Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib talks about what it is going to take to get the government to open back up. Detroit Free Press
The scene is the digital news meeting that takes place at the Free Press every weekday morning, and if I were sitting at the conference table (instead of lurking furtively in the doorway, which is my preferred perch for this daily gathering of millennials), I would be the oldest person in the room. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Brian Manzullo, an editor roughly half my age, is describing a phony tweet, currently getting wide circulation on social media, in which some cyber-rapscallion pretending to be U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) says that any raping and pillaging the illegal immigrants who haunt President Donald Trump’s nightmares may be perpetrating is only just deserts for the way the U.S. government has treated “my people” in the past.
The fake (but incendiary) post’s virulence prompts a debate that takes place more and more often in newsrooms like ours: Will debunking the forged tweet on the Freep.com website stop this fake news in its tracks — or simply accelerate its dissemination among readers predisposed to believe the worst about Tlaib?
A misinformation newsstand is seen in midtown Manhattan on Oct. 30, 2018, aiming to educate news consumers about the dangers of disinformation, or fake news, in the lead-up to the US midterm elections.
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The younger editors in the room roll their eyes in a communal expression of exasperation with the naive masses who have been snookered by the phony post. As Manzullo ticks off the clues that betray its fraudulence — clues blindingly obvious, it seems, to anyone born after 1980 — they lose interest, turning their attention to the smartphones and open laptops before them.
Me? I’m hanging on the young editor’s every word, eager to join the digital cognoscenti who can spot a fraudulent tweet blindfolded, on a moonless night, at a distance of 50 nautical miles.
Probably I’m not the only, um, older American worried that my hard-won experience and guile are no match for the digital fluency of the generation nipping at my heels. Now researchers at Princeton University and New York University have exacerbated that anxiety by marshaling persuasive evidence that Baby Boomers like me — that is, Americans in their 50s, 60s and 70s — are by far the the worst culprits when it comes to disseminating disinformation on the web.
A study that appears in this month’s issue of Science Advances, the respected, peer-reviewed journal of the 170-year-old American Association for the Advancement of Science, analyzed the social media habits of 3,500 people in the months preceding the 2016 election.
The good news? Fewer than 1 in 10 of the people in the sample shared links to web domains known for trafficking in fabricated news.
But researchers Andrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker found that users 65 and older shared false reports twice as often as those 45-65 years of age, and seven times as often as participants between 18 and 45.
And if you think the real culprit here is political affiliation, think again. It’s true that older people are more likely to be Republican, and that Republicans were more likely to share phony news reports during the 2016 election cycle than their Democratic counterparts, likely because Republican voters were targeted more frequently by coordinated disinformation campaigns.
But Guess & Co. found that older users shared phony stories more promiscuously regardless of their political leanings, education, or income. In fact, no factor predicted the likelihood that someone spread fake news as reliably as his or her age.
“For me, what is pretty striking is that the relationship holds even when you control for party affiliation or ideology,” Guess, the political scientist at Princeton University who was the study’s lead author, told The Verge’s Casey Newton. “… It’s not just being driven by older people being more conservative.”
Nature or nurture?
So what makes Baby Boomers the Typhoid Marys of America’s fake news epidemic? Whyis my generation — the generation that made Apple’s revolutionary Macintosh computer a bestseller — so bad at using the more sophisticated digital devices that succeeded it to sort fact from fiction?
The Science Advances study doesn’t say.
One depressing possibility is that my generation’s unique susceptibility is a function of diminishing cognitive capacity. But another, more uplifting study published last spring suggests that even people much older than I am can grow as many new brain cells as most teenagers, challenging neurology’s historical belief that neurons stop developing after adolescence.
Hardly conclusive, I know. But let’s assume, for the sake of getting though the morning with our will to live intact, that what the carriers of fake news lack is not a critical mass of gray matter, but only the training they need to spot a clever forgery.
The Manzullo Method
Remember Brian Manzullo, the Free Press social media guru who debunked the phony Tlaib tweet at the beginning of this column?
A few days after he posted a story debunking the hoax, I asked Manzullo to walk me step-by-step through the process he employed to satisfy himself it was a forgery. Here are my top takeaways:
1. Examine the physical evidence.
Most people who encountered the faux tweet (and shared it with their friends on Facebook or other social media platforms) saw a screen grab — that is, a digital copy — that looked like this:
Screen grab of forged tweet designed to mimic a post to Rashida Tlaib’s Twitter account.
(Photo: Screen grab)
At first, the screen grab appears to resemble authentic posts on Tlaib’s own Twitter account, like this one:
Screen grab from Rashida Tlaib’s verified Twitter account.
(Photo: Screen capture)
But a closer examination reveals a couple of important differences:
First, Tlaib’s real account includes a white checkmark on a blue medallion beside her name. This is the signal that Twitter has verified the posts appearing there as the congresswoman’s own.
Then there’s the important information that Tlaib’s real Twitter account has 284,000 followers. The account forgers used to post their phony tweet has disappeared from Twitter, but such accounts typically have many fewer followers than the ones they seek to mimic.
Finally, a careful examination of the forged tweet reveals that the second letter in Tlaib’s name is not a lower-case L (which would be slightly shorter than the upper-case T it follows), but an upper-case I (which is just as tall as the upper-case T).
If it feels like you’re watching an episode of “CSI: Fake News,” don’t despair. You don’t need a degree in forensic science to spot a phony tweet.
2. Google it.
The first thing Manzullo does when he encounters a sensational quotation attributed to a specific individual is search for the individual’s name and a unique phrase from the suspect quote.
When he Googled “Tlaib” and “raping and pillaging,” the first thing he discovered was a series of stories exposing the tweet as a forgery. Equally significant was the absence of any mainstream news account authenticating it.
As the media furor that arose when the real Tlaib used an expletive to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment demonstrated, controversial statements by members of Congress seldom go undetected by all the myriad broadcast networks, wire services and national newspapers that cover Washington.
3. Read the comments.
Politicians who’ve been punked on social media usually become aware of it quickly, and their surrogates and supporters are usually quick to tag fraudulent posts with responses debunking them. While such denials are not always dispositive, they’re signals that readers should be wary of sharing the disputed information until its authenticity is conclusively established.
See, fellow Boomers? This isn’t rocket science. If you can use a keyboard or telephone touchpad, you can do what savvy young people do.
So stop apologizing. Go forth and be skeptical.
And if you see a Facebook post in which someone claiming to be your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Brian Dickerson is the Free Press’ editorial page editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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