A 12-step program for News Junkies intoxicated by Fake News

Photo: Twipo.com

I’d like to dedicate this article to Wikileaks founder and soldier of truth, Julian Assange, who will be marking the one-year anniversary of his incarceration at Belmarsh prison on April 11th. I strongly urge you to partake in the Worldwide Virtual March for him by signing up via the link provided at the end of the article.

My name is Jill Gaumet, I’m an American expat in France, English teacher, and recovering News Junkie. I have the nagging need to search for truth, which gets me in trouble. I’ve tried to break free from the news, but after a day or two, I find myself needing a fix on my Facebook news feed. Lately, The Fake News and its toxic comment feed are making my fix impure: I think I’ve hit rock-bottom. This week I almost OD’d on Covid-19, American Dystopia and 2020 Democratic Primary posts. I need to get back to my 12-step program and sort out things.

If you’re a newbie to all this, you’ll probably say that Fake News is something click-baity, like the countless Florida Man stories out there. Other than giving clicks to a click-bait farm, there is no real harm- the content itself is junky, but I confess that it can be entertaining. But you need to know that Fake News is sneakier than that: it finds its way into reputable news reports, mixing in seamlessly with known facts and subtly planting its dirty seeds of propaganda. It’s not necessarily “Fake”, but it’s not necessarily “News” either. This, dear News Junkie, can be toxic if you let it burrow into your mind. Yes, it’s easy to step away from a click-bait article that questions Michelle Obama’s gender, but NPR? Mother Jones? CNN? Surely, we can trust them!

You could take the easy way out and bypass this tedious process, but seriously, do you want to have Mark Zuckerberg, Snopes, Politifact or Google deciding what you have access to? Personally, I’d rather be left to that task. Admittedly, it’s not easy wading in all the muck, but I’ll take muck over Zuck any day. So how can we navigate this vast minefield? Let me share what I learned at the School of Hard Knock’s 12-Step Program so we can get through this together.

1. Don’t shoot the messenger. My fellow News Junkie, I hate to tell you, but the so-called “reputable” media, like The Guardian or the BBC, are just as capable of putting out fake news as a blogger or a talk show host broadcasting from a garage on the Internet. Ironically, more and more of these Mom-and-Pop set-ups produce content chock-full of raw footage and hyperlinks that make them more verifiable than their established counterparts. And yes, this extends to the most disparaged outlets like RT, who is among the few news purveyors who actually send journalists out to get raw footage. Even Alex Jones and Fox News get it right some of the time when they put out what I call “truth nuggets”. Your biggest challenge is presenting this information to those whose minds are set in cement. If you are organized, my advice to you is to create an archive in the hard drive of your computer, because at one point you’ll be asked to prove your point, and that’s when you’ll find out you can’t retrieve your supporting evidence anymore because search engines like Google have either buried it or deleted it all together. And that’s a bummer.

2. Gaslighting: This expression, which came from the 1938 film “Angel Street”, may not be well-known to some of you. It is a form of psychological manipulation in which real-life elements are skewed to make the victim doubt him or herself. I had a real-life run-in with gaslighting in the 2016 California Democratic primary. I woke up to FranceInfo on the morning of the June the 7th with them reporting that Hillary Clinton had won…. except that with the time difference, it was the NIGHT BEFORE the primary. My expat friends started hearing with stupefaction the same news on the BBC an hour later. You will never know if you are being lied to by the media if you don’t seek out the truth either by living through an event as I did, or by getting it in as pure of a form as possible through live raw footage. I suggest once again to document things as much as possible and storing them on your hard drive, as I did here when I was getting the runaround re-registering as a Democrat for the California primary.

3. Be prepared for a jolt. You have probably heard by now the term, Cognitive Dissonance, which is defined by Britannica as “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information”. It’s like when you first found out that Santa doesn’t exist- it’s absolutely soul-crushing. That surreal morning of June 7th 2016- when I realized that we no longer lived in a functioning democracy- had real repercussions on my health. Diagnosed with breast cancer on April 11, 2018, I decided to supplement my standard care with natural treatments, which included a visit to a French magnétiseur (energy healer). After a scant 5 minutes with him just “feeling the energy” several inches away from me, he declared that the tumor was traced to “a shock from June 2016”. Many former cancer patients that I’ve talked to since then have had similar stories. Dear friend, just know that the truth can hurt real bad, but you can counter the shock by distancing yourself emotionally and practicing stress-release techniques.

4. Don’t fall for the Fear Factor: Lots of little shocks, or sustained emotional stress, can also have an effect on your health. Bad news is fed to us in a continuous loop on CNN and other 24-hour news channels. If we are not careful, these little shocks will produce a reaction in the brain, resulting a constant IV drip of adrenaline, which has been proven to be tied to most serious pathologies.

I recall not long ago hearing FranceInfo news radio report on the anniversary of one of France’s many terrorist attacks no fewer than 6 times in one hour. It’s not even news, but the interviews of the victims’ families nonetheless have an effect on our collective psyche. This is meth for our fragile, curious minds! Fellow News Junkie, the media are just reinforcing feelings of fear and helplessness to push forward hasty solutions that are not always in our best interest, like increased anti-terrorist measures that infringe on our civil liberties. We’re better than that, people: just say NO to the negative news flow!

5. Beware of misleading headlines. As we get caught up in a tidal wave of information, it’s easy to glance over the headlines and skip the article. Figures vary, but on average, we News Junkies spend 2 hours a day on social media, but only 15 seconds on any given article, which is a perfect opportunity to be influenced by the big type. Even if we do read the article, the headline can taint how we interpret that information. I actually sat in the public gallery during the first day of Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange’s extradition hearing on February 24th, where I saw counsel for both the prosecution and the defense outline their cases. The mainstream press had seats inside the courtroom, whereas their lesser-known (but often more reliable) peers sat in the rafters with me, the newbie citizen journalist. But if you saw these headlines from The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and Metro the following day, you’d have thought that Julian Assange had already been judged guilty:

From the mass-circulated free paper Metro (Feb 25th)
From The Guardian (Feb 25th)
From the Times (Feb 25th)

In short, the media have won over the real jury, the public, before the trial has even started.

Just one more thing: it’s much easier to click “share” on social media than go out and have a discussion about something we have read in the paper or have seen on TV, so care when you share- you don’t want to help Fake News go viral. Thank God I have friends in the 12-Step Program who smack me when I do that!

6. A picture is worth a thousand words. We can be influenced not only by the images chosen, but also by their format. Our social media feeds are swamped with staged and photoshopped images, and you have to admit, some of them are pretty convincing. If you see a shocking or unbelievable image, make sure you have it in its entire context.

A cropped image can take it completely out of context and can change our perceptions in a dangerous way. A tight frame can also perform magic tricks, transforming small groups of people into large crowds, a technique Hillary Clinton perfected in 2016 and which continues to be used.

It’s all in the crop. (photo: Quorumcenter.com)

If you see a shocking or unbelievable image, make sure you have it in its entire context.

Naturally, the choice of pictures is critical, right News Junkies? Check out the photo of Julian Assange from the Feb 25th 2020 Independent article that I took with my trusty smartphone:

From The Independent archives, circa 2017

Dang! He’s looking pretty good! The only problem is that he looks pretty crummy these days, which happens when you haven’t seen the sun in over 8 years and happen to be languishing in a high-security prison for the past year. He’s not going to garner much sympathy in the above photo. Perhaps these more recent pictures, which show a visibly aged Assange, will pull at some heartstrings:

During Assange’s arrest April 11th 2019 (photo: Ruptly)
Assange at his hearing in Feb 2020 (photo: WikiJustice)

Of course, News Junkie, you’re aware that ANYTHING can be taken out of context. It’s delicious when you catch them in the act. A fellow Citizen Journalist sent me this beauty yesterday, showing a French nurse chewing out President Macron. You see, spin medicine is also practiced in France, and its Spin-Doctor-In-Chief is trying his best- but failing- to emulate American-styled mass-manipulation techniques developed by Edward Bernays. Thank God for French cafés, where people spend hours talking about society and politics and are less duped for it. Imagine what we could do with all those Starbucks, Citizen Journalists!

7. Keep an eye on the numbers: A classic example of misreporting numbers occurs with massive demonstrations: there is always a discrepancy between the actual numbers out in the street and the numbers reported in the news, which is what we’ve been experiencing with the French Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement. Now, we are being inundated with scary statistics on the Covid-19 pandemic, but with the same discrepancy in numbers (and often these are just PROJECTED statistics) Do these numbers serve any purpose in your life? If not, just focus on what you can control, like staying safe during this epidemic- which includes staying away from the constant toxic newsfeed.

8. Cherry-picking information: Once again, I’ll turn to the article in the Independent on Julian Assange. On Day 1 of the hearing, both the prosecution and defense were given the same amount of time to present their arguments, yet proportion of content in this article doesn’t reflect that. News Junkie, when you read every single line of an article, ask yourself, “Does it support or attack?” Taking into account the overall content of this article, including headlines, photos and captions, the Independent dedicated about two-thirds on the prosecution (marked with red minuses) and one-third on the defense (marked with red pluses).

From The Independent (Feb 25th 2020): an example of media bias

Globally, this and other articles were biased against Assange, making it difficult for the casual follower of this case to sympathize with the defendant or understand the stakes that are at hand, namely the threat this has on press freedom, as was stipulated by the defense.

I should add that despite the importance of this hearing, the article was relegated to the middle and latter pages of the 6 major newspapers I consulted the following day. Of course, the media can also choose not to even cover an event. By day three of the hearing, there was barely any mention of it in the printed press. As the old adage goes: No news is good news…for those who don’t want us to know.

9. Notes from an English teacher: As a university-level English teacher and translator, I have an idea about semantics. There are three things that should alert you when you are reading an article: strong words, “weak” forms, and the use of the passive voice.

Strong words: At one point during Day 3 of the hearing, Julian Assange stood up and said that he was unable to hear anything clearly in the sealed-off defendant’s dock. The press (those who decided to still cover the hearing) could have used reporting verbs like “asked”, or “requested”, but instead they chose “complained”, which paints him as a petulant little boy. This has a real effect on even the most educated people. Those who have, at best, perfunctorily followed Julian Assange since his political exile at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, only seem to recall fabricated character smears pertaining to his behavior at the Embassy.

“Weak” forms: What I am referring to here is the use of modals and other verbs like “could”, “may”, “might”, “appear” and “seem” as well as adverbs such as “likely” and “probably”. A journalist should be reporting on what has happened or what is happening, not speculating on could happen. Rachel Maddow pulled a doozy in one of her many Russia fear-mongering pieces.

Use of the passive voice: A journalist can safely suggest something incriminating using the passive voice or a similar neutral form. He can distance himself from Fake News by introducing two real facts in a way that has us drawing our own conclusions. Coverage of the Gilet Jaunes movement provides an excellent example of this. The first sentence would go, “Thousands of Gilet Jaune demonstrators crowded the Champs Elysées,” followed by “There was a fire at Fouquet’s”. We naturally make a causal link from the Gilet Jaunes to the vandalism, where in reality, it was accidentally caused by a tear gas canister launched by riot police. The Gilets Jaunes movement wades through some of news’ muddiest waters, making it an excellent laboratory to test many of the techniques presented here. Fellow News Junkies and budding Citizen Journalists, try to support your reports with live raw footage or unretouched photos from sources you trust, or even better see for yourself, as I tried to do here with a recent Gilets Jaunes protest in Paris that was starting to get scary (just be safe!).

The last Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) march in Paris before the quarantine. March 14th 2020.

10. Follow the money. Around 90% of the major media outlets in the USA (and in my adopted France) are owned by billionaires. Ask yourselves: why would they want to buy up the media? They know that whoever controls the narrative can control the world- it’s the ultimate power tool for the powerful. Not only do they influence you as consumers, they influence government policy. Alas, this is also true for fact-checkers like Snopes, Politifact and more recently, NewsGuard, an organization tied to Big Pharma that recently debunked a report on Vitamin C therapy that had been proven successful in treating Covid-19.

11. Is it touted or trashed? This is a specialty of US political coverage, and has been since been exported to France. This is what sets off the alarms for me. Luckily for you, dear newbie, it’s an easy tool to use in detecting bias and potentially Fake News: if the Mainstream Media treat someone favorably and give lots of coverage, then be wary. We’ve already gotten a good dose of it in this election cycle: one after the other, a new Democratic presidential candidate was being touted as the new progressive darling, only to crash and pull out of the race soon after. Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, Elisabeth Warren…they came and went. But the one who has intrigued me the most is Twitter-savvy Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. She came on the scene as a hard-hitting progressive fighting the establishment, but at the same time she was getting lots of favorable coverage in establishment media. I’m still on the fence if she really walks the talk, but her recent waffling on Bernie Sanders and her affectionately calling Establishment big-wig Nancy Pelosi “Mama Bear” show me she’s not completely trustworthy.

Conversely, if the media trash or completely ignore someone, as what happened during most of Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign, he or she might be worth checking out- and I suggest checking alternative sources (MintPress, Consortium News, Redacted Tonight, Caitlin Johnstone, The Useful Idiots, Graham Elwood, Hill Rising, Jimmy Dore, The GrayZone/Pushback, Niko House/MCSC…) to get another perspective when that happens.

12. Most important: Trust your gut! I can’t say that you’re going to be 100% right, but with time and a little practice, you will see that what I call your “bullsh*t radar”, will be working better and better. I hope that in our post-Covid world, critical thinking skills will be required from pre-school through university and beyond. We shouldn’t be afraid to question; we shouldn’t be called “conspiracy theorists” the minute something seems off or doesn’t “feel right”. Einstein was spot-on when he stressed the importance of trusting our instincts:

But as we go into the murky waters of information overload, as we transition from News Junkies into budding citizen journalists, we should have an open mind and accept that we can be wrong. That’s OK, because that’s how we learn. Likewise, if a friend has posted erroneous information, extend the same courtesy and respect you’d like to receive and offer links or other proof to the contrary. Whatever you do, please don’t tell someone to just “Google it”.

Our media have changed, and we should be embracing the new role we can all be playing as responsible citizen journalists. Knowledge is empowering for our self-confidence…and that will put us on the road to recovery!

April 11th marked the one-year “anniversary” of Julian Assange’s arrest at the Ecuadorean Embassy and his subsequent incarceration at Belmarsh Prison, a facility usually reserved for terrorists. His conditions are so alarming that even fellow inmates have complained on his behalf. This is intentional: Julian Assange is being used as an example of what will be done to whistleblowers and those who dare publish their findings. Wikileaks has a 100% accuracy record , as opposed to the Mainstream Media that are now slandering Assange.

Please join me in keeping abreast of what has amounted to be the most important trial of our history. What happens to Julian, happens to us all.

Concerned world citizen for peace, justice and the environment