Melissa Zimdars: The Truth About Fake News

In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election, "fake news" was blamed as a major reason for Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton. A wide range of players, from Russian propagandists to paid partisan puppeteers, were accused of fabricating stories which were then widely circulated via social media to influence the hearts and minds of voters.

A national debate then raged -- and still does -- about whether "fake news" truly exists and, if so, should it be tolerated. And, immediately after the election, a number of major media outlets, including Google and Facebook, announced planned steps to block 'suspect' content sources on their platforms.

Amidst this tumult, a college professor compiled an aggregated list of "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources", which quickly became known as the "fake news list". The mainstream media immediately latched on to this list of culprits, and circulated it heavily across the headlines of major outlets like CNN, The Washington Post, Fox News, The Boston Globe, New York Magazine, USA Today, Business Insider and The Dallas Morning News

(Full disclosure: this website,, was initially included on the list. We've learned it has since been removed.)

So many questions have been raised by this list. Is naming these sources a public service? Or it is censorship? What criteria are used to declare content "fake"? Who comes up with those criteria, and who is making the decisions? What are their qualifications? Is it the media's job to "protect" the public from information? Or is it the reader's responsibility to judge for themselves what is and isn't a trustworthy source?

To explore answers to these -- and many more -- questions, on this week's podcast we discuss the "fake news list" with its creator, Dr. Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communications at Merrimack College.

Chris' line of inquiry is brutally direct. And many of Dr. Zimdars' answers are more nuanced then many of her critics will expect. Wherever you fall on this topic, you'll find this an exceptionally open, frank debate of the key issues at stake on the public's right to information in the modern age.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Dr. Melissa Zimdars (33m:57s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

After muddling through a particularly uncomfortable bout of H3N2 strain influenza (confirmed by my local GP and her lab), I listened with a listless fatigue to your recent interview with Mellissa Zimdars on the subject of fake news. It is apparent to me that none of us are immune to fake news, no matter what our background.
However, it also occurred to me that perhaps I was suffering from what Patrick Keeney terms, Apocalypse fatigue. As a somewhat frequent visitor to the PP threads and in my immune compromised state, my lethargy was perhaps a combination of both. As Mr Keeney points out in his quote of Galileo:

“In matters of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”
When I use my head and reason to the best of my ability, I usually feel better. There is never a reason to get your knickers in a knot over the opinion of a questionable authority. Do you think it's safe to get a flu shot this year?

Superb interview Chris. Your skills as an interviewer were exemplary and you made excellent points without offending the subject of your interview. Perhaps you should enter the diplomatic corps.

You’re a better man than me, Chris. I could never have kept my composure interviewing this person. I’m still probably too angry to respond even though 30 minutes have elapsed, but I’ll do my best in bullet format to get it off my chest so as to not ruin the rest of my Sunday.

  1. The worst thing about this person’s “Fake News List” isn’t that she produced such a list, but that so many allegedly reputable MSM sources blew it up and got behind it in a big way. Our whole society was swayed by their use of this execrable material. The material and the person behind it would’ve lived forever in obscurity (where she and it deserve) had it not been for the shameful way the MSM used it and her.
  2. This person basically did one thing and one thing only: she labeled people and media sources (without documentation or reason), and she did it on the basis of her own personal biases (most of them political as best I can tell). Labeling people and their work is at best lazy short-hand for what you really want to say, but aren’t smart enough, self-aware enough, or brave enough to say any other way. It helps no one and furthers no positive end. You can see the same thing in relationships even more clearly. If the husband bitterly labels his wife, “You’re a bitch!” he has harmed the relationship and needs to make some other more honest and insightful comments, like “My feelings were hurt when you made fun of me in front of our dinner guests.” In the context of this interview, Chris showed the way to go when he discussed the aluminum tube MSM story from 2002 that helped take us into an unnecessary war. He stated what he observed/read, his analysis of it, and how it affected him (he lost trust in the source). If the person interviewed today would skip the list of fake news sites (an arrogant act of labeling), and stick to observations, data, analysis and personal reactions using the first person pronouns (I, me) should might have made an honest contribution to society.
  3. Here’s a label for this person: she’s a tool. Probably without meaning to, this person has been used by powerful forces to promote their agenda. I find the agenda of the MSM that promoted this list to b despicable, dangerous, unAmerican, and quite useful to totalitarians of any brand. Dictators love tools like this person because they provide the dictators with some intelligent-sounding foundation for their evil plans. Here’s another label: pseudointellectual. This person is not particularly bright but she has attempted to assume the language, mannerisms and values of true intellectuals. A true intellectual would already know the things I’m saying here and would’ve presented facts, analysis, personal reactions and the like.
  4. I’m so enraged by this person, the best I can do is deal with it using humor (“You have to laugh to keep from crying.”). If you’ll look closely in the following video clip, you’ll see this little librarian lady from the esteemed Merrimack College in the back of the crowd, shouting about witches. She’s the one with the librarian eye glasses on and carrying a clipboard.

