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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Are Academics “Validators” of Fake News?

Fake news is a term we have all (unfortunately) become familiar with in the last year. It is misleading or unverified information spread through news and media outlets in order to grab attention of readers. During the election, fake news was published at alarming rates by both conservative and liberal websites. There have been recent high profile reports that mainstream media have spread fake news, including CNN and other reliable sources.

I want to talk and think about this fake news phenomenon, strictly as it applies to academics. The merits of what was actually fake and which party (or country) is most responsible for it is a more complicated question that I will punt on for now.

But what is the role of academics in spreading fake news? Do we unknowingly validate it? Or worse create it?

The Atlantic reported earlier this year that academics are “VIP Validators” of fake news. It pointed out that during last year’s primaries, Seth Abramson, assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire wrote in the HuffPost some “increasingly delusional blog posts explaining why Bernie Sanders would likely win the Democratic nomination.” These posts went viral among Bernie followers. The Atlantic also pointed to the example of Laurence Tribe, a professor of law at Harvard who “has been an especially active booster for the [Palmer Report], routinely tweeting links to highly questionable, unverified news stories about Trump.”

Forbes similarly discussed recently the role of academics in spreading fake news and information. Kalev Leetaru claims: “Not a day goes by that an academic paper doesn’t pass through my inbox that contains at least one claim that the authors attribute to a source it did not come from. I constantly see my own academic papers cited as a source of wildly inaccurate numbers about social or mainstream media where the number cited does not even appear anywhere in my paper.”

So with those examples as a preface (though I could name several of my own), I ask, are academics furthering the problem of fake news? I’ll share my thoughts and hope to hear some of yours.

I am absolutely mindful (maybe frightened is a better word) of spreading false information in my work. In today’s academic world, there is a much greater reliance on online sources. For instance, in my field, criminal law—and the topic I’ve written most about—bail, there is a lot of empirical work done by policy and advocacy groups and the government. I do my own empirical work and can stand behind that, but I often have to rely on others work as well. In drafting my book on bail, I have certainly relied on online articles (nonscholarly) about bail related issues and examples of stories of individuals struggling to make bail in the criminal justice system.

 Ten years ago, academics (and students) were only to rely on books or articles in print and had to verify everything by checking the original source. Now, many of the citations acceptable in law journals and other academic sources are online sources. Online publications, including newspapers, academic journals and other sources are fair game for prestigious academic publications. And while there is a hierarchy of online sources (possibly academic peer review journals being best on down to facebook/twitter being at the bottom) there is a lot of room for more reputable sources relying on less reputable ones and this information spreading.

So I worry that with the increasing reliance on online sources, that fake news and information will spread more and that academics will have a dangerous role to play in this. And this worries me because if academics are not providing reliable information, then who will? Academics should be shielded from the whims of a news cycle and deadlines to publish quickly and catchy over claiming titles that catch the eye of a reader and exacerbate the fake news problem. But are we?

More on this in my next post…

Are Academics “Validators” of Fake News?

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 17, 2017 at 06:24 PM | Permalink



let's not forget this one that grossly misrepresents the debate timeline as well as who came up with what and when.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 17, 2017 7:03:43 PM

This may be semantic more than substantive, but I wonder if your definition of "fake news" is too broad. As I understood it, the term originated to refer to knowingly made-up stories (e.g., Clinton running a sex-slave operation out of the basement of a pizzeria or Planned Parenthood selling baby parts). Something can be true but unverified. And "misleading" stories and statements happen all the time and always have, including from academics and in response to academic work.

I don't think this undermines your basic point about the ease with which bad academic work now gets out there. I guess I would just disaggregate it from "fake news," which is its own thing raising its own issues.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 18, 2017 10:30:52 AM

Along the lines of Howard's comment, but going further -- I'm not sure fake news is a helpful term anymore, notwithstanding this post's effort to define it. The president has effectively turned the phrase into a epithet to throw at anything one wants to discredit, including an analysis of events 200 years in the past, as Mammoth's comment above illustrates. In other words, fake news need be neither fake nor news, nor even anything purporting to be news.

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | Aug 18, 2017 11:59:44 AM

A fabrication of events 200 years in the past. Written by an academic as expert background to help sway current public discourse on the electoral college, during the time that the electoral college very much was news. We are, then, forced to come to one of two conclusions. Either the author was not actually familiar with the source material, or he deliberately misrepresented the debate record in order to mislead readers and further a political end. This seems to me the very definition of fake news offered either by Baughman or Wasserman.

And please don't ever lump me in with Trump again.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 18, 2017 3:25:22 PM

I think YIKAM's discussion of Amar's op-ed illustrates exactly the problem with the "fake news" dialogue: it licenses people to accuse one another of fabrication without any evidence at all.

