a lot. Can you talk about that? Let’s talk about it.”

Yesterday, I tried to ask the more direct questions, I guess. Yesterday, I interviewed Sheryl Sandberg, and I said, “You didn’t post about the women’s march. People were very critical. What happened?” I just wanted to know what occurred, rather than tsk-tsk her for it.

You can have your opinion whether she should have. A lot of people, and I did, too, thought she’s a woman leader and probably should have weighed in. She then did quite a bit on a bunch of other things. I just asked her directly.

What I think happens with someone like Kellyanne Conway, who’s I don’t know what, she’s something else, but is that you all let her talk. You let her go on and switch the topic.

And we’ve had that problem with people. I had an interview with Carly Fiorina once where I asked her about problems of innovation at HP. She answered a whole other question. She had a different answer than the question I asked. I let her go on for maybe two or three sentences. Then I said, “Can I stop you? Because you’re answering a different question. I asked you a different one. Answer the question I asked.” Then she did it again, and I said, “It’s fascinating that you won’t answer the question I asked. You’ve got to stop.” It was so disturbing to her to be stopped. I think that worked very well.

LG: I think what’s interesting, from my perspective — and I’m still primarily reporting about consumer technology — is there are a lot of meta conversations I’ve been having lately with people about what the role of journalism is in general.

I remember I was headed off to the Consumer Electronics Show last month, which is this big annual event. For those not familiar, it’s basically the Super Bowl of gadgets. It’s really big for a tech reporter to go to. Someone said to me, “Well, I guess you have to go and support the industry you cover, right?” I said, “Actually, we don’t go to support who we cover. We go to report on what we cover. There’s a big difference.”

We’re going, and we’re going in with a critical eye. We’re telling people if there are gadgets out there that are junk, or there are health products that are making claims and they’re not FDA approved, and they’re not doing what they say they’re supposed to do If battery life sucks, if the show itself is maybe a little bit lackluster, we go in, and we report on things critically.

In general — and I’m talking about tech, of course, but even political reporting — there’s this confusion, I think, where people think, “You’re supposed to support or promote your government,” and that is absolutely not the role of journalists.

KS: I’m going in the opposite direction. I think you can see that, Brian. I think we have influenced people to speak out in the tech industry. Calling them sheeple, perhaps, wasn’t very kind, but I think it moved them to understand what was going on.

LG: In general, there’s a little bit of confusion going on right now as to what the role of the media actually is. It is to call truth to power. It is not to just go in there and be stenographers and type down what these people say and not question it.

And you know what? When there are people in power, whether it’s the head of a corporation or the head of a government or just the head of your local community that impacts the way you live every day, you want journalists calling truth to power.

Already we’re seeing it. A more adversarial approach is being embraced by many parts of the audience. Yes, there’s a segment of the population that believes that the main news outlets are fake news, that’s what Trump has told them. But there’s a big proportion of the audience that appreciates this more adversarial approach, and it’s because of the volume of misstatements and confusion.

I think we have to have the caveat here that people in power tend to fib or exaggerate or spin. It’s just that Trump makes them look like amateurs. I wonder, what’s the innovation around this? Is it that you hit pause on the screen during a press conference, go and correct the record, and then hit play and show the rest live? Is it that you maybe shouldn’t be doing live interviews with these people, you should be taping them and editing them? Should you be annotating the text in a transcript, as the Washington Post has been doing? There’s a lot of room here for creative approaches to journalism.

KS: You didn’t cover one thing. It was great. I thought it was great that you didn’t, which was interesting, one of the press conferences.

Oh, that’s right, the first Spicer one on CNN. Right, right.

KS: Right, absolutely. Good. Too bad. Suck the oxygen from him.

What are the long-term dangers of fake news? There’s some data from [the] Stanford Graduate School of Education that spent a year studying how 7,800 students across 12 states interpret the news. It was dismal. Many high school students could not tell real and fake news apart on Facebook. Most accepted photographs for what they were without verifying them or looking for professional attribution. We’ve seen that on “Jaywalking.” As comical as that is, it’s depressing. It’s, again, nothing new of people being ignorant and willfully ignorant.

