Conversation with Felicia Cravens – Founder, Unfakery

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the top, what was your family and personal background? I am thinking of geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Felicia Cravens: I am a 7th generation Texan. I had a typical upbringing with a family that had deep roots in the area, and didn’t stray far from the home. I moved 100 miles away from my mom, and that was about as far as all of us were willing to let that separation happen.

When I started out career-wise, it was a mix and a mish-mash of things. I was a Language Arts major, and then I moved into Mass Communications, then Theatre, and then found myself in Accounting. I got my Accounting degree and then worked for various companies.

I decided to be a stay at home mom, which was good for me. I worked for my church writing the worship service for preschoolers. Then I taught drama for an after school program – 8 or 9 years. Then the Tea Party movement arose. I jumped in front of it for the Houston area.

I was the first tea party organizer in Houston. We helped seed some of the groups around at the time, some of whom are still around now. I wanted to help people become politically active rather than driving people to the ballot box for a particular candidate. I was more interested in people becoming informed and then making the decision for themselves.

Then things segued into working on the clickbait phenomenon. My allies and I noticed it happening.

A lot of people we knew were posting the strangest stories on their social media; ones that had no real proof to them. There was no real journalistic integrity in these pieces. We did not know this was a trend at the time. We found a couple of instances of it, and we would write pieces about it on our joint blog.

We tried to educate people on click bait, to show them why they should pay attention. Then the 2015-2016 primary cycles went crazy. There seemed to be a whole new industry around spreading fakery or misinformation. Finally, after the election, I had had enough of people, who I thought knew better, sharing a lot of fakery. That led me to develop my Facebook page Unfakery.

It is designed to catch people who may not be so savvy about journalistic standards, or who might not know what to look for in spotting fakery, or who may not have had taken those classes in college where we learned what good journalistic practices were supposed to be.

I wanted to tackle fakery from the best way possible, to debunk it. I cannot really use Snopes links as a first line of defence. I know what I would get back from people: “Snopes says…” There is an inherent belief in people on the right that Snopes has a bias. Whether it is true or not, the perception is there.

So Snopes has been discredited among some of the population. That has to be addressed; and it cannot be addressed by beating people over the head with the idea that Snopes has the right answers.

That is the basis for starting Unfakery; that people actually can discover for themselves many things that are fake. They do not need to rely on debunker like Snopes. They can rely on principles that are easy to follow, and figure out that the item they’re looking at needs more skepticism or research before they share it. I took that angle to start, and then I stumbled on one of the reasons for much of the fakery on Facebook.

There are foreign-centred profiles and sites attempting to profit off American web traffic, because it pays better than anywhere else. There is an industry based on sharing and “selling” fakery to Americans, in Trump-related groups, for example. I find a lot in those places.

I find people from the Philippines, from India, from Macedonia and Kosovo, from Pakistan, and now from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, and, maybe, somebody from the Netherlands. It is weird.

I will explain why that broad spectrum in a minute. I find people with ties to those countries sharing this content to Americans in groups about Trump, whether pro or con. They are making a lot of money doing it.

It is the side of things no one is looking at. People in the media and politics talk about Russians and Iranians meddling in American political affairs, but they are not looking at all the ties to fakers in other countries. Whether they are operating under real names or are using fake profiles, they do have ties to those countries.

My job, as I see it in this realm, is not simply to teach people what to look for, but also to teach Facebook what is going on – to help their algorithms get better at identifying obvious fakery. The fakery seems obvious to me, but they frequently miss it because they don’t seem to be looking for it.

Jacobsen: This ties into PTP, the Pro-Truth Pledge. It is around the same time, roughly around 2016, as well as Unfakery. I want to delve into both of those at the same time. How did you find PTP? How did you either found or co-found Unfakery?

Cravens: Let’s start with founding Unfakery first, I had been doing a bunch of debunking on my own page, as I could, or on the pages of people where I had found fakery. I realized that I needed a page to keep everything together.

