Reflections

The Fake News Problem

“How do we know that something happened? That what we’re seeing is real?”
—  David Grossman, BBC Newsnight

Fake news is the latest phrase in America’s lexicon that is used to discredit the media and add to the already abundant lack of trust in it. It is arguably one of the most popular terms that emerged out of the recent Presidential Election, with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo calling it the “equivalent of the N-word for journalists.” (He later issued an apology for the comparison.)

There are two different, but equally important, types of fake news.

The first one is more like “faux” news, which is made deliberately to look like news that comes from established news outlets like ABC News or The New York Times. The perpetrators create outlandish articles, usually completely made-up, with the purpose of amassing viewership, spreading false information and, more importantly, profit from the traffic. These types of articles tend to pop-up on Facebook feeds, and because people don’t take the time to examine them critically, they are shared and re-shared until the general belief becomes that the fake story is a real one. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fight fake news, but said that he wanted to make sure attempts to harness fake news did not limit freedom of expression.

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The second type of fake news emerged from the first type, when President Donald Trump accused longstanding news institutions, such as CNN and Times Magazine, of creating fake news. President Trump’s press secretary called it “deliberately false reporting,” and the accusations are not without merit. On the evening of President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2016, Time Magazine White House correspondent Zeke Miller reported that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not in the Oval Office, and therefore must have been removed by the new administration. It turned out that the bust was simply obscured by a door, and was in fact still present in the Oval Office. Miller quickly issued an apology and retracted the report, but the damage was already done, and in this instant world, it was shared countless times all over the internet.

There are ways that both types of fake news can be fought. With stronger filters and more caution from the reader, the fake news stories that appear on Facebook can be stopped. If news organizations give reporters more time to check their sources, and reduce the pressure to instantaneously report and update social media accounts, the second type of fake news stories can also be avoided. However, with the rapid growth of technology, a third category of fake news looms ahead, and it is the most dangerous.

Emily Bell from the Columbia Journalism School says that the next thing in fake news will be the ability to recreate people, “manipulate their voices,” and “manipulate their facial expressions,” using digital technology. Additionally, computer software giant Adobe Systems is releasing a new software program called VoCo, which can make anyone say anything by simply typing it in.

Before these technological advances catch up, the media needs to not only deal with the challenges we face today in regards to fake news, but also prepare to fight the issues that will arise tomorrow. If not, the lines between reality and illusion will be blurred, and then how will we know that something really happened, and that what we’re seeing is real?

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If I Were a Bird

[Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy]

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“When we got off the train that night, the city was eerily quiet. There was not a soul around. I said to my husband, ‘Something happened here. Something is wrong.’ We caught a driver, and my husband told me to turn towards the window and conceal my face from the driver. When we pulled up to our block, neighbors were gathered outside. I knew right away that something was very wrong. I knew that something had happened right in my building. As I was running up to my floor, I ran into one of my neighbors. She was sobbing, yelling at me, ‘You need to look for your children! Go look for your children!’ I ran up to my apartment breathless. The door was wide open. My daughters were gone.”

That faithful night was over 26 years ago, but Anna Grigoryan, a Charlotte resident, can recall every detail second by second. The Grigoryan family, ethnic Armenians, were caught in the middle of a rivalry between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians started in 1988, they hit a climactic point on Jan. 13, 1990. The next seven days, from Jan. 13 to Jan. 19, 1990, became known as the Baku Pogrom. During this time, the Armenian population, which had called Azerbaijan home for centuries, were beaten, raped, murdered, and banished from their homes.

Anna Grigoryan and her husband, both Armenians, were born in Baku, Azerbaijan and had lived there for most of their lives. Along with their two daughters and son, they eventually immigrated to the United States in 1991, and made Charlotte their home. Anna is retired; her husband passed away a few years ago. Her oldest daughter owns a salon and spa, and her youngest is an established stylist in Los Angeles. Anna’s son, who was studying in Moscow during the ordeals described, is an interpreter. But it’s been difficult for them to forget Bake and Azerbaijan, and the frightening years that eventually left them banished from their home.

“My mother used to tell me harrowing tales about the Armenian genocide that happened in 1915, about mass murders and displaced families, and I never in a million years thought that anything like that would touch me. I used to say to her, ‘Mama, we live in the late 20th century, things like that don’t happen anymore!’ But just six months after her death in 1988, the unrest began. People started talking – someone was beaten here; someone was killed there. But that didn’t feel real to me. It was somewhere far from Baku. Baku was my home. No one could hurt us there.”

But the tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians continued to escalate. The violence had started in Nagorno-Karabakh, a historically Armenian territory that was being occupied by Azerbaijan, which wanted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia during the Perestroika, when the Soviet Union was falling apart. This caused conflict between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the course of a few months, that conflict spread throughout Azerbaijan and into its capital city, Baku.

During the Baku Pogrom, Azerbaijani extremists would beat anyone on the streets resembling Armenians – and they did not spare the elderly, women, or children. They had lists with the names and addresses of Armenians living in the city, and they would come tearing doors down, raping, beating, and killing families, and then stealing their belongings.

It was on January 13, 1990 that Anna Grigoryan and her husband traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia for a relative’s funeral. Their daughters, who were at the time in their early teens, stayed home with one of their friend’s with a stern warning from Anna to not open the door for anyone.

“My oldest daughter, Elya, had a friend visiting. My husband is half-Ukrainian, so my daughters did not have the typical Armenian facial features. Lilya, their friend, looked more Armenian. While my husband and I were gone, one of our neighbors, who lived in the building next to us, told the militants that we were an Armenian family, and showed them to our apartment.”

“They began beating on the door, and my girls didn’t open, just as I had told them to. So then they said they would tear the door down. Elya hid Lilya in the bedroom, and opened the door to the band of men. They looked at her and said to the man that brought them there, ‘They’re not Armenian! Why’d you bring us here?’ But then Lilya stuck her head out the door, and so they grabbed all three of them, my two daughters and Lilya, and dragged them out of the building. Lilya protested. They hit her across the face.”

When Anna and her husband came home to an empty apartment, Anna, a well-known and liked member of her community, began making calls to her precinct officer.
“He started yelling at me, ‘Where did you go? Why did you leave at a time like this?’ Give me some time, I will look for your daughters.”

And so Anna and her husband sat, in anguish and fear, and waited. Two hours later, two men in government uniforms brought all three girls home. But even today, they find it difficult to talk about that frightening night.

“They were taken to basements by a nearby park. I knew that park. As a little girl, I took dance classes by it. The basements were big, with multiple rooms, all filled with Armenians. The girls could hear brutal screams coming from the other rooms; unimaginable things were happening there. But by God’s grace, my daughters were taken to separate room, with armed guards standing by the door. I still don’t know why that happened. Maybe it’s because they saw how innocent these girls were, or maybe they had other, less noble reasons.”

But Anna chooses to believe the first version. Despite all that she had seen and endured, she still believes in her Baku, and in its Azerbaijani population who, from the time of her birth, were her neighbors, her coworkers, and her dear friends.

That night, after Anna’s daughters came home, the family rapidly gathered their belongings. They took only necessities, a few clothing items and some valuables, planning to come back in the morning to gather the rest of their belongings – which included antiques, imported goods (a luxury during the Soviet era) and rare chinaware. But that was the last time they ever saw their home.

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An elderly woman is being escorted onto a ferry. Photo credit: asbarez.com

“We hid out at our Azerbaijani friends’ homes for about a week – good people that could see through the injustices.”
To restore order in Azerbaijan, the Soviet Union had to send in their troops. One week after they left their home, Soviet soldiers put Anna and her family, along with other Armenians, on a ferry boat and evacuated them to Turkmenbasy, formerly known as Krasnovodsk, a city in Turkmenistan.
“The ferries were full of victims of the Baku Pogrom – elderly folk and women with beaten faces, on canes and stretchers. It was a frightening journey, because we heard that some of the boats that left prior to ours were flipped over by militants, drowning the people on board.”

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A victim of the Baku Pogrom. Photo credit: asbarez.com

From Turkmenistan the Grigoryan family journeyed to Armenia, and then to Moscow where Anna’s son was studying. They were eventually granted visas to the United States as refugees, where they slowly started to rebuild their lives.

