After several friends sent me a column falsely attributed to Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa about Argentina’s love affair with populism, I’m more worried than ever about the proliferation of fake news in social media. Instead of getting better, the problem is getting worse.
Even some of my best-educated acquaintances — many of them with doctoral degrees — sent me the column, “Yes, I do cry for you, Argentina,” after the ticket featuring Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — the country’s former populist president — won at landslide victory in the Aug. 11 primary elections.
The senders had not taken the simplest precautions to verify whether the column was authentic. It was copied from a purported news website I had never heard of, and its clichéd headline and corny style made me suspicious about it from the beginning.
I read it and was further convinced that it was not the work of Vargas Llosa, whom I had interviewed extensively only a few weeks ago. I asked the writer’s son Alvaro Vargas Llosa whether the text was authentic.
His response was, “It’s a total fake.”
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a writer himself, added that, “Unfortunately, social media have become the kingdom of fake news.” As I suspected, Alvaro confirmed that his father only writes columns for the Spanish daily El País, and that virtually all other political columns that have not first appeared in that newspaper are fake.
“To make it sound more credible, they often take one sentence from one of his old articles, add something that he said in an interview and then add several invented paragraphs,” Alvaro Vargas Llosa told me.
The fake column with Mario Vargas Llosa’s byline essentially echoes the Nobel Prize winner’s often-stated belief that Fernandez de Kirchner led one of the most corrupt governments in recent memory. But some variations of the same fake text include things he never said.
The fact that it went viral in social media illustrates how vulnerable we have become to fake news and how easy it is to put words in a public figure’s writings (or videos, if we include Deepfake videos like the one that showed former President Obama saying things he never said.)
I’m not alone in being worried a growing epidemic of fake news. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans fear that the issue will get worse over the next five years, and 50 percent consider it a “very big problem” — more so than illegal immigration (38 percent) or terrorism (34 percent.)
Most Americans blame creation of made-up news on politicians and their staffs (57 percent) and activist groups (53 percent) while 36 percent blame journalists, the Pew study says.
Unfortunately, President Trump and other populist leaders have made the problem worse by consistently labeling accurate news they don’t like as “fake news.” By discrediting legitimate journalists and confusing public opinion, they have a much easier time spreading their own false statements.
Here’s advice I gave the friends who sent me the fake Vargas Llosa column:
First, don’t believe any purported news or opinion article you get on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — even if it comes from a good friend — unless it has been published by a reputable news organization. Established news organizations such as the Miami Herald, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal check the facts. If they don’t publish a story, it’s because they found no evidence. And if they make a mistake, they have to admit it, because they live by their credibility.
Second, if the news item purports to come from a well-known news organization, do a Google search to make sure it was indeed published by that news company.
Third, if you can’t find that news or opinion item in any reputable news organization, don’t send circulate it in social media, even if you fully agree with it. Otherwise, you will be spreading fake news, and you will be helping those who want to erode democracy.
That’s what populist leaders, authoritarian rulers and dictatorships want: a world of utter confusion, where they can do whatever they want and get away with it.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera