The Fake News Conundrum, by David Posnett

Scientists are after the truth. In my field (immunology), as in every other field of science, the goal is to make “discoveries.” These are about the truths relevant to the world and the universe we live in. Discoveries may also pertain to our bodies and minds: how they function or malfunction in disease.

It is worthwhile examining how the process of reporting discoveries works. For 12 years I was an editor of a prestigious medical journal with a focus on immunology (The Journal of Experimental Medicine, published by Rockefeller University Press). As is usual for every science publication, manuscripts are submitted, then vetted by the editors, and then often sent out to be reviewed by specialists. The latter are sometimes competitors of the authors. The process is rigorous. As an editor I spent one hour a day reading submitted scientific papers and preparing written and oral arguments about whether they should be published at all, and whether revisions were required. 

Editors take on this unpaid job because of the prestige among colleagues and perhaps in the hope that such a position may help their academic careers. For authors, the process is often vexing and frustrating. But, at its core, the process is healthy. With each resubmission a scientific manuscript is improved, claims are more carefully presented, and, often, new data are added to support the conclusions.

Editors of newspapers have a different and more difficult job. They often get to choose their cadre of reporters, they can choose or invite op-eds, and they can choose the letters to the editor they wish to publish. For some newspapers, the competition is fierce (only 5 percent of submitted letters are published by The New York Times). Other newspapers, like The East Hampton Star, publish all submitted letters as a matter of policy. But even then, there is some editorial oversight, for slander, for libel, for copyright infringement, etc. Editors are most often not specialists when evaluating submitted work. Given the time constraints, they don’t send submitted writings out for review, but rather use their in-house staff, if facts need to be checked.

One has to wonder, however, whether all of this is increasingly irrelevant. The trend worldwide is for readers to get their news from the internet and mostly from unvetted and unedited sites. That includes social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and sites that peddle fake news stories. 

The latter are particularly dangerous. There are now many examples of young entrepreneurs who dreamed up fake stories and made money. Some examples were provided in an article written by Andrew Higgins, Mike McIntire, and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income,’ ” which appeared in The New York Times on Nov. 25. The money that these entrepreneurs are after likely comes from advertisers. The greater the number of clicks on your story, the greater the money.

There have been calls for Facebook and Twitter to edit their sites more carefully. With Twitter hosting nightly tweets from POTUS promoting dubious stories from Breitbart, the issue is whether this could even represent a national security risk.

On March 5, Beau Willimon, the creator of the TV series “House of Cards,” tweeted the following: “Today’s tantrum is just the latest example of why @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS must be removed from @Twitter.”

Is it reasonable to ask that the owners of companies like Twitter and Facebook become editors or employ an army of editors? Perhaps this is a short-term bandage, but it sounds like an overwhelming task.

The better solution is a long-term one. We need to educate our children, at home and in our schools, how to vet information, how to use fact-check sites such as snopes.com, how to look for confirmatory reports, and how to have a high degree of skepticism. Critical thinking should be part of every curriculum. If you are on a school board make a suggestion. Happily, many educators are aware of this need, and some schools (like the Springs School) have offered courses on internet literacy, vetting sources, and the like.

Young minds should be warned about looking for “news” that confirms your own bias. They should be encouraged to have an open mind and engage in open-minded discussions with classmates. That’s what scientists do with their colleagues. 


David Posnett, M.D., is emeritus professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan. He lives in Springs.