Baku is now a metropolitan city that attracts thousands of tourists each year. Despite all this, Armenians are still not welcome. But Anna holds no resentment towards Baku or the people of Azerbaijan.

“There were some extremists, but in general, they are good, loving people. I had so many wonderful neighbors and friends. Throughout the horrors that lasted from 1988 to 1990, my Azerbaijani friends always helped us and shielded us when they could.”

Now, Anna just has one dream, and that is to see her beloved Baku just one more time.

“If I were a bird, if I could fly, I would fly straight to Baku, just to get a glimpse of my home and the street it stands on. Even from afar, that would make me so happy. My beautiful Baku. My beautiful Baku.”

You Should Know What Happened on February 23

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On a cold winter’s night, at around 2 a.m., knocks were heard on doors throughout the small villages.  Armed soldiers surrounded each small house.  One by one, as each family opened doors to their unexpected visitors, they were read a decree by the soldiers, “Under the orders of Josef Stalin, you will be deported.  You have two hours to gather your belongings.  Those who resist will be executed.”

It was February 23, 1944.  In the dead of winter, the people of the Chechen Republic and the Republic of Ingushetia (at that time known as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) were falsely accused of aiding Nazi Germany and ordered to be deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Shocked and confused, families went back inside to pull their belongings together.  They thought, they believed, that they were only leaving for a few days, so they didn’t pack much, or else they didn’t have much to pack.

In the village of Haybah, over 700 women, children, and elderly were told to gather at a horse stable to await further orders.  The orders never came.  They were burned alive.

In Galanchozh, thousands of people were executed by a firing squad, and their bodies dumped in the Galanchozh Lake.

The remaining were loaded onto trucks, taken to train stations, and crammed onto cattle wagons.   Families and loved ones were separated.

“It was winter.  We had no food, no warm clothing.  The cold was more unbearable than the hunger,” remembers one elderly man, then just a young boy.

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There was an ample amount of snow fall, and the frigid winds flew in from all sides of the cattle wagons.  There was no room to lay down.  As people died, their bodies were thrown out of the still moving wagons.  People would try to hide their dead loved ones from the officers of the Russian Army with the hope that they could eventually give them a proper burial.

“Not even half of the people in my wagon made it,” recalled another woman.

It was, by every definition of the word, a genocide of the Chechen and Ingush people.

In total, 478,479 people were uprooted from their homeland and dropped off in the middle of nowhere, during a notoriously cold Russian winter, with nothing but the blue sky over their heads.

Countless lives were lost before the people ever made it to their final destination, and countless more died from hunger, hypothermia, and typhoid fever in the first years of exile.  But the most deaths were caused by heartbreak at being separated from their beloved motherland.

It is estimated that anywhere from 35-50 percent of the Chechen and Ingush populations died.

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the tragedy.  The world has a long and bloody history, but we must remember every part of it.  At a time when there is so much anger and fighting going on in the world, it is only by remembering our past mistakes do we have the slight hope of not repeating our failures.

My people, the Chechen and Ingush people, have seen a lot of war and bloodshed, both 72 years ago and in the past 20 years.  But to describe my brave people, I always remember these lines from Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

 

 After 13 years of exile, the Chechen and Ingush people were finally allowed to return to their motherland in 1957.

How I Spent New Years Eve in Times Square

New year. New memories.

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For many years, along with most of America, my best friend and I would start off December by worrying about one big thing – what are we going to do on New Year’s Eve? It has been a question that has brought about many bouts of depression and anxiety, as we always had to settle for a house party that involved chips, pizza, and watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV with about 10 other people. And, every single year, we would dream about being live in Times Square instead.

The incredible thing about my best friend (Katie) and I is that we always seem to get what we want. I don’t mean to say that we are spoiled or privileged (although I often consider myself the latter). It seems that when we get an idea into our heads, someway or somehow, even if it is many years later, we get exactly what we asked for.

Which is how two days ago, on the eve of December 31st, we found ourselves right in the middle of Times Square. And, like the true champions that we are, we were there from 12 p.m. until 12 a.m.