How do you think the impact is, given how many outlets people have now to distribute their information? It becomes a noisy place.

No. 1, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We should expect these fictional sites and these hoax sites to get more sophisticated, more creative, using some of our own tools against us. I think we’re going to see more video versions of fake news, fake videos, fake eyewitness accounts, and things like that, which makes the media world even more confusing.

I think that’s ultimately the concern: That folks get so confused by the news or what looks like news that they just check out, that they don’t bother believing any of it, or verifying any of it, and that we’re all these fictional sites, and the Recodes and the CNNs of the world are all part of this morass that the folks don’t know whether to believe or not.

That kind of confusion benefits people in power, whether they’re Democrat or Republican or whatever. It benefits people when there’s confusion like that about sourcing. That’s my worry about where this is going. The one good thing about the past few months is that there’s a lot more awareness now of this problem in the industry and in academia. There’s at least a lot more understanding of what has been a long-term problem that has become worse lately. I’m glad there’s more awareness of it, and even people talking about what to call it, but I don’t see many very strong solutions out there necessarily.

KS: Interestingly, one of the other things: You wonder if it ever is going to go away. This is from a story in Politico: “In the 1800s, fake news was back again swirling around the question of race, like Jewish blood libel, American racial sentiments and fears were powerful in producing false stories. One persistent cottage industry of fake news in antebellum America were the stories of African Americans spontaneously turning white.”

LG: I mean, if that’s not fake news … then also, from that same article in Politico, which I recommend people read, they note how sensationalism has always sold well: “During the Gilded Age, yellow journalism flourished.” People were using fake interviews, fake experts, bogus stories. In fact, “Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published exaggerated crime dramas to sell papers.”

That, once again, is from Politico. Just to underscore that the fake news problem is not a new problem.

KS: It’s just amplified, right?

LG: It is. It is amplified, and social networks certainly are playing a role in that, but also, at the end of the day, it comes down in part to its the responsibility of the news consumer to try to parse through some of that. We’re going to address that in a moment.

There are times when there’s a fake news story out there, completely made up, and we know it’s not true, and we don’t show the audience why we know. That’s why I’m glad Facebook at least is doing this partnership with news outlets to try to fact check. Again, Facebook is only addressing the worst of the worst in small ways and not doing enough, but they are trying. Basically, newsrooms are being empowered to at least show folks why we know some of this stuff is not true.

KS: Right, yeah. Unfortunately it’s an upward battle in this, and it’s been forever. It just makes it worse with social media. In a minute, we’re going to answer some questions from readers about fake news, but first, we’re going to take a quick break as Lauren reads from a word from our sponsor, many words.

LG: Can I get that cha-ching sound again?

KS: Cha-ching, cha-ching.

LG: You do it so well.

KS: Sorry, Brian, I have to say cha-ching. That’s how bad we’ve gotten. Cha-ching.

LG: All right. She’s also dancing right now. You just can’t see it.

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KS: All right then. Cha-ching. Okay, so you’ve been listening to the show, and you know how it works. Every week we take tech questions from our readers and listeners, and we try to answer everything we can. Brian’s going to do it this time. You can send them in, by the way, tweeting to us with #tooembarrassed, or you can email tooembarrassed@recode.net. This week we’re answering your questions about the phenomenon of fake news. Lauren, read the first question for Brian to answer.

LG: First question is from @beccanalia on Twitter, who asked, “Hi, why are you continuing to use the euphemism ‘fake news’ instead of calling it rhetoric, what it is, disinformation,” that she abbreviated here, “/prop,” which I’m taking to mean propaganda. Initially, I honestly didn’t know if she meant that the false news we’re seeing out there is the disinformation, or if she was referring to us as news producers putting out what she calls disinformation. Brian, why are we continuing to use the euphemism “fake news”? Is it just toothpaste out of the tube at this point?

I agree that it is, and I’m trying to wean myself off of the phrase and come up with something different. Maybe hoaxes is a better word. Fake news, that term, at least to insiders who study this, does capture a specific phenomenon. It’s not a perfect term, though. I think if we could rewind the tape six months, maybe “made-up news” or “fiction,” or not to have the word “news” in the term at all would help, because there’s no such thing as actual fake news. It’s a contradiction in thought.

KS: It doesn’t help the president is using it now on everything, anything he doesn’t like.

LG: Oh, quite frequently. He just used it the other day. He was giving a speech about Black History Month, and he kind of deviated, went off topic, talked about an erroneous report that was made earlier about the Martin Luther King bust disappearing from the White House. He just went off on this tangent and said, “Fake news,” again. Fake news. It happens quite a bit.

Oh, I was trying not to talk about that, the president’s use of the ... Yeah, we should expect that to continue. The folks that I talk to, the journalists who are covering the administration day by day, I think the general view is he went harder at the media earlier than would have been expected. Yes, he was going to campaign against the press the way he did during his election campaign, but he, on Day One and Day Two, started this immediately, this attempt to continue to tear down the press.

KS: I don’t know why you’d think he wouldn’t. There’s an expression by Maya Angelou, “When someone shows themselves to you for the first time, believe them.” That’s what he said he was going to do, so there he goes.

Okay, next question is from Anshul Kapoor. “Why don’t Facebook, Google, and others collaborate to make a fake site database and collaborate?” Brian, why don’t they do something like that? Is there a way to do that, or do you think that the censorship word goes up?

I don’t think the censorship word goes up, but clearly Google and Facebook have both said they’re going to try to attack these ad networks. I don’t know actually if there is collaboration going on. Maybe there is, and we don’t know it, in terms of some sort of record of these sites. These sites do ...

KS: No, they can’t decide on what to have for lunch together, but go ahead. Yeah.

I was going to say, these sites shift their shapes from time to time. New ones pop up every day. It is a real whack-a-mole problem and probably would benefit from some sort of maybe third party trying to keep tabs on all of them.

KS: Do you think it’s their duty? Talk about this censorship thing again. It does come up. That’s the first thing that comes up, or slippery slope. That’s always a favorite, this idea. Is it a slippery slope?

I suppose Facebook allows you to post whatever you want. You described it as poop up against the wall earlier. Do any of the three of us see Facebook deviating from that? I sure don’t.

KS: Yeah, I do. I think when it starts to hurt their business, when Snapchat becomes a more pleasant place to be— Snapchat verifies publishers, right? Why couldn’t they verify publishers? I think when Snapchat becomes more popular and an easier place to live in, and the beautiful suburb of Facebook suddenly has trash and broken glass and moves toward the land of Twitter, which as we all know is really problematic, I think they’ll start to do something about it.

LG: Or even just remember what happened with Myspace. Of course fake news I don’t think was the real issue then, but all of the ads and the spam and the terrible content that just started popping up, it became a very [unpleasant place] for people to be online. The quality suffered a great deal.

That’s an interesting point about the comments on Facebook also. I don’t know about your-all’s Facebook walls, but —

KS: I’ve suddenly gotten horrible.

Mine looks like a cultural civil war. It’s not a pleasant place to be. I don’t want to spend the time moderating it or deleting comments that it would require, but I do wonder if the company can do more to try to, I don’t know, not delete the comments, not remove them, but maybe not put it in my face so much. Maybe try to move the more pleasant ones to the top. Not pleasant, but the more thoughtful comments to the top.

KS: They don’t want to limit it. Someone else from Facebook, in the early days when they had the X thing on your News Feed where you get rid of people, initially they didn’t want to have the X thing [hide this friend], which was interesting.

LG: It would lower engagement, too, because you’re seeing less stuff and you’re interacting with people less.

KS: Yes, exactly, but they let you [hide] stuff, but then it still stays in your friend’s feed. What’s the difference? Their implication was they were supposed to help you clean up your feed. They really weren’t. It’s a really interesting issue.

