‘Fake News’ Threat to Democracy, Panel Says

Two veteran journalists, a librarian and a UCSB professor discussed the negative effects on democracy of “fake news” to a crowd of about 100 at the Santa Barbara Public Library on April 18. 

“Having ‘alternative facts’ is the biggest problem,” said Jerry Robert, now host of cable TV program and a veteran of many years in newspapers. “How do we get back to having common sense to know what the truth is?” 

“Alternative facts” is a term used by the White House to deny the truth and use disinformation. Roberts said the current president “deserves his own category” for the use of terms like fake news. He noted that fact checkers have found the president has lied several thousand times since his election. 

The speakers said fake news is really disinformation, as opposed misinformation. Disinformation is designed to deliberately mislead, while misinformation may just be inaccurate data. 

Marga Cooley, Santa Maria Times editor, told crowd, “People are primed to look at what we want to believe.” 

Journalism needs to be prioritized, she said. “The end goal of disinformation is to turn people against each other,” Cooley said. 

Lisa Neubert, programming librarian at the Santa Barbara Public Library, said her job is to allow the public access to factual information. She listed a number of websites where facts can be checked. 

Also on the panel was Miriam Medzger, director of the Center for Information, Technology and Society at UCSB. 

Roberts also noted that politicians are setting up phony news sites. For example, he said, U.S. Sen Devin Nunes, R-Fresno, a staunch supporter of the president, set up a fake new website to challenge White House ties to Russia. 

A former San Francisco Chronicle editor, Roberts he thought the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have done “remarkable job” in the past year of covering politics. 

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