Fighting the fake-news phenomenon

Economists Matthew Gentzkow and Hunt Allcott define fake news as stories “that have no factual basis but are presented as facts.”

During the 2016 Presidential Election, Facebook and Twitter were plagued with a plethora of these fake stories, mostly containing pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton rhetoric.

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News.” “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”

These sensationalized headlines, likely created by teenagers in Velles, Macedonia, were meant to act as clickbait, drawing readers to the fake-news websites.

By selling ads, these teens were able to bring in thousands of euros a day while living in a city where the average salary is 350 euros per month. By deceiving the American public, they successfully brought a “Digital Gold Rush” to the small city.

Some even argue that they had a large hand in swaying the presidential election in Trump’s favor, like Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Culture Dr. Wendy Weinhold.

“I don’t know how a huge amount of fake news distributed with the intent to inform people with falsehood couldn’t have an influence,” said Weinhold. “If all it did was give people, whose minds were already made up, information that they could use to influence other people…and put just a seed of doubt in other people’s minds, then I don’t know how it couldn’t of had an influence.”

A Buzzfeed analysis concluded that in the 3 months leading up to the election, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

The analysis found that the top 20 fake stories generated 8,711,000 engagements while the 20 top true election stories generated 7,367,000 engagements. From the numbers, one could easily conclude that fake news was, at least, a serious problem throughout the election.

President Obama thought fake news to be a serious enough issue to mention in his farewell speech, calling fake news a threat to democracy.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” said Obama.

Customizable news has been a prevalent issue since Google News began allowing the ability for users to select preferences and is even more serious now with social media.

On Facebook and Twitter, users are able to, literally, pick and choose what they want to see. By giving the user the ability to add specific friends or to follow certain people or organizations, these social media sites are making it increasingly easier for the public to personalize their news.

“We had our local newspaper that arrived at our doorstep and we would have a conversation about it,” said Weinhold. “The really important thing was, these people…didn’t always agree with you…But today, particularly via fake news, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with a bunch of people who agree with us and aren’t necessarily the best informed…There are huge consequences and huge costs to that kind of shifting of information and newly formed coffee shop online.”

Although fake news is extremely concerning, especially to those in the world of journalism, a recent study conducted by Gentzkow of Stanford University and Allcott of New York University found that, although the fake news stories favoring Trump far outnumbered those favoring Clinton, they did not have a “significant impact on the presidential election.”

The paper entitled, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” combined a 1200 person post-election survey, new web browsing data and a database the researchers created, that contained election stories that were declared fake by prominent fact-checking websites during the three months prior to the election.

Overall, the research found that television was the primary source for receiving political news and that the political impact of social media is overstated. According to the study, only 14 percent of Americans reported utilizing social media as a primary tool for gathering campaign news.

“In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans,” the research states. “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”

Regardless of if the circulation of fake news influenced the 2016 Presidential Election or not, the issue is a serious one and should be viewed as such.

Fortunately, Facebook and Google removed the ability for ad-revenue in November of 2016, leaving many of those who once created the fake news without an incentive. Facebook has also planned for new policies and algorithms that will help to filter out the obviously misleading stories.

Hopefully, we, the American people, were able to learn from this election cycle and will know to be more skeptical next time around.

In the mean time, Dr. Weinhold explained that it is in the citizen’s hands to aid in debunking falsities.

If you’re going to be a good citizen, if you are going to be well informed, you have to do some work too,” said Weinhold. “It’s not just the journalist that has to do the work of informing, investigating, but you as the audience member, you as the citizen of the democratic nation that you are lucky to call home, also has a responsibility to be sure that you know who is informing you. The internet makes information extremely readily available but it also puts a lot of responsibility on each of us to do our homework as well.”

“Welcome to the Birdhouse”

Now a $7 billion industry, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) began in the United States in the 80s as an underground movement in Chicago, Illinois and Detroit, Michigan.

According to Michaelangelo Matos with NPR, by producing early minimalist techno and house sounds, producers opened new doors for minority groups, specifically African-Americans and homosexuals, to combat authority and stand up against the mainstream.

Ironically, a lot of today’s dance music is arguably mainstream. It is rare to hear a track on the radio without an electronic accompaniment curated by a popular dance music producer.

