On Spreading Fake News

02/16/2017 09:26 am ET

Over the weekend, I spread a story about something that might have happened. I heard it from someone I know (but not that well) who heard it from people she knows. It concerned a local business that (it was said) employs undocumented immigrants, which was (it was said) raided by ICE last week. On the advice of a friend's Facebook post urging people to publicize what they heard, I tweeted and Facebooked about the raid. I helped organize a protest. And in the middle of this, people would ask, “how do you know? Has the employer said anything?”

I had to say no. The employer did not complain about lost workers. No newspapers covered the event. And now, as I write this on Tuesday, my own actions and those of many others like me have become part of another story: the story of a wave of rumors about ICE raids that caused panic in immigrant communities.

Embarrassing? Sure. And for me, full of irony. Just last week I had given my students a lesson on telling real news from fake news. Using the very cool exercises that I stole off the internet, I had them compare a site selling "natural health supplements” to the EPA's webpage on pesticides to decide where they could learn more about pesticides. (EPA wins, for the moment.) We put FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, up against http://www.justfacts.com/, brought to you by James D. Agresti, a professional mechanical engineer and author of, as he describes, "an acclaimed book evidencing factual support for the Bible across a broad array of academic disciplines." We talked about the importance of citing sources, and about why professional journalists with a reputation for accuracy might be more trustworthy than other people.

But even as I explained the rules last week, I wondered if the rules were changing. Will we still trust the EPA website when the climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt heads the agency? Will the anonymous persons purporting to be Park Service employees tweeting as @AltUSNatParkService give us better information about climate change or species extinction than the actual National Park Service in a Trump administration? If the President will not allow NY Times reporters to ask him questions, will we start our mornings scanning Twitter rather than the "newspaper of record"?

There have been other periods in history when unofficial, unconfirmed news was easier to believe than what was found in books or newspapers. In early modern Europe, for example, printed books that appeared with the names of author and publisher on the title page had been licensed by a government or religious authority, which limited their value as sources of truth. For information that might embarrass a government or challenge religious orthodoxy, readers turned to pamphlets written anonymously or under pseudonyms, bearing foreign or fake imprints. Their title pages proclaimed them to be "written by the man in the moon," "published by all the booksellers" or "printed in the year 0000." Readers might ignore books and newspapers entirely, preferring to get news from manuscript newsletters or from their friends. From Robert Darnton’s classic study of The Literary Underground of the Old Regime to Alastair Bellany and Tom Cogswell’s recent analysis of The Murder of King James I, historians have shown that early modern people relied more on word-of-mouth, correspondence or cheap print than on official sources for their news. This is not to say that what they learned from those channels was true. But those alternative sources provided a critical perspective not available from the official sources.It was because of the availability of alt-news, historians have argued, that the English and French revolutions were possible.

These days we have to rethink what we consider to be trustworthy information, or at least what we consider to be information worth discussing and acting upon. In that context, my decision last weekend to promote an unconfirmed story made some sense. I had considered probability: ICE raids were indeed reported in respectable news sources like the Washington Post. The fact that the owners of the business in question would not confirm the raids was not in itself conclusive. Perhaps they did not want to admit they hired undocumented workers. I had considered consequences: publicity, I hoped, would provoke someone to investigate and help local people see that ICE crackdowns were harmful to their neighbors and local economy. I had considered whether I could live with myself if I remained silent and then learned that there truly had been a raid.

Over the last few days, my calculations on these matters have changed. The claim was investigated by activists who concluded that a local raid by ICE "probably" did not happen. I became more sensitive to the possible negative consequences of promoting the story: there is the panic, and there is the danger of attracting attention to a particular business in ways that could make deportations more likely. I deleted my tweets and Facebook posts.

I still don’t know if the ICE raid happened in my town. What I do know is that the dilemma I faced over the weekend -- how to respond to news that may be fake -- is likely to be repeated. It is easy to mock Edgar Madison Welch, the man who fired on a Washington pizza parlor where he thought the Clinton campaign was running a child sex ring. But it is foolish to pretend that we can rely on a set of easy-to-apply rules to sort out truth from rumor, or that last year's definition of what constitutes a reliable source won't change. Let's give up on glib confidence that we will never be caught out being fooled. Let's admit that we are struggling to find ways to talk about and act on information that we do not absolutely know to be true.

Meanwhile, let's remember that the Trump administration will be trying to deport thousands of law-abiding immigrants. We should stop them.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.