Good to to see you back.

ao wrote:
Superb interview Chris. Your skills as an interviewer were exemplary and you made excellent points without offending the subject of your interview. Perhaps you should enter the diplomatic corps.

My take on real, fake and the admonition to “check the facts.”
So there is the outside world, then there is our cognitive map of the outside world. The cognitive map forms an organizing story based on:

The "facts" we include The "facts" that we exclude (or don't know about) The organizing story
Two campers lie on the grass looking up at the sky. One points and says "Do you see the big dipper?" The other one says "No, no, no. That is NOT a big dipper, that is the Great Bear. (pointing) There is the shoulder and the paw." And there are LOTS of inputs on the story that "works" for us. Suppose we come from a culture where our lives depend on hunting bears, evading bears, keeping bears away from our food stores, etc? Suppose we come from a part of the world where there are no bears? What if we don't like the way that it makes us feel when we think of a bear being up in the sky? Another guy joins them later, torturing this metaphor, and says, "The Big Dipper is a part of the Great Bear." Quercus bicolor mentioned this a few days ago: Once we have a shattering experience of understanding that we are being lied to on a massive scale (such as: Jekyll Island, 9/11, peak oil, the reason for a war) we then are predisposed to reject ALL stories that seem to be intended to move towards central control. We may throw out AGW with the bath water.

So there’s something I ran across that doesn’t prevent you from getting flu, but often prevents you from actually showing symptoms. And even if you get symptoms, they are dramatically reduced in severity.
Stuff is called NAC. Here’s the flu-centered clinical trial done back in 1997.

NAC treatment was well tolerated and resulted in a significant decrease in the frequency of influenza-like episodes, severity, and length of time confined to bed. Both local and systemic symptoms were sharply and significantly reduced in the NAC group. Frequency of seroconversion towards A/H1N1 Singapore 6/86 influenza virus was similar in the two groups, but only 25% of virus-infected subjects under NAC treatment developed a symptomatic form, versus 79% in the placebo group. Evaluation of cell-mediated immunity showed a progressive, significant shift from anergy to normoergy following NAC treatment. Administration of N-acetylcysteine during the winter, thus, appears to provide a significant attenuation of influenza and influenza-like episodes, especially in elderly high-risk individuals. N-acetylcysteine did not prevent A/H1N1 virus influenza infection but significantly reduced the incidence of clinically apparent disease.
NAC is cheap, and its been around for decades. As always, check the interactions with any drugs you might be taking.

So I have an idea.
If we could provide examples of bias, and then use those examples to train one of my neural networks, it might be interesting to apply it to all the news sources out there.
See, to me that’s science. Come up with criteria that everyone can agree on, code it up, and then see what pops out the other end. Just how biased does the code say your news sources are? How biased a given article is?
If this became more popular, we could even give articles a “bias rating”.
While natural language processing isn’t my main skill (right now I’m just about market data), this task might be arguably more interesting - and perhaps more societally useful - than what I’m doing right now.
And it shouldn’t be all THAT difficult. I say this prior to actually trying to make it work, of course.
The key would be coming up with the training data. What exactly is bias? How does it show up?
One example Chris gave was “unnamed sources”, or words to that effect.
How useful do you all think this would be?

One example Chris gave was "unnamed sources", or words to that effect.
Well, Deep Throat turned out to be a real source. So unless you preload data into the system rating a seasoned reporter for previous use of unnamed sources, you may be down-grading a lot of useful articles. Of course, I don't work with AI. Maybe it could rate the reporters on its own by analyzing whether the facts from the unnamed sources were later verified as correct.

What Ms. Zimdars is doing by creating this list and updating it is harming people. Behind each website in question are people. People she “labels” and her labels diminish, create doubt and take away credibility of each website she puts on her list. It’s like saying let me introduce you to my child, and explaining that your child is unique and this person says “oh your child is a Retard”. The label is meant to diminish, to shame and confirm that the child/website in question isn’t as worthy as others. And what gives Ms. Zimdars the right to decide whom to hurt and whom to leave alone?
Analysis sounds like “group think” I seriously doubt there are real “business owners” in the evaluation circle, rather all the same cohort. Right? It’s just plain arrogance to feel entitled to “label” people’s work like Charles Hugh Smith. You see he has a business he doesn’t just reside in academia. It appears easy to just sit in academia and judge, try being a business owner where everything is stacked against you like taxes, insurance, statutes, codes etc. and now people in academia as well. Dang the little guy is pushing the ball up the hill and it gets real heavy after a while! Me thinks it would be easier to just sit and judge.
And as far as fake news and conspiracy theories go - Remember, the rich and powerful have conspired to keep their power and riches since the beginning of civilization, that’s not conspiracy that’s a fact. No need to analyze that just look over your shoulder to the past!

I scanned a few of her lists. I didn’t recognize many of the sites, but the few I did I agreed with her brief indicators.
If people wish to go into the business of blogging they really need to be scrupulous with the truth or they deserve the consequences of their deception. Lying is a strong indication of the commentator’s poor reasoning, philosophy and/or reliability.

Good to see you here too. I still lurk here from time to time but, ahem … moderation restricts my ability to post. I sent up a trial balloon because I thought Chris did such a good job with that interview and the post went through. Like Tom, I would’ve wanted to verbally dismantle her … which is why I am moderated, lol … but that wouldn’t have done much good. I admire Chris’s restrained diplomacy and his ability to politely educate her without evoking defensiveness on her part…

I can’t think of anyone I trust enough to let them decide for me what is unbiased and truthful news. That’s my job.
It’s never occurred to me to pull up one of the lists of fake new sites.
Sadly, I don’t run across unbiased news all that often. As mentioned in the interview, I sample multiple sources to try to let the competing biases cancel each other out. Unlike Melissa, I don’t seek news outside the US as a last resort. Overseas is one of the first places I look.

There are very few absolute truths in this world.
There has been “fake news” since the beginning of time. It’s from a variety of sources: ignorance, malicious or nefarious intent, etc. The sun once orbited the earth, the earth was once flat, and gastric ulcers were caused by stress. How many scientists, reporters, investigators, explorers, etc. had their works ridiculed by their peers and society before they were ultimately proven correct?
Having a few people judge who’s works are “fake”, and who’s are “real” is beyond absurd.
It’s not an accident freedom of speech is the first amendment.
BTW, here’s how the MSM tries to cover up their propaganda. They try to use a small percentage of the air time for propaganda, and mix in a lot of real/non-agenda topics to give the appearance of “real news”. A small % of air time on a prime time MSM outlet can go a long way as far as public perception. Try watching ABC (or any of the big networks) national news every night with a critical eye & ear.
In some ways the internet has allowed the government to gain a lot of control over society, but it has also greatly decentralized “news” and information. The latter has greatly lessened the government’s control over the people. Thus, there has been the creation of the fake concept of “fake news”.

Chris Martenson, loved the interview and really all the work you do especially on energy and geo-politics. Your Crash Course is nothing short of amazing and really hits home. I don’t know if there is a better way of asking this question or contacting you, but since you mentioned it in the interview… You mentioned that your PhD is in Neuro Toxicology and I’ve never seen your thoughts on vaccines. Have you ever done a video on the subject and if not, what is your take on the subject? Also, have you ever watched the documentary on growing food? I think it would be right up your alley on preparedness and keeping as much Roundup out of your food as possible.


