Seminars at Steamboat presenter tackles fake news in an era of viral deception

Checking the spread of 'viral deception'

Tom Ross
Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the Seminars at Steamboat.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson kicked off the 15th season of the Seminars at Steamboat Monday by kicking the term “fake news” to the margins in favor of a far more loathed affliction – VD.

“By virtue of saying ‘fake news,’ we ask the question, ‘Well, what is real news?’ and you invite people to label everything they disapprove of as ‘fake news,’” Hall Jamieson said earlier this year during an interview on CNN. “As a result, it’s not a useful concept. What are we really concerned about? Deception. And deception of a certain sort that goes viral.”

The term “viral deception” can be abbreviated as VD, Hall Jamieson deadpanned before her audience in Steamboat. And more than fake news, VD is something society doesn’t want or need. But her play on words was also created as part of a deliberate strategy.

“I thought we needed to break the label, ‘fake news,’ and put it in a context that makes you think about it differently. Hence VD. I don’t want it. I don’t want to transmit it. I don’t want it given to me, and I don’t want to give it to anyone else,” Hall Jamieson said, earning loud laughter from her overflow audience in the Steamboat Music Festival pavilion.

A professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the co-founder of the non-partisan website, Hall Jamieson is intent on furthering the ability of individuals within society to learn to recognize the patterns that reveal viral deception. She also wants citizens to recognize their own vulnerability to deceptive news reports that do not originate from legitimate journalists.

One of the most egregious examples in recent years, she said, was a false report in a British publication insinuating that First Lady Melania Trump may have worked as an escort in the 1990s. The publication was sued and paid $2.9 million to settle, in addition to publishing a retraction.

But President Donald Trump also plays the viral deception game.

“What Trump specializes in is shifting the burden of proof,”  Hall Jamieson told her CNN interviewer. “Making a charge with no evidence and then asking for an investigation shifts the burden of proof.”

In order for people to recognize their susceptibility to misleading and false news reports, it’s necessary to recognize humans beings have a natural tendency to look more favorably upon messages from people who think like they do, Hall Jamieson said Monday night.

“We have human vulnerabilities that can lead people to struggle to process (information) in certain circumstances,” she said.”About one in four people report sharing fabricated news. Why? At the time, they were in a like-minded group.”

It’s also the case with human nature, that people perceive accuracy in messages they have heard repeatedly. It will take an effort by earnest people to combat the proliferation of viral deception in print and electronic media, according to Hall Jamieson.

She believes it’s important for voters to learn to recognize the patterns of political ads on television, especially those campaign ads, for both Democrats and Republicans,  that attract viewers with statements of fact, but ultimately misrepresent the truth.

“The most deceptive ads are those that begin with statements that are plausible and even accurate,” she said, but “when you recognize the pattern, when you see the first inaccurate statement, you think, ‘deceptive.’”

Hall Jamieson said both Facebook and Google are becoming more proactive in helping their users to recognize and reconsider viral deception when they stumble upon it. is working with Facebook to alert the social media outlet’s users that a particular link or story has already been refuted before they share it.

And Google is adjusting search algorithms to make recommendations based on whether or not they have been fact-checked, rather than routinely pointing searchers to the most popular sites that pertain to their inquiry.

Finally, in response to a question from a member of her Steamboat audience about whether society can survive the era of viral deception, Hall Jamieson recalled the political turmoil and disinformation of the Vietnam War era from 1968 to 1972.

“Some of the experts were not telling us the truth and that is problematic in a democracy,” she said. “We got through that, and that’s why I’m confident that we can do this now,” she said, but it will require “arming an informed, caring public to recognize pernicious speech,” when they encounter it.

 To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.