The problem is, their business is about advertising and engagement. When that’s the case, Brian, we’re in the “Network” days, the movie “Network.” I think it’s really Sybil the Soothsayer, and this is interesting. “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.” It just feels like that. I think they are waking up to the responsibility, and Google has an easier time than Facebook. When you see Snapchat becoming increasingly popular, that’s because of that, because you can control your environment and make it pleasant at least, or somewhat pleasant or useful.

All right. Next question, Lauren?

LG: Next question is from Jonathan Madden, @notjonmadden on Twitter. I think his tweet was actually in response to the earlier question. “Do you trust any company to always be selfless in deciding real versus fake with the authority to discredit info?”

KS: Brian, go ahead, Brian. Besides you.

No, I was hoping you would take that first.

KS: No, go ahead. It’s all yours.

LG: Don’t fight over it.

To expect them to be selfless? Play that out. What does that imply?

LG: If a company like Google, Facebook and others do collaborate or even just individually start to take more steps to try to monitor and remove blatantly false news and news sites, then do you trust a company to be selfless in deciding that? And I think we’ve kind of already answered that, in the sense that as long as they’re advertising-driven platforms, then likely no.

And do we get to the place where a story that’s highly critical of Facebook is considered fake news by Facebook? They’ve said that they’re working with these third parties, the International Fact-Checking Consortium and Poynter, in order to be removed from the process. My gut always tells me this is about more than the social networking companies themselves, that publishers have a big role to play trying to fight back these lies with the truth. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, and definitely not an algorithmic answer, but I keep coming back to the idea that these fake sites are going to become more sophisticated, more insidious, and algorithms alone won’t solve it.

It’s also a media literacy problem, by the way. It’s a dorky term to use, but we should mention it. There are not many media literacy classes in this country. There are not many students being taught media literacy, but I know Facebook is interested in funding some of that. Surely Google as well. I wonder if that’s a little bit of the solution here also, helping people understand or be able to root out the difference between a credible source and a crazy source, in the same way that the three of us try to do.

LG: Oh, absolutely. I think that maybe there’s this misconception, “Oh, my elderly aunt can’t tell the difference between this website which is real and this website which is illegitimate.” Then as that Stanford study showed, they were talking to high school students who were looking at, let’s say, an image of a flower, that the image purportedly was an image of a flower impacted by Fukushima. It was all distorted and weird and everything. High school students couldn’t tell that that was a fake photo: They weren’t looking at attribution, they weren’t looking at the source, they weren’t looking for a photographer credit. This is something that’s impacting future generations that are going to be — or in the case of Snapchat, are becoming — some of the biggest media consumers. I think media literacy is going to be increasingly important.

KS: Yeah, absolutely. “War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength.”

You’re talking about the high school students. By the way, I’ve never read “1984.”

KS: You’ve got to.

I think now is the time.

KS: Let me tell you: Two things ...

It is No. 1 again.

LG: Yeah, it’s best-selling.

KS: Brian, “1984” and “The Art of the Deal,” you’ll understand it perfectly.

“The Art of the Deal” I have read. That was very helpful.

KS: Wasn’t it? It’s the same thing.

It was. I was just going to say, about those high school students: What would a social network look like that was fenced in or walled in, that only provided credible sourcing? I don’t even know how to go about creating that, but I wonder what it would look like, because there are so many news consumers [who] are so overwhelmed by this, [who] are so frustrated by the pollution that they see online, these fake, made-up sites. I wonder what a site or an app would look like that was designed to ... I guess “safe space” is a loaded phrase these days, but I wonder what it would look like to have a version of a site that promised you only reality-based information and not that alternative reality.

LG: I have two responses to that. My first is, Brian, Silicon Valley will definitely fund you if you pitch that, because they’ll fund almost anything. And second, I think that you just go down such a rabbit hole when you start talking about that, because you’re talking about ...

First of all, you used the word “credible.” Right now, the mainstream media is essentially under assault, and people trying to say, “Even the mainstream media is no longer credible.” Which we, of course, being mainstream news producers, don’t feel or don’t believe. Then you get into this question of okay then, what actually becomes a credible source?