Well, Deep Throat turned out to be a real source.
Yes that's a great point. Limitations of the approach I'm using is that it wouldn't recognize individual reporters, or facts. All it does is analyze the style of writing. Hmm. Maybe the right thing isn't to label something as "fake", but rather to assess the different attributes of the article itself. So while it can't figure out if something is fake, it might be able to tell: does it look like an opinion piece? does it have sourcing? is it attempting to persuade? is the content "emotional" vs "factual"? is it attempting to motivate? These are more attributes of a piece of text rather than looking for truth or falsity. But if you saw that a given source was always trying to persuade you in their news section - and the code could identify just how "severe" the rating was - it might be helpful to put you on your guard. It might even be able to detect common logical fallacies. "Oh, this article triggered the 'appeal to authority' fallacy detector." One other nice thing is that it could easily assess a body of work and come up with an overall rating for the organization. Boy. I'd be fascinated to see what it would spit out about the stuff I write.

For many years I thought the purpose of higher learning was to teach people to explore, create, and how to think. It appears to me that by creating a list of “Fake News” academia is teaching people “what” to think. No need for independent evaluation the websites in question have been selected, tried and found GUILTY, it certainly makes a students learning experience easy knowing what they should think and who they should have contempt for. Guess the students don’t need to do the evaluating for themselves, how utterly odd!
A number of websites on the list are among my favorites. I choose to think for myself, perhaps that’s a trait of a curmudgeon!

AKGrannyWGrit said:

A number of websites on the list are among my favorites. I choose to think for myself, perhaps that's a trait of a curmudgeon!
Yes, but a curmudgeon with critical thinking skills! :)

The vaccine debate is a favorite topic of fake health news sites IMHO. I had measles at the age of 15 due to an ineffective vaccine and it was the worse illness of my youth.
If you choose to talk people out of routine vaccinations I hope you, within your conscience, hold yourself accountable to those you influence one way or another regarding vaccination.
There is a measles outbreak in Minnesota attributed to unvaccinated refugee/migrants. Unvaccinated people get other people ill it is a hard fact. Granted some vaccines are more important than others and marketing is a factor these days. Still, think smallpox and how important vaccinations were.
According to WHO
Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.

Thanks for a great interview, Chris.
There is a lot of indignance in the comment thread and I am not really sure why it is directed at Prof. Zimdars , though perhaps she has learned more about global mass media circulations through this list’s viral ascent than her doctoral studies could have possibly taught her! In this case, I believe we should direct our ire to the messenger rather than her message.
Its pretty clear that she never set out to create a blacklist, censor anything or tell people what to read/believe and what not to. She decisively states that this list was meant to represent a continuum of credibility based on 2-3 professionals’ and various students’ analysis using techniques of triangulation, recognizing charged language, and source-checking. If she had her druthers, I would estimate that she would prefer a more diverse set of reviewers and more time/resources. I don’t think she overstates what the document is, and requested that others not overstate its breadth or depth.
Moreover, the genesis of the document in question seems to have been in the service of the critical thought that we all value here. Again, teaching techniques of triangulation, the basics of charged language and source-checking is what she should be teaching. Having students try out these techniques by co-creating a document seems like good pedagogy (as long as she didn’t shut down dissident voices in her classroom). Sure, some students are going to trust the NYT if she does, but some will take the techniques and run with them…maybe straight to
It’s worth mentioning that a source that is correct is not necessarily reliable. For example, while peak cheap oil might be a real phenomenon, not every article written about it is reliable or unbiased. An article on peak cheap oil that tries to manipulate the reader through emotional language, would not rate high on the reliability scale despite being true in terms of its content. I happen to agree with many unreliable sources everyday while disagreeing with some reliable ones. That is my prerogative—and it forces me to contemplate why some unreliable sources might appeal to me. Usually it is because I believe something that is being challenged.
Thought experiment: How did PP end up in the “Unknown” category before being removed? Let’s subject PP to the criteria she mentions:
· Triangulation: mmmm . . . not quick or easy considering how many mainstream outlets are saying things contrary to PP.
· Charged Language: No. Chris and Adam avoid this like the plague.
· Citations: Copious, well-respected and themselves well cited.
Result: Unknown requiring further digging. After further digging for triangulating sources, it checks out.
I kind of think the process worked well here.
A caveat, as I am certainly not Ms. Zindars apologist–I’ll say is that many NYT articles do not pass her own test, but Melissa continues to consider it to be trustworthy. She probably can’t afford to hold another view, however, because she is still untenured (her Ph.D. was conferred in 2015) and the last thing she needs is the conspiracy theorist label.