Lee Rainie: The public is the first line of defense against fake news

by Lianza Reyes

November 7, 2018

The director of internet and technology at Pew Research Center spoke at Newhouse Oct. 31

Lee Rainie
Lee Rainie

Pew Research Center internet and technology director Lee Rainie began his question and answer session, moderated by Newhouse associate professor Roy Gutterman, by describing his work. Pew, which defines itself as a non-partisan fact tank, doesn’t exist to push an agenda, but to do social science research, Rainie said.

“[We] use the best research methodologies we can, [and] inject data into big cultural conversations,” Rainie said.

In light of an eroding public trust in public institutions, Rainie stressed the role of clear facts in mending those deteriorating relationships. The media, in particular, is suffering from this lack of trust, which Rainie feels is partially due to technology.

“Technology has exposed who people can influence [reputations],” he said, referring to how social media connects journalists with critics who will often accuse reporters of spreading “fake news” if the critics don’t like the facts presented. In the pre-internet days, when Rainie worked as a journalist at the New York Daily News and as managing editor at U.S. News & World Report, he didn’t have to worry about his reputation being damaged, because public platforms for those kinds of accusations didn’t exist.

While the internet plays a strong role in hastening this erosion of faith in public institutions, Rainie said this isn’t an entirely new social phenomenon.

“[This] started in the late 60s, [with] the Vietnam [War], Watergate, [the] protest era. All sorts of institutions have tumbled down the same slope,” Rainie said. According to his research, as technology grew, trust in government fell.

This absence of trust in institutions pushes people to research on their own, going to organizations like Pew, but also often only paying attention only to the facts that align with their current beliefs.

“But aren’t facts just facts?” Gutterman asked.

Rainie said that through agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance, we have discovered that facts, manipulated in the right way, can be used to create doubt, a practice that goes back centuries. Today, this plays out specifically in the media.

“It’s meant to challenge the narrative and make sure people don’t get to the [truth],” Rainie said.

When asked if the upcoming midterm elections could potentially be affected by fake news, Rainie said he thought they could, but he says it’s the public’s responsibility to fight this. When people receive information that matches their belief system, they’re more likely to accept it without applying critical thought, he said.

“Partisanship now is the single most powerful predictor for who you vote for,” Rainie said, noting that partisanship is four times more powerful a predictor of a person’s position on an issue than other demographic factors such as education, age or gender.

When asked where we go from here, Rainie was optimistic. Technology companies have some responsibility in curbing the spread of misinformation, he said, but more importantly, every person needs to understand that they should be responsible for researching the facts and deciding whom to trust. Even in a time of intense polarization, there are still ways to verify the truth.

“Users [of technology] themselves are the first line of defense,” he said.

Lianza Reyes is a junior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.