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William A. Levinson

Risk Management

The History (and Menace) of Fake News

Quality professionals have a unique skill set for combating it

Published: Monday, December 18, 2017 - 12:03

ISO 9001:2015, Clause 6.1—“Actions to address risks and opportunities,” relates to Clause 4.1—“Understanding the organization and its context.” The external context includes the social environment, which in turn includes social networking, a potentially devastating vehicle for the delivery of “fake news” that can damage an organization’s brand within a single day. Fake news is now being used as a weapon against small businesses, and allegedly even to manipulate the stock market.

A fake news story, which circulated shortly after last year’s presidential election, encouraged Donald Trump’s supporters to boycott Pepsi and may well have lowered the company’s stock price. The CBS news article about the phenomenon adds that both supporters and opponents of Trump have been encouraged to boycott the same businesses. This highlights the need to recognize the menace of fake news, and educate people as best as possible on how to guard against it.

An ancient Jewish story underscores the menace of fake news when it is spread only by the spoken word (i.e., slander). A man defamed a rabbi, regretted it, and asked the rabbi what he needed to do to make amends. The rabbi told him to cut open a pillow, scatter the feathers to the four winds, and then try to collect them.

The sordid history of fake news

A child’s disappearance in 1475 led to the propagation of a rumor that Jews had murdered him to use his blood for a ritual; this was the purported origin of what is now called a “blood libel.” The result was a massacre of the local Jews, but the concept of the blood libel is actually far older. Imperial Roman persecutors accused early Christians—possibly due to the Communion, during which the wine and bread were believed to be transubstantiated into Jesus’ blood and flesh—of practicing human sacrifice, a practice abhorrent to the Roman gods.

The subsequent development of the printing press then made possible the mass distribution of propaganda, including pictures for the benefit of largely illiterate audiences. The printing press, in fact, played a central role in the Reformation. The Lutherans and Catholics distributed pictures that depicted either the Pope or Martin Luther as the Devil or an agent of the Devil. This was in an era in which many people believed in literal hellfire and damnation. The blood libel referenced above adds that Benjamin Franklin later propagated fake news to the effect that England’s Native American allies were scalping colonists, and that Britain was sending foreign soldiers to slaughter American patriots—a story that Britain’s employment of Hessian mercenaries doubtlessly supported.

When the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana in 1898, the competing newspapers run by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (also known as the “Yellow Press”) led a rush to judgment against Spain, despite the likelihood that a coal-dust explosion, rather than sabotage, was the root cause. The resulting loss of life exceeded 17,000 Spanish and American combatants, mostly due to disease; germs, rather than bullets, did most of the killing prior to World War I. Fake news is therefore, to paraphrase an old anti-war slogan, “not healthy for humans and other living things.”

Fake news, in the form of a half-truth, helped draw the United States into World War I at the cost of roughly 115,000 American lives, plus those of Germans with whom the United States had no legitimate quarrel. Triple Entente propagandists published numerous cartoons that depicted the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and the accompanying loss of civilian life. The propaganda, of course, omitted the highly inconvenient fact that the ship’s cargo included millions of rifle cartridges whose sole purpose was to kill German soldiers. This cargo made the ship a legitimate military target under the prevailing laws of war. The German who learned the most from Germany’s failure to counteract this propaganda was unfortunately Adolf Hitler, who used this knowledge to take over Germany and then start World War II.

Col. Paul Linebarger’s book Psychological Warfare (Amazon Digital Services, 2015; reprint of 1948 original) underscores the need to counteract movements like Nazism on sight rather than dismiss them as lunatic fringe movements. A determined “fringe” minority of as little as 2 percent of the population can, by effective and systematic use of propaganda and in the absence of opposition, impose a dysfunctional and dangerous ideology like Communism or Nazism on an entire society. The things the Nazis and their Communist counterparts in Russia did succeeded at the cost of tens of millions of lives, and it is vital that to ensure that those things never succeed again.

The internet, and especially social networking, is an enormous force multiplier for what propagandists managed to achieve with leaflets, newspapers, and radio during the first half of the 20th century. This is why it is absolutely vital for people and organizations to recognize the danger of fake news, and know how to protect themselves from it in terms of 1) not believing it; 2) not propagating it; and 3) counteracting it when they see it.

Too smart to be taken in?