Two, that’s also not addressing partisanship. There are a lot of credible news sources out there that just have these partisan slants. If there was a walled-in news site maybe aimed at younger news consumers that came from credible sources, you’d have to address those two questions as well.

You’d want to include conservative and liberal outlets, but are there ways to weed out true nonsense? I don’t know the answer, but it does feel like there’d be a market for it. What I sense in my inbox, maybe your-all’s inboxes are similar, people feeling starved or not nourished by the news, wanting to know what the heck to trust. It bums me out when I get emails from readers saying, “Look at this link for me. Can you tell me [if] this is real?” because I don’t necessarily always have the chance to go and find out for them. I wonder what that kind of site would look like.

KS: Yeah, it’d be hard. You’d probably be attacked by trolls. Last question is from Dan Wyman, @danwyman. “What tactics can we use to help fight fake news / how to best help someone understand it’s fake?” Just like what we were talking about. Also, Brian, what’s the toll ... I don’t want to feel sorry for you as a journalist, we’re all getting pilloried — but what do you do? Do you turn it off? I answer everybody. I love engaging with them.

Yeah, I see it.

KS: I know.

LG: Yeah, give your top three takeaways, first, for how someone can spot really fake news. Then I also want to hear about how you tune out when you need to.

These sites are oftentimes too good to be true, too sensational to be true. Partly it’s about that [person’s] own gut check. If you’re inclined to believe it, you should be more skeptical.

I think we’ve all fallen for these fictional stories at one point or another. I certainly have. Others have. Learn from those moments would be another piece. Take away those lessons.

Third, there’s a reason why the CNNs and the Recodes and the New York Times and the NBCs work so hard to try to hold onto their credibility and correct the record when it’s wrong. It’s because they’re at least in the business of trying to tell real information, tell the truth. To the extent that you can rely on them, rely on these brands — I would say that.

Kara, I’m not replying as often as you are anymore is part of the answer. Maybe that’s because Trump news is keeping me busy, but I’m trying not to pick fights on Twitter. More importantly, the quality filter has been very useful. There are days where I want to see everything. I want to see all the feedback. Then there are days where I do not.

KS: Just with friends or something.

Yeah, and having those filters makes a big difference. I’m actually so impressed by the quality of the Twitter quality filter, in terms of how much it weeds out, in terms of hate mail and abuse. I find that trolls create fake images, and they write on my face and things like that, some of which can be amusing, but most of which can be frustrating. I’ve found Twitter to be responsive to those issues, but I realize being a public figure on Twitter is different [from] being a user who may have 3,000 followers and who is interested in engaging, and then gets attacked. Clearly Twitter is not doing enough on that front.

LG: Absolutely.

KS: Yeah. One of the things I find that’s interesting, I block a lot of people. I do. I just block, block, block. I spend a lot of time blocking people, especially the egg people. It’s always the egg people. Or if they’re cogent, I get in an argument with them. If they’re cogent and [civil], I don’t mind having a [civil] argument with them. One thing that I tend to do is also realize that I get a lot of positive ones, too. ...

I don’t really care if people attack. I don’t really care. It doesn’t seem to get to me as it gets to other people. One of the things that I do think about is that instead of just focusing on the negative, I get just as many positive ones, if not more. That’s what I realize: You’re just going to have to take it as a thing.

LG: Absolutely. I don’t lose sleep over nasty tweets or anything.

KS: Yeah, and the other thing is also just not making mistakes. That’s the problem. You talked about the bust. You just cannot make mistakes. You have to try really hard to correct errors almost immediately when you make errors. Errors are what a lot of these things are that Trump and others have called “fake news.” No, it’s just an error. We made an error, and it’s very rare. When you correct them and say so rather quickly, I think that’s what’s ...

LG: That’s how you maintain trust with your audience as well.

KS: Yeah, absolutely.

LG: You said yesterday, Kara, that you feel like you go to take a shower now, and you come out and something terrible has happened in the news. I know, personally, I’ve been ordering a lot of physical books lately, and they just keep stacking up, because I’m like, “Well, if I’m holding a physical book and I’m actually taking the time to read for 30 to 60 minutes a night or whatever it is, I’m not on Twitter and I’m not using a Kindle that’s connected to the internet.” I’m just like, “I have to put my mind somewhere else for a while.”

KS: “Aah! Something’s happening!”

LG: How do you actually, both you and Brian, how do you actually —

KS: Yeah, Brian, you answer that.

LG: Are you stepping away for an hour?

KS: Brian doesn’t shower anymore, right? Sorry. Sorry [to] your wife, Brian.

She’ll love that. If I can reiterate your point about the positivity, I find myself thinking about that also, that there is hate and abuse online, and it can be very loud. Then I look at other metrics, which are, this sounds arrogant, but web traffic and TV ratings and the piles of emails in my inbox, and I’m reminded that there are vast numbers of people that want what we’re doing right now, whether it’s your coverage of Trump meeting the tech world and what that dance is like, whether it’s coverage of his attacks on the press, people are hungry for this stuff. The haters, if I can use that phrase, they are so loud and so vocal, but so small compared to all the readers that want our content.

To answer your question about what I’m doing, I’m going to the movies. I want to be in a dark room where I have to turn my phone off.

KS: With “La La Land” and they’re dancing.

Yeah, no matter what happens in those two hours, I’m not going to be interrupted, because otherwise there’s that reaction to the Twitter story of the hour that can become disorienting and can distract me from the stories I would like to go work on, set my own news agenda as opposed to have it be set by others.

KS: Yes. I agree with that.

Dark room, watching movies. I have ordered a bunch of books, like you were saying, Lauren. I maybe haven’t read as many of them as I’d like yet, but I have a pile going of books about history, because I want to learn. I want to be able to look back and see the parallels between history and today.

KS: They’ve very clear.

With regards to press freedom and things like that.

LG: Absolutely. Brian, let me just say it’s wonderful that you have that kind of attention span. I’m going to leave it at that.

KS: Okay. I have just one last question. When you get attacked like this with the amplification of Twitter or Facebook or whatever — and let’s be clear, noise is different than real impact, right? You can feel under threat when you’re really not, because it’s just screamy. Do you feel that this president using Twitter, using these attacks, using social media, and then the ensuing pile-on that happens is going to really damage an outfit like CNN? They don’t attack Recode like they attack you guys, but are you truly worried about it? Do you feel your bosses are worried about it?

Let me take the long view and say that these big news brands in this country have outlasted many presidents and will outlast President Trump. Do I think his attacks can damage a news brand? No. I think they can change a brand and affect the perception of a brand. I think we see that at the New York Times. Hosts on Fox now say, “Oh, and the failing New York Times said,” literally as if they are Donald Trump, they have adopted his language on “Fox and Friends.” I notice that sometimes.

Does that change the brand of the New York Times? It probably does a little bit, but I don’t think it’ll damage the brand of the Times going forward. Let’s ask me in three months. Let’s see where we are with three or six more months of his daily insults. I see journalists trying to rise above it and trying not to be put on the defensive. We’re not at war with him. We’re at war against people making up facts. We’re at war against people who are lying, but not at war with any individual person or administration.

KS: I think you’re going to like it, the no-access. It’s great, I have to tell you. It worked real well with Yahoo with me. Didn’t matter. We did a great job. I felt better. It’s just — don’t worry. It puts you in the position where you need to be, which is exactly what you’re saying, doing great reporting and trying your best to do the best job you can.

LG: And to inform our audiences.

KS: Right.

LG: That is our goal.

KS: Anyway, we’re big fans, Brian.

LG: With the truth. Yes.

Thank you.

KS: Now we’re going to get the Trumpkins all over us for saying that, but too bad, Trumpkins. We love Brian. Too bad.

Hey, we want everybody to be reading and watching, no matter who they voted for.

KS: Yeah, come on. Come on down and call us assholes, please. Okay, this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Thank you for joining us, Brian.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.