Brain power

Fake news and the return of credentials

Kady M is a self-professed “data driven conservative” who provides intelligent commentary on US current affairs on a range of issues. In a recent article, Kady cites research done by US journalist Sharyl Attkisson which shows that the origin of the term “fake news” was the non-profit organisation First Draft, funded by Google. At the time, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was Eric Schmidt who also happened to be a volunteer campaign advisor for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Sharyl then draws the logical dots:

[Schmidt’s] 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 …

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-opted the term so completely that even those who were originally promoting it started running from it.

In fact it’s now commonly misreported that it was Donald Trump who thought up the phrase; actually, it was just a hostile takeover.

Most moderately informed people wouldn’t be that surprised about this. There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy to illegitimately subvert the outcome of the campaign here. My personal interpretation is that the Clinton supporters didn’t understand at the time how someone repeatedly saying factually incorrect statements could position their campaign in such a way that this had little impact. It’s a classic fallacy held by smart people that emotion is (or should be) subservient to reason when making decisions.

What is extra interesting to me is the way in which Kady chose to present this information. Recognising that the information is likely to be received skeptically by a portion of her audience, Kady spends a full 12 paragraphs in establishing the credentials of the journalist first.

It seems like the antithesis of the classic journalistic practice of putting the most important information up front. But Kady has recognised an important shift in the public debate, which hearkens back to the long-established practice of credentials. As a diplomat, you would present credentials to the head of state. As a Victorian-era gentleman or lady, your calling card spoke volumes about your financial means and class. As a doctor or lawyer, your prominently displayed qualifications granted by institutions are a silent attestation to your ability to do the job.

As people return to their individual circles of trust as their primary sources of information, credentials provide a circuit-breaker for gaining trusted access to people in a world that is increasingly lacking in trust. It’s a fascinating development which I expect to continue evolving. Will information credentials become semi-standardised, like calling cards, to allow continued exchange of information across group boundaries? Or will people continue to rely on trust markers from their own circle to infer the credentials of others, village-style?

Header image source: Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Wijekoon Mudiyanselage Ukkubanda Wijekoon presenting credentials to President Putin (2003) is used under a Creative Commons license.

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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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