Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo! News, talked to journalism students March 9 about misinformation and disinformation in news.
Isikoff shared stories of situations where misinformation and the marginalization of evidence can lead to the spread of fake news.
One example was his interview in February of 2017 with Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. Isikoff watched others who had interviewed Assad, and each time they posed a question, Assad always questioned if the interviewer had any evidence. Isikoff presented photo evidence to Assad of the tortured detainees in Syria, known as the Caesar photos, and Assad denied them and called the story “fake news.”
Isikoff gave other examples of how misinformation can be spread based on the plot line of the podcast he conducted, Conspiracyland. He shared his investigation of the death of Sean Rich. At the time, different news stations reported their own personal findings explaining why Rich had died. The story later came out sharing these stories were false, and caused embarrassment for the stations that produced the content and were forced to take the stories down.
By using both of these stories, Isikoff was able to show students how someone’s own agenda and perspective can determine the outcome of the story, causing it to be fake news.
“When you look at how it was planted, how it was circulated, how it gained traction, you see how easy it is in this era of social media, in this era where the news has become so stratified, we live in our own silos,” Isikoff explained. “We all watch and read the stuff that confirms our prejudices and tune out everything else, so that we lose any tethering to what the other side has to say or in many cases what the clear facts are.”
Isikoff spoke to the idea that while social media has improved at taking down fake news and misinformation, it is still present and needs to be recognized. He said while there is no easy solution, everyone has to figure out ways to penetrate this.
Regarding the idea of eliminating the spread of misinformation, Isikoff left journalism students with a piece of advice: “We can’t censure opposing beliefs, but we can call out as best we can disinformation and fake news, and I think it’s all of our jobs to try to do that.”