I'm not a constitutional historian; while like any con law person I've paid due attention to the founding debates, I can't claim to anything approaching the depth of study that Amar has given them. And perhaps also not the same depth of study as YIKAM? I don't know. Because we're in a culture where apparently now it's acceptable to accuse people of outright fabrication without any citation to a jot of evidence contradicting the allegedly fabricated claims.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 24, 2017 5:37:56 PM

Mammoth: If you can't point to any actual fabrication in Akhil's account--and I very much doubt you can--then you are doing exactly what Alice describes--and deserve all the lumping you get. If I'm wrong and you have some source material I'm not aware of, please enlighten me and I'll reconsider...

Posted by: anon | Aug 24, 2017 5:38:02 PM

Easy enough. The response that Madison supposedly gives Wilson...occurred 16 days later, and Madison wasn't even talking about Wilson's proposal. It's a complete misrepresentation of the debate timeline--it is a fabrication because the conversation that Amar presents never actually happened. He simply took something Madison said in one of the debates and shoehorned it into being a reply to Wilson.

There's an even larger bombshell in there, too. Feel free to look for it if you want to.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 28, 2017 12:05:18 PM

Madison's speech on July 19, 1787 immediately follows a comment by James Wilson on this same day, in which Wilson repeats a point that he had first floated earlier in the convention. Here is what Wilson says on July 19: [I perceive] with pleasure that the idea [is] gaining ground, of an election [of the president] mediately or immediately by the people." In other words, Wilson is saying that he is happy that his earlier proposal for direct presidential election seems to be gaining ground. Madison's quoted comment that direct election would be troubling for (white slaveholding) southerners because slaves would not count in a direct-election system was in direct and immediate response to this renewed call by Wilson for direct presidential election. See 2 Max Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention at pages 56 and 57:



Posted by: akhil amar | Aug 29, 2017 1:23:17 AM

Here is some additional material from Amar, America's Constitution: A Biography 156-57(2005):

Early on at Philadelphia, Wilson made the case for direct national election of America’s first man. Admitting that some might think it “chimerical,” in theory “he was for an election by the people. Experience, particularly in N. York & Massts, shewed that an election of the first magistrate by the people at large, was both a convenient & successful mode.” In a pair of later speeches, Gouverneur Morris embellished the idea. Invoking the state governorships in New York and Connecticut, Morris declared that the federal executive “ought to be elected by the people at large, by the freeholders of the Country,” who would be the best judge of the executive’s policies, as they “will know, will see, [and] will feel the effects of them.” Looking ahead to the ratification process, Morris added that popular election combined with short terms of office would render the Philadelphia plan “extremely palatable to the people.” Rufus King of Massachusetts chimed in that he was “much disposed to think” that in picking America’s chief executive “the people at large would chuse wisely,” whereupon Wilson “perceived with pleasure that the idea was gaining ground, of an election mediately or immediately by the people.”

Farrand’s Records, 1:68-69 (Wilson), 2:29, 52-54 (Morris), 2:55-56 (King and Wilson).

Enter James Madison, who chose this precise moment to spell out in unmistakably clear terms a vital difference between a direct (“immediate”) election and a system mediated by specially chosen electors: Southern slaves would not count in any direct election system but could be factored into an electoral-college system. Although “[t]he people at large was in his opinion the fittest” body to choose the federal executive, “[t]here was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”
Ibid., 56-57 (Madison).

A week later, Madison returned to the point, noting the “disproportion of qualified voters in the N. & S. States, and the disadvantages which [direct national election] would throw on the latter.” As a self-described “individual from the S. States,” Madison nevertheless pronounced himself “willing to make the sacrifice” in favor of direct election—in part because he anticipated that the South’s free population would grow at a faster rate than the North’s and that its franchise would broaden over time, and in part because “local considerations must give way to the general interest.”

Ibid., 111

No other Southerner answered Madison’s call for regional sacrifice. After his mathematical exposition, making explicit what previous speakers had at most hinted at, direct election was doomed. Even before Madison’s intervention, leading Southerners such as Charles Pinckney, Hugh Williamson, and George Mason had spoken against a direct national vote. They were not the only ones—Northerner Roger Sherman, for example, was also an early critic. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the two most vocal proponents of direct election, Wilson and Morris, came from the free state of Pennsylvania, which boasted a large, fast-growing population and imposed virtually no property qualifications on its voters. In any system of direct election, such a state would loom large—a point cryptically alluded to by North Carolina’s Williamson after multiple speeches by the Pennsylvanians: “The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succede. This will not be Virg[inia] however. Her slaves will have no suffrage.”

Ibid., 32. In the vote following Williamson’s remarks, only Pennsylvania supported direct popular election of the continental executive; see ibid.

Posted by: akhil amar | Aug 29, 2017 1:37:03 AM

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