The New Suburbanist: Lies, distortion lead to Silicon Valley

“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

That’s a quote many people attribute to author Mark Twain, except we can’t be sure Twain said that.

Others attribute the quote to a list as wide-ranging as Sir Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Ann Landers.

That quote, regardless of who said it, attacks the heart of our current disinformation quandary.

Did fake news writers, profiteers and hoax artists manipulate the social media giants — Facebook, Twitter and Google (and users of those services) — to spread rumors that helped Donald Trump get elected as president?

Did the tech giants unintentionally reward phony information providers after years of financially crippling legitimate information sources?

As such, do the social media behemoths bear some responsibility to fix this problem?

In short, yes.

The social media giants are now part of the news media whether they like it or not. And they can become part of the solution.

We’ve heard and read the horror stories of the sham news artists in the weeks after the election.

For example, NPR reported on a registered Democrat named Jestin Coler.

Under an umbrella company called Disinfomedia, Coler started a set of fake news sites in California with names such as, and These sites published myriad fake stories such as one headlined, “FBI Agents Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.”

People shared that story on Facebook more than 500,000 times.

“Some of this has to fall on the readers themselves,” Coler told NPR, when asked about the plague of bogus news he helped create. “The consumers of content have to be better at identifying this stuff. We have a whole nation of media-illiterate people.”

This is also what happens when our press corps at newspapers goes from 56,000 people in year 2006 to fewer than 33,000 in 2014, according to Pew Research.

More than 100 daily newspapers went out of business between 2004 and 2014.

Pew Research tells us that, up until a decade ago, newspapers outranked radio and the Internet as the public’s primary source of news. Now, 36 percent of U.S. adults learned something about the presidential election form newspapers while higher percentages gained their information from radio (44 percent), digital sources (65 percent) and television (78 percent).

Google, Twitter and Facebook have helped destroy the news industry’s advertising model and have not contributed much to good journalism in return.

Digital advertising brought in 25 percent of the advertising revenue for newspapers in 2015, up from 17 percent in 2011, but that revenue doesn’t pay as well as print advertising.

As middlemen, the social media pipelines take an inordinate share of the advertising revenue on the table, leaving scraps for the content producers.

This is great capitalism, bad citizenship.

Google’s stated mission is to “Organize the world’s information.”

Perhaps they should expand that to read: “Organizing the world’s information to profit from that information, which may cripple the producers of that information. But then we can buy those producers inexpensively or start new information producers so we can own the full supply chain of information.”

Again: Great capitalism. Bad citizenship.

I was at Google headquarters with my EMBA classmates from The Berlin School of Creative Leadership in November of 2015.

One student asked a Google executive about the problem of Google destroying traditional journalism content producers. He shrugged his shoulders and passed off any responsibility or culpability.

“Media and journalism is not our core business model,” he said.

That answer may not work any longer for Google, Facebook and Twitter. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post wrote a column headlined, “Call it a ‘crazy idea’ Facebook, but you need an executive editor.”

She quoted Emily Bell, who directs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who wrote a piece in Columbia Journalism Review calling on Zuckerberg to hire more people to be editors on the Facebook platform.

Author Jeff Jarvis and tech entrepreneur John Borthwick wrote a joint post on medium offering 15 ways to combat the flood of fake news.

“We strongly urge the platforms to hire high-level journalists inside their organizations not to create content, not to edit, not to compete with the editors outside,” they wrote, “but instead to bring a sense of public responsibility to their companies and products.”

Yes. The news business leaders should have innovated more and acquired companies like Facebook or Google when we had the chance.

Yes. The American public is largely media illiterate. As the Walt Kelly cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Yes. We need more fact checking (and Google, to its credit, is planning something along those lines).

Facebook is already working on solutions for people to flag hoax stories that show up in news feeds. Bravo! Keep going.

But the blame also falls on Silicon Valley and its wunderkinds who are supposedly, according to the oft-quoted mantra of the San Francisco Bay Area: “making the world a better place.”

They are now forced to wrestle with the nature and quality of information, not just the fact that information exists and needs to be organized. Hopefully, in coming months, we see an explosion of new technologies designed to help accurate news thrive and false news die. And business journalists can and should report on those efforts.

Back to that supposed Mark Twain quote, we can now check that quote via the web site, which is operated by Dr. Garson O’Toole, a Yale PhD.

By the way, I see that Yale’s alumni magazine verifies O’Toole is a 1986 PhD but that his name is a pseudonym.

Anyways, Quote Investigator indicates Twain, for all his quotable wit, did not utter the opening quote.

In fact, we don’t know who exactly did utter those words.

Writer Jonathan Swift expressed the idea in 1710. It surfaced a few other places. But the published version that most closely mirrors the quote appeared in The Portland Gazette newspaper in September of 1820, which read, “for falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.”

Great Neck resident Paul Glader is an associate professor in journalism and entrepreneurship at The King’s College in New York City. This column first appeared on

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