The first step is to recognize that absolutely nobody is too intelligent or too well informed to be taken in by fake news. In My Life and Work, (Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922), Henry Ford, for example, denounced fake news as follows: “There has been too much of this kind of psychological crime committed in the world these past few years—the crime of bringing men to act from the highest and sincerest motives of self-sacrifice, and then using that high spirit for the lowest purposes.”

Ford wrote this at roughly the same time he read, believed, and republished under the title The International Jew anti-Semitic propaganda that was given to him by a Tsarist émigré named Boris Brasol, thus causing enormous harm not only to innocent Jews around the world but also to his own reputation. The takeaway is that victims of fake news include not only its intended targets, but also those whose trust it abuses to propagate itself. This underscores in turn the need to fact-check any sensationalistic or suspicious story one receives, and then fact-check it again before forwarding it to anybody else.

The relative ease of photomanipulation can meanwhile allow dishonest people to generate phony pictures or even videos. For example, it was possible to generate a highly realistic video of Tom Hanks in his role as Forrest Gump shaking hands with Lyndon B. Johnson, and this was with the technology of 1994. Doctored photos, however, date back to 1865, when Civil War photographer Mathew Brady added a man to a group photo of Civil War generals. Brady’s motive was quite innocent; he wanted to include a commander who had not been available for the group photograph. The takeaway is, however, that the ability to alter a photograph existed as long ago as the Civil War. It is even easier to open any web page with editing software, type in anything one wants, and then publish a screen shot of the fabricated evidence to create fake news. This reinforces the need to fact-check because the original web page in question will show quickly that it does not exist, or at least does not contain the material in the screen shot.

Scientists proved more recently that it is possible to create a fake video and audio that uses a person’s real voice, and even synchronizes his lip motions to match the words. The experiment was tested successfully on statements by former President Barack Obama and, although the experimenters did not make him say anything he hadn’t said, it is easy to envision how a dishonest manipulator could easily, and literally, put words into another person’s mouth.

Fake news, real menace

Fake news, whether malicious or unintentional, is a real menace. In a January 2017 article, George Bothwell reports, “A Pew Research Center study conducted this year found that a majority of Americans now receive their news from social media,” and the figure is apparently close to 62 percent. This is an enormous danger that requires widespread education to correct because social media is the ideal place for unvetted fake news to propagate.

An industrial accident in which a worker was killed in an oven at a tuna processing plant, for example, resulted in the unfounded rumor that human remains had been mixed with the tuna. Another fake news story claimed that human and horse meat had been found in a meat factory, and named the restaurant that purportedly used the meat in question. Similar stories have circulated about vendors and restaurants serving dog meat (in the United States) which, if believed, can easily ruin a business. Another fake news story circulated to the effect that a disgruntled worker had added HIV-positive blood to a popular soft drink. Anybody who is even thinking of starting a rumor to the effect that a restaurant or manufacturer sells contaminated or adulterated food should realize that it is probably legally actionable (i.e., libelous).

How to deal with fake news

As people who deal with the quantitative and qualitative aspects of quality data on a daily basis, we quality professionals, more than most, should have the skills to recognize and debunk fake news when we see it. After all, our careers are based on assessing facts and questioning outliers. Can’t we apply those same skills to detecting suspicious stories?

This leads us to the big question of how we deal with fake news when we know it as such. The three points below are similar to Ford Motor Co.’s guidelines for eliminating poor quality—i.e., don’t make it, don’t take it, and don’t pass it along.

Don’t make it. Fake news is a bad joke at best—like jokes about bombs at airports—and potentially libelous if it damages somebody’s reputation or business.

You wouldn’t deliberately introduce a failure into your product unless you were deliberately trying to sabotage your company. Likewise, you wouldn’t joke about the quality of your company’s products in mixed company for fear that an outsider wouldn’t understand it as a joke. Don’t make fake news.

Don’t take it. Fact-check any suspicious, outrageous, or disparaging story before you believe it. Make sure you can verify the story from a reputable news source and don’t take even that for granted; even mainstream media have accidentally reprinted fake news. Social media and “somebody’s blog” are not news sources. Had Henry Ford fact-checked Boris Brasol’s propaganda, The International Jew would never have seen the light of day.

Our eyebrows go up whenever we see an outlier in process data. That point seems “out there.” So we ask ourselves: Is it real? Where did it come from? We should question “out there” news stories in the same way. Is that real? Where did it come from? The more outrageous the story, the more it needs to be investigated.