It is over 1,600 likes now. It has not had a fantastic amount of growth. But it has gotten good support behind a good, core group of people who feed information to me, who tell me about fakery they’re seeing. They check and balance me. They advise on if I go over the edge on my tone, or if I have a particular creeping political bias. I keep them close for those reasons.

If I was going to be an authority on fakery and things like bias and media and journalism, I needed a team to hold me accountable. It is the same way with parents teaching children. Children will do their chores if they are supervised. As an adult, nobody does that for you unless you put someone in that place.

I decided to do that with this group, with people I can depend on to do those things. They help to build the team and maintain and increase my credibility. In the course of doing those things, I developed a lot of relationships with people across the internet. Craig Silverman interviewed me for Buzzfeed, I have a good working relationship with Alex Kaplan at Media Matters.

These guys share things I catch on my feed and look out for. Someone somewhere shared something about the PTP, and my eyes lit up. I read about the psychological approach, how you could hack your brain to be more truthful, to be more accountable.

Within a day or two, I signed the pledge, as an individual and as an organization. I was glad someone was looking at the psychological defences that one can employ against falling for fakery in their own lives. By doing this thing, you increase the odds other people will hold you accountable, and you also increase the odds in your own brain that you will think, “Oh, I am being graded on this.” It may not necessarily be in an official way, but you know somebody is watching. We always do better when we believe someone is watching us. We do not want to let people down. We want to make sure we’re honest, truthful, and sharing good information.

Sometimes, that value gets naturally skewed when people apply political principles to it. And though I have been a 20-year veteran of the Texas Republican Party and an activist of that sort, this seemed like a more important focus of my time and abilities, because this is where most of the problem lies. People I knew and trusted to have good sense had been fooled multiple times into sharing this stuff.

Fact-checking was not enough. There has to be a commitment to doing things right, not sharing content before I’ve verified and vetted it – or saying something is my opinion rather than claiming that it is fact. When I saw the PTP, I was ecstatic. I signed it, immediately, and pitched it to everyone I could.

I went to some of my team that I worked with for years about the standards the PTP used for fact-checking – what they considered good fact-checking. When I brought that back to PTP and Intentional Insights, they incorporated some changes based on the feedback. That, even more, made me think this is an organization I could support; the PTP team wanted to change and improve based on this feedback, and they recognized the validity of the feedback.

Jacobsen: In the earlier part of the interview, you mentioned the people who in the past were reasonable in personal opinion that fell for falsehoods both pro and con about President Trump. What is an example of people fooled in the pro-Trump side? What is an example of people fooled on the con-Trump side?

Cravens: You can see people cherrypicking stories to share based on how a story reflected their thoughts about the president. People interested in pushing back against the presidential agenda might have a response or a reaction to a story spun in the media one way on the one side, and spun in the media in another way on the other side.

It isn’t even just fakery, although, I saw a lot of that. There were a lot of people who were just falling for the first or early account of something that might have been revised later: “Oh, it wasn’t really that bad,” or, “Oh, it wasn’t really that good.” There was a lot of that.

There was also fakery around, say, what would happen with Hillary Clinton after the election. There were rumours of people on the Right were seeing in their feed: that indictments of people close to Hillary were coming down, or sometimes it was people who had worked for the State Department who were talking to investigators. Those sort of stories were popping up regularly.

I remember the first post on Unfakery had to do with Mueller. It was a quote attributed to Robert Mueller, but the actual quote came from someone with a similar name. They put the quote from the other person – a Belgian named Robert Muller – with Mueller’s face on it. I added a FAKE stamp to the image and put it out there, and people who saw it got to see that this wasn’t true.

That was when I realized a visual presentation was more impactful than simply a paragraph – or two or three – of text explaining why a thing was fake. I decided to make the images with “Fake” stamped on them, so people could immediately understand this was suspect. Underneath I would add links to things that would help, too.

