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'Fake news' is all too real at creating problems

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BIG PROBLEMS: The wave of misinformation created by an epidemic of "fake news" can create real problems for agriculture, an industry that requires sound science and decisions based on facts.
View from the Hill: Agriculture is not immune to a wave of misinformation being deliberately disseminated.

True or false: Fake news stories have little impact on agriculture.

The answer is “false.” Here is why:

This is not your daddy’s agriculture anymore. Prior to today’s digital media and split-second access to information in markets and news outlets, ground-breaking information required the combined efforts of numerous members of staff and reporters, dictating information on typewriters, teletype machines and transferring to distant outlets via Western Union cable, not to mention, printed on newspaper.

Not so today.

On a “60 Minutes” program, aired on March 26, correspondent Scott Pelley reported on the phenomenal rise of fake news stories in the months preceding the presidential election in 2016.

Pelley stated, “… the nation was assaulted by imposters masquerading as reporters. They poisoned the conversation with lies on the left and on the right. Many did it to influence the outcome, others, just to make a buck … but we’re going to show you how con artists insert truly fake news into the national conversation with fraudulent software that scams your social media account. The stories are fake, but the consequences are real.”

The operative terms that we should focus on are “fraudulent software,” “fake stories” and “real consequences.”

Last December, homegrown terrorist, Edgar Welch, armed with an assault rifle, prepared to open fire on a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, believing the news he read on social media of children being held at that business for a sex-trafficking operation. The story was bogus, but it had very real consequences.

Bots are programmed to create social media accounts, to generate multiples of followers and to spread misinformation. According to Wikipedia, there are five immediate uses for social bots:

• Foster fame. Having an arbitrary number of (unrevealed) bots as (fake) followers can help simulate real success.

• Spamming. Having advertising bots in online chats is similar to email spam, but a lot more direct.

• Mischief. Examples include signing up an opponent with a lot of fake identities and spamming the account or helping others discover it to discredit the opponent.

• Bias public opinion. Influence trends by countless messages of similar content with different phrasings.

• Limit free speech. Important messages can be pushed out of sight by a deluge of automated bot messages.

And lastly, my own thoughts here, social bots can be used to sway political elections and overwhelm the public with misinformation, and to discredit normal media sources.

The effects of all points can be likened to and support methods of traditional psychological warfare.

The speed of implementation is mindboggling. It is almost instantaneous. Michael Cernovich, a California lawyer who is well-known as an originator of false information, boasted in his interview with Pelley that on a slow month he reached 83 million users, and 150 million on a good month. By the way, Cernovich still allegedly believes his stories are true, even when multiple, credible news sources declare they are fake.

Concerning agriculture; we have much to be concerned about regarding this “criminal” usage of digital technology:

• First and foremost, in order for farmers to foster a spirit of cooperation and work for the common good, we require access to credible, verifiable, corroborated evidence. Fake news is designed to hide, mislead and redirect attention.

• On the political arena, farmers require credible, verifiable, peer-reviewed research when we go to our legislators with proposals that benefit agriculture, data which has been proven to produce positive, sustainable results.

• Fake news has been around a long time, especially when crops, livestock, food production and food safety are concerned. We should be focused on this, because increased misusage of digital technology can complicate matters as we work with consumers and communicate our story with them.

• As we move further into the 21st century, agriculture will require increasingly smarter technology that can not only protect our data and networks, but also protect us from criminal uses of bots as they try to destroy critical, credible information — not to mention, accurate news — which is crucial in any free society if it is to survive and prosper.

• This may also require new legislation that sets thresholds of unacceptability regarding use of such technology. And this is where we are seriously lacking.

Penner is a Marion County farmer and a past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. His email is [email protected].

TAGS: Agenda
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