Don’t pass it along. Don’t propagate fake news, and do everything possible to shut it down by denying its accuracy (with a link to a credible source, if possible) in the same place you saw it.

You could think of these as the CAPA for fake news.

Fake news can ruin lives and company reputations. As quality professionals, we have a unique skill set for detecting and dealing with fake news.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success.


Ford was an Anti-Semite, pure and simple

The article not only has no place in Quality Digest, but treads in "fake news" in order to argue against the same.

The theory that Ford was "tricked" into publishing years and years of antisemitic materials, or somehow didn't know about them, has been debunked for decades, and is typically only trotted out on the farthest of the far-right websites.

The most definitive analysis of this story comes from Jonathan Logsden in the Hanover Historical Review (1999) (link: https://history.hanover.edu/hhr/99/hhr99_2.html ) This highly researched article is supported by hundreds of sources and citations, and is used as the definitive guide to the Ford/Jewish scandal. In that article, Logsden makes it clear that Ford not only knew exactly what he was doing when denigrating Jews, but kept doing it until his death.

Regarding Ford's "apology" facing public pressure re: the International Jew, Logsden wrote:

"This statement was a remarkable attempt at public image revisionism. In order for the public to accept it, they would conveniently have to forget all of the press interviews in which Ford had condemned the Jews. They would have to forget the anti-Semitic statements found in his own autobiography. They would have to forget his proclamation in 1921 that he had a "five years' course in sight" of anti-Jewish articles. They would have to forget the press releases that announced: "The Dearborn Independent is Henry Ford's own paper and he authorizes every statement incurred therein." They would have to forget Cameron's boast at a 1924 Ford branch manager's convention that "We never step out on any unusual program without first getting his guidance."

For years afterward, Ford continued to court Nazis and anti-Semites. In 1938 -- over a decade AFTER the publication of the International Jew -- Ford accepted a Nazi medal, the German Eagle Order. Logsden:

"Hitler had created the award himself as the highest honor a foreigner could receive from the Nazi government. Ford shared his award with only four other men, including Mussolini. The award consisted of a Maltese cross studded with four eagles and four swastikas, and came with Hitler's personal congratulations. It was presented to Ford, in honor of his seventy fifth birthday, in July of 1938 by German consuls Fritz Heiler and Karl Kapp. Newspaper pictures of the event showed a smiling Ford shaking the Heiler's hand as Kapp pinned the award onto Ford's jacket."

Later, in 1940, Ford again exhibited his antisemitism in interactions with Walt Disney. Logsden:

"Walt Disney was thinking of taking his studio public and asked Ford for his advice on the enterprise. Ford expressed his admiration for Disney because he was a successful Protestant in the film business-- a field dominated by Jews. However; Ford warned, Jews also controlled the stock market, and Disney would be wise to sell his company outright rather than lose it to "them" one piece at a time."

And even as late as 1947:

"Shortly before his death, Henry Ford was confined to his bed in a state of depression. His physician arranged for a reporter to visit, in an effort to arouse Ford from his gloomy state. The newsman innocently asked Ford what the chances were of his company going public. This was all it took, according to witness Jack Davis, to energize the old man. "I'll take my factory down brick by brick," Ford announced, "before I'll let any of the Jew speculators get stock in the company." 

Meanwhile, websites and journals including Holocaust Online and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League -- a frequent target for Mr. Levinson's criticisms --  have published materials citing Ford as a known anti-Semite. This puts Quality Digest in an impossible position, having published an article that so directly contradicts history, and in doing so, promotes one of the world's most notorious hater of Jews, Henry Ford.

References used re: Ford

Mr. Paris’ statement “The theory that Ford was "tricked" into publishing years and years of antisemitic materials, or somehow didn't know about them, has been debunked for decades, and is typically only trotted out on the farthest of the far-right websites” is rather interesting, because the reference upon which this conclusion was based is a Web page in the Jewish Virtual Library, the same link cited in the article.  “Resilient in his efforts, [Boris] Brasol sent a copy of the Protocols to automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who was convinced that they were authentic. For the next two years, Ford gave the Protocols wide circulation in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.” Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King, a pro-labor as opposed to a far-right publication, also lays almost the entire blame on Brasol. Sinclair wrote that Ford believed that there was something wrong with the world, that some kind of evil force was at work, and Brasol got past Ford’s gate-keepers to provide the “answer.” These were the two references on which I based my conclusion that Ford was a victim of fake news.