Over time, I found some things work better to reach people wherever they were. But it usually comes down to this: I take an image of an actual Facebook post and stamp “Fake” on it – and then maybe redact the names so as not to embarrass anyone. It gives people the idea that this is what that fake post looks like, so people can identify it and remember that it had been labeled “Fake” when it comes up in their feed once more.

This is one tactic to fight fakery. And we need to talk tactics. I see a lot of articles and discussions from think tanks and journalists bemoaning and wailing about how horrible fake news is, how prevalent it is, how all over the place it is, what populations fall for it, and what ramifications it has.

But I saw so few people discussing what to do about it; what normal, average, everyday people could do. That is the gap I wanted to fill. That is why PTP is part of the toolbox for me. I think it is one thing average, everyday people can do to pushback. Once they realize there is a problem, they can then move to a solution orientation.

Jacobsen: Looking forward, one issue is the fakery that gets out or the spin that is the first impression taken as truth that gets out. The problem there is now a certain portion of the population, of which that media gets to, will believe it.

It creates a problem in cleanup. Because, in essence, the work that people would do through Snopes, your own work, or PTP, when people get the critical thinking tools or are able to spot those falsehoods.

The preventative tools are helpful. But, in many cases, there is a problem in the cleanup crew aspect of it. Do you have any idea of what the costs are to the public in having to not only deal with the fakery right on its nose as it comes out but also with cleanup as things go along?

Cravens: I don’t think people think it is a problem as much as I think it is a problem. So I am always coming at it from the perspective of “I am far more worried about it and cognizant of it.” What people tend to do in my circles that come across fakery, they send it to me to check it out, or to alert me to it.

That is the highest interaction that I have now with most of the people involved in catching fakery in my circles. As far as the people sharing it to me, if they are sharing something novel to me, it is, apparently, because my circles are well-curated now. I don’t see a lot of fakery from people organically in my feed.

When I see fakery now, it all comes from actively going to look for it. I have very skewed biases as to how much is out there, where it comes from, how many people are involved in seeing it, and the level of damage it does.

But I do have a theory about the idea of what happens when fakery is shared in Facebook groups. Let’s use the Pakistanis feeding fakery into Trump related groups on Facebook at Americans as an example. When you see calls for those indictments that are imminent but they never develop, or people about to receive their comeuppance, or the article is phrased, “So-and-So Got Revenge in the Best Way,” such as, “Sarah Sanders Putting This Rude Reporter in Their Place at a Press Conference.”

You see those headlines. People hear this sort of thing. They start to base opinions on things someone never said, statements attributed to them that never happened. They base opinions on events that are always just around the corner, but that never quite materialize. Psychologically, I find that damaging. Whether this ever gets cleaned up or not, it will have a huge and lasting negative effect.

This happens in the United States, with people creating fakery factories to make money – which is bad enough. But we also have other countries using the tactic of targeting Americans with fakery for financial or political profit. I think it is like a water effect.

If you give enough water enough time, it will wear down stone. I think people’s souls are not even that solid. This sort of thing seeps into them. These fakery-based opinions calcify in someone’s brains. It also solidifies the attitude and tone in which they are presented. I think of it like a game of “Your Mama” politics – just hurling insults back and forth as the Red Team and the Blue Team.

This whole “Your Mama” politics tone makes people more comfortable in presenting in this tone online with one another. What happens, though, when this occurs in real life? What happens when they adopt this uncivil phrasing in their life about politics.

What does that do to us long-term as a people, where we cannot have critical and important conversations about solving problems, because we are too busy insulting the other guy? That is my biggest fear.

Eventually, not only will we be unable to talk about the same facts, or agree that something is a fact, which is already happening. But we will not even be able to be in the same room with someone with differing views to have the same discussion. That is petrifying to me.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Felicia.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Brent Gorwin on Unsplash

Image Credit: Felicia Cravens.

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