Contrary to what they say on television, it was not one big party. Who would have guessed, right? In all honesty, we were mentally preparing ourselves for complete misery weeks in advance. Still, when it was only 3 o’clock, and we already felt sleepy, tired, and bored, we couldn’t help but ask each other, “What were we thinking?!”

We arrived, as always, later than originally planned. We were yelling to the world that we would be the first ones in line, at 9 a.m., downright unstoppable. Ha. Ha. We arrived at noon and there was already a big crowd. Naturally, I panicked because that’s just what I do. Naturally, Katie remained calm, because that’s just what she does.

There were people going in all different directions, and we ran up to one officer who said that screening was at 49th street. No one was allowed to enter without getting screened and their bag checked. We ran to 49th street, which turned out to be quite some way from where we were. I was ten feet behind Katie, panting and begging her to slow down. She would until I would catch up, and then she’d leave me and I’d be ten feet behind her once again. This continued on until I wailed about a blister, and she switched boots with me so I would shut up.

After a few more wrong turns, we got in line to be scanned with metal detectors and have our bags checked. I would like to note that all of the police officers were courteous and very helpful (go NYPD!) I was concerned that we would get in trouble for bringing in sandwiches and protein bars, but the officer just looked at us with sympathy and understanding.

We ended up in a pen with a group of tourists from France. Everyone sat down on the ground to prepare for the 12-hour wait, and Katie and I occupied ourselves with a game of Heads Up. Even the tourists from France joined in, guessing the right songs and superstars when I was incapable of doing so myself.

At around 3 p.m., we saw some movement ahead of us. The good thing about being in a small group of just two is that you’re always ready to go. So while the French tourists were gathering their belongings and pooling their party together, Katie and I jumped over their heads and ran to the front. We ended up three rows back from the front of our section. We were right in front of the ball, but were disappointed when we realized that the stage with all of the performers was behind us, and we couldn’t see anything that was going on back there. Instead, we had to watch all of the singers on a big screen, which was exactly like watching it at home.

The cool thing, however, was that we were in front of a smaller stage where the hosts were interviewing people, and we kept seeing Ryan Seacrest and Jenny McCarthy going back and forth with their squads. Jenny McCarthy was absolutely stunning. Every time one of them would pass by us, Katie and I would start screaming, “JENNNY! JEEENNNNYY! OMG, RYAAAAAN!!! RRRRAYAN!” Everyone else was super quiet. We were the only ones yelling.

But, hey, at least we caught Jenny McCarthy’s attention! I told her that she was beautiful, and she blew us kisses…

You laugh, but I live for this kind of stuff.

At around 7 p.m., they passed around hats and balloons. I almost fought a girl for a hat, felt super guilty about going all crazy lady on her, and ended up turning around and saying, “I’m sorry, do you have a hat? Here, have mine…” like an unstable person. I’m sure she didn’t think I was nuts or anything like that.

[Note to self: If you go crazy, just go crazy all the way. Don’t do that weird stuff where you switch back and forth between being a total psychopath and sweet PTA mom.]

At this same time, I was dreaming of being at home, eating food and drinking water in front of my television. Katie and I kept saying to each other, “What is the point of us being here?”

Toward 9 p.m., our spirits lifted and we decided that since we were there, we might as well make the best of it. We pulled out our balloons, put on our hats, and started to jump in place and sing out loud. Some people were grouchy, others were laying on the ground completely miserable (but determined to stay until midnight). We, on the other hand, were jamming out to Demi Lovato and Jessie J.

In the last hour, my excitement was starting to dwindle down again. I kept sitting on the ground to regain some energy. When there was only ten minutes left until 12:00, Jessie J did a beautiful cover of Imagine, and by the time she finished there were 90 seconds left until midnight, and the huge, final countdown began.

All of the regrets I had during the course of the 12 hours that I stood outside in Times Square immediately disappeared when that last countdown started. As the seconds ticked by, and everyone screamed out the numbers, the level of positive energy and anticipation was through the sky. And when the clock stroked midnight, I realized that it was all completely worth it.

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We jumped, we screamed, we hugged as Times Square exploded with confetti to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

It truly was a once in a lifetime experience.

I hope you have an incredible, through-the-roof amazing 2016!