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Ali Velshi: In An Age Of "Alternative Facts," How Do We Know What's True?

Oct 13, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 8:40 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Manipulation.

About Ali Velshi's TED Talk

Journalist Ali Velshi began his career to "speak truth to power." Now he worries that fake news has subverted the meaning of truth.

About Ali Velshi

Ali Velshi is an anchor with MSNBC and economics correspondent for NBC. He has also worked with CNN and Al Jazeera America. He has been nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about manipulation, about truth and lies and what happens when sometimes it's hard for people to see the difference.

ALI VELSHI: I think manipulation is trying to get somebody to think a certain way or act a certain way. And I think that certainly in my line of work, it's a step beyond what most journalists think their role is.

RAZ: This is Ali Velshi.

VELSHI: I am an anchor and co-host of a couple of shows at MSNBC and NBC News.

RAZ: I mean, so, I mean, when it comes to your self-image as a reporter, as a journalist, like, I mean, I'm assuming you think of yourself as a - somebody who's trying to seek the truth.

VELSHI: Right, an arbiter, a truth-seeker, to some degree an advocate for my viewers or readers or listeners. So it was almost the opposite, in my mind, of manipulation. It was the idea that if I can give you the fullest picture, the most information and answer the toughest questions or ask them on your behalf, you will make better decisions using your own faculties. And so, to me, it didn't occur to me that manipulation, when I started this industry, was a role that journalists could play.

RAZ: But for the most part, that's all changed in the past few years with the rise of made-up news stories on the Internet...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: A fake story alleging Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were involved in a child sex ring.

RAZ: ...And the spread of misinformation...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Alternative facts to that. But the point remains...

CHUCK TODD: Wait a minute. Alternative facts?

RAZ: ...And the election of a president who's declared war on the mainstream media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.

RAZ: So now that we're living in an era of fake news, how do we even begin to understand who's manipulating whom? Here's Ali Velshi on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VELSHI: Part of the problem is that when the president of the United States is encouraging his supporters to believe that the media is not just out of touch or somewhat ineffective but it's actually lying, it causes a problem. And that's just one in a range of problems that are caused by this fake news phenomenon. At its lowest level, it's a time suck. It confuses you. It causes you to spend your time trying to discern between fake news and real news. And I think over time, it can blunt your ability to actually do so.

I'll give you an example. A BuzzFeed study said that in 2016, of the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook, they had 8.7 million shares, comments, reactions. Of the top 20 real news stories by major news organizations, they had 1.7 million fewer. So fake news is crowding out real news. It means that journalists like me, instead of following other stories and giving you new journalism and telling you stories about new things, we're busy debunking myths. And that's part of the problem that we've got.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When did you start to notice that just objectively false news stories, lies sort of masking as real news stories, were happening and were starting to influence people?

VELSHI: So I had known, as a journalist, that there were websites that were peddling misinformation or false information. And I'd certainly known it from other countries. So, for instance, I covered - not in person, but from here - I covered the war in Rwanda. And that was almost entirely fueled by what we now know to be fake news.

It was radio stations that would perpetuate myths against a particular ethnic group and would do that. And when I studied it more, I found out that that happened in Nazi Germany a lot. And it's actually pretty pervasive. But we assumed that with the degree of digital penetration we have in the United States, people had the wherewithal to say, oh, that's a lie or this is a kooky conspiracy.

RAZ: 'Cause I can just look it up. I could just look it up.

VELSHI: I could look it up, right. And one thing that I have learned is that a lot of people don't triangulate. When I say triangulate, they don't have three independent reference points in which to say, oh, that's interesting. I listen to NPR. I read the Wall Street Journal. And I listen to this radio show. And only the radio show is saying that Hillary Clinton is running a sex slave ring out of a basement of a pizza parlor in suburban D.C. Strange that the other ones wouldn't cover that because you'd think that was a good story. And if you don't know that there are other sources who are reporting on something differently or not reporting on it at all, you don't necessarily know that your news source might not be telling you the truth. And not only that, speaking of manipulation, you are now so beholden to that news source, you're so into it that you will be convinced that the others are lying to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VELSHI: On December 4, I tweeted this out. And notice at the bottom it was retweeted 11,000 times. I tweeted - breaking news, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halts the Dakota Access Pipeline work, telling the Standing Rock Reservation that the current route for the pipeline will be denied. This was a very controversial issue. I had this news earlier than most people did, which is why it spread so many times because people wanted to distribute this information. But one of the first responses I got to this tweet was, what's your source? Now, come on. I'm not a journalism student. I'm a veteran journalist in my 24th year of this business.

If I spread breaking news that is false or wrong, I am going to at the very least get disciplined and I could actually get fired. But increasingly, I am getting pushback on social media from people who accuse me of purveying fake news. There will - if you put in my name on, you know, my handle and fake news - #fakenews - you'll see things show up. And when you de-legitimize journalism and when you de-legitimize facts and when you do that, you create a vacuum in one of the most important checks in civil, economic and political discourse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VELSHI: It's very, very dangerous. It worries me a great deal because, you know, in years gone by, I actually worried about being accurate. Now I worry about being accurate as much as I always did, possibly more so. But I also worry about the accusation that comes on Twitter with the hashtag #fakenews. Anybody who doesn't agree with my perspective now labels me a liar. And how do I deal with that?

RAZ: Ali, I hear you. I hear your commitment and your passion and all of these things you're saying, but it seems like you're on the losing side. It seems like manipulative news is winning.

VELSHI: Yeah. And as a numbers guy, I would say that that's quite possible. But they are winning because the parties in play have not acknowledged that they're winning. They have not sort of said it. Facebook is starting to face that reality. Google is looking at it. We're looking at the money that is made. It just pays better to have fake news. Fake news takes none of the resources that it takes for me to do a story, doesn't need the producers. If you're making stuff up, you don't actually need fact checkers and researchers and people like that.

It is much cheaper to make fake news. And it's much more lucrative because you don't have to actually make people want to read the headline because you've invented the headline. So once we all decide that this is really dangerous, Facebook will build the right algorithms and they'll re-do their revenue streams so that they're not rewarding that kind of dishonest behavior. We'll all start to figure it out. And I think we'll be able to shore up our end and push forward and change things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VELSHI: Remember what journalism is meant to do. It has two purposes. The first one is to bear witness, to simply be there to say that something is happening. But the second one is more important, it's to hold power to account. And together, let's not go down a road where we end up in a world where not only are we not speaking truth to power but we're not even able to discern the truth. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Ali Velshi. He's an anchor and co-host at MSNBC. You can see Ali's full talk at ted.npr.org. On the show today, ideas about how our actions, our thoughts, even our memories can be manipulated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.