With the booming popularity of the industry, many music event companies, like Insomniac and SFX, have capitalized on the opportunity by offering a countless number of festivals, events and shows with a list that is continuously growing.

In 2003, one group of friends saw something that was missing from the increasingly corporatized festival culture.

It was from there that the original Dirtybird Records crew, including Barclay Crenshaw, a.k.a Claude Vonstroke, Chris Worthy, a.k.a Worthy, Justin Martin, Christian Martin and Jessica Philippe, a.k.a J.Phlip, hatched the idea to hold free parties at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California using a picnic permit.

After finding early success, Vonstroke and the other “Dirtybird players” started their own record label, Dirtybird Records, which has since gained international popularity.

The label has made appearances at many high profile festivals and according to Nicolas Stecher with billboard.com, they have even been invited to create “signature stages at mega-festivals like HARD, Electric Zoo and TomorrowWorld.”

Due to Dirtybird’s growing popularity, in 2014 the Golden Gate parties outgrew the venue pushing the crew to take the shows on the road, thus beginning the “Dirtybird BBQs.”

According to Stecher, this summer the BBQs brought in over 3,000 people to each city they visited—San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn and Detroit.

In 2015, Vonstroke and the team decided that they wanted to do something bigger.

“A lot of time when I go to play a festival or am booked to play somewhere it’s impersonal: just come in, play some records, shake some hands and leave,” Vonstroke told Stecher in an exclusive interview. “I thought, ‘Now what if we did the exact opposite of everyone else? And we were out in the festival with the fans, doing stuff?’ So basically just create a big hangout.”

From this, Dirtybird Campout was born.

Tucked away in Oak Canyon Park located in Silverado, California, October 7-9, 2016 marked the second year for this unique festival that immerses attendees into a three-day camping festival that feels a lot like “Wet Hot American Summer” meets Burning Man.

Festival-goers are placed on teams to compete in various camp games, such as kickball, ultimate frisbee, dodgeball, bean-bag toss, tug-of-war and many others.

Aside from the over-the-top camp theme, there is something else that sets Dirtybird Campout apart from other festivals.

Dirtybird artists participate in all of the activities with the attendees. They are completely and fully immersed in the experience with their fans.

The sense of camaraderie is truly unique.

Alisa Manzelli, a 27-year-old financial analyst from Los Angeles, California explained that Dirtybird Campout is a different experience.

“It is 100 percent different,” said Manzelli. “Every aspect is just significantly better than any other festival I’ve attended: the music, the sound quality, the venue, the activities, the people. There’s simply no other festival that’s like a summer camp for grown-ups and the Dirtybird community is truly one of a kind. The artists and the fans are all one in the same, and they are some of the nicest, most genuine people you will ever meet.”

The unique atmosphere of the festival opens doors for memories to be made between the artists and their fans that would not be possible at a more mainstream festival.

Shannon Farrell, a 25-year-old musician from Los Angeles, California who attended the festival, recalled one of his favorite memories from this year’s campout.

“I got to play tug of war with Claude Vonstroke the day after I watched him slay a set on the mainstage,” said Farrell.

Vonstroke told Stecher that the fans are at the center of what makes Dirtybird special.

“Everything we do is based on the fans,” said Vonstroke. “…Maybe we don’t have as many fans as Skrillex or Steve Aoki, but all our fans dedicated, for real. They’re here trying to live it.”

ISIS in Mosul: Before, during and after

Backed by the United States, Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a campaign over two weeks ago to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) after being under their rule for two years.

ISIS’s rule over Mosul was brought on by tensions in Syria and Iraq, giving the extremist group an opportune time to invade and occupy the city and other large surrounding cities.

Assistant Professor of Politics in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis explained that this divide gave al Qaeda a chance to regroup and form into what is now the Islamic State.

“ISIS before then was basically al Qaeda,” said Fitsanakis. “They had basically changed their name once they realized that al Qaeda was a failing brand after Bin Laden was killed, so they took their best people and basically went into hiding in Syria. In Syria there was a civil war that allowed them to recoup and recruit.”

He added that the U.S. invasion only worsened they already rising differences between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq at the time.

“Going back to Iraq there were a lot of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites,” said Fitsanakis. “That kind of festered even before the U.S. went in in 2003 but the invasion made it much worse in terms of sectarian divides in the country. The Sunnis, which are the majority of the population in Mosul, felt beseeched by the Shi’ites.”

The campaign to recapture Mosul, however, will not be easy. Because other large Iraqi cities have been recaptured—Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja—Mosul is in some ways, ISIS’s last stand.

In Ramadi, rebuilding costs are estimated in the billions.

At the time of the recapture, it was estimated by the Iraqi prime minister that 90 percent of Ramadi had explosives and still make some areas uninhabitable 10 years later. These explosive remnants of war, or ERW, had been placed by ISIS in schools, homes and hospitals.

In an interview with the New York Times, the State Department’s Deputy Director for Programs Jerry Giulbert, said that removing these explosives could be timely and costly.

“To clear Ramadi of every piece of ERW, you’re talking about a years-long effort, hundreds of millions of dollars, well beyond what we have,” said Giulbert.

Mosul is one of the largest cities in Iraq, having nearly 2 million inhabitants at the time of it being captured. Because of this, and many other reasons, it is seen as a prize to ISIS.

Not only large, but ancient as well, the city is the cultural center for Iraq. It is home to valuable, historical antiquities that are currently being threatened by the Islamic State. 

ISIS’s chemical weapons operation is also based in the city, which is just another reason that control of Mosul is a priority for them. 

With all of these factors combined, it is no surprise that many experts expect it to be some of the bloodiest fighting the Middle East has seen.

Fitsanakis said that ISIS would utilize various types of strategies when fighting.

“It is going to be bloody because it is urban,” said Fitsanakis. “They’re going to have snipers. They’re going to have suicide bombers. They’re going to have booby traps everywhere. They’re going to have civilians fighting in civilian uniform. A lot of civilians are going to die. They are not professional forces. Many of them are in militias. There are kids with guns who are trigger happy or are very frightened so they’ll shoot and ask questions later.”

If ISIS loses Mosul, it is said that the group will take on the strategy of “inhiyaz”—temporary retreat—into the desert, which is basically the same strategy used in 2007 when the group was driven out of Iraq by U.S. troops. The word first appeared in a speech in May by Islamic State spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who was later killed in an airstrike in August.

The fear is that, like before, the Islamic State will revert back to underground guerrilla warfare and have time to regroup to come back stronger than before.

Fitsanakis said that if ISIS loses Mosul, a question will be raised about how ISIS will respond.

“If they lose their territory, which is what makes them conventional, they’re going to revert back to what they used to do in the old days, which is to become an underground force,” said Fitsanakis. “If they become an underground force, they have no territory to defend, then what is the strategy going to be? That’s the big question.”

Although an attack on U.S. soil has been predicted to be possible if Mosul is recaptured, many Americans are unaware about what is going on due to lack of media coverage and/or general understanding.

Fitsanakis said that what intrigues him is way the media is choosing cover the topic.

“To me, what is interesting is not so much the lack of coverage on Iraq; It’s more the lack of coverage on certain parts of Iraq and Syria,” said Fitsanakis. “There is a lot of attention in Aleppo and a lot of criticism of Russia. People are like, ‘These people are crazy. They are going to attack a big city full of people.’ And now the same exact thing is happening on our side with the people that we support.”

He added that the war is complex, making it difficult for the media to approach the topic and present it to the public.

“A lot of Americans, I think, don’t understand what is going on over there because we are now finding ourselves supporting people that we were enemies of up until a few months ago,” said Fitsanakis. “America and Turkey aren’t doing very well because Turkey is suspicious of America. We have the Kurds, who they United States considers to be a terrorist organization. Don’t forget that the Kurds are considered terrorists in Turkey. We’ve got the Iranians who we don’t really have any relations with officially. It’s not a very clean war, like the forces of good verses the forces of evil. Everything is kind of crazy so Americans are confused about what the hell is going on so because of that I think the coverage is sort of minimal.”

Although the media has presented little coverage on Mosul and ISIS, both are prevalent issues that could present serious threats in the near future.

Fitsanakis emphasized that the world is unstable.

“I think that we are now less safe than we were before 9/11 or on the day of 9/11,” said Fitsanakis. “I think the possibility of another 9/11 on America or another developed country is almost at 100 percent. The world has become less stable, less safe and less predictable because of our response to 9/11. The way we responded was careless and in many ways, ineffective.”