Conservatives have a fake news problem (But don’t worry, we can blame the mainstream media)
Nov. 17, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Have you heard the shocking news? President Obama has signed an executive order mandating a full recount of all votes cast in the election. He’s also ordered a “special election” to be held on Dec. 19. Donald Trump is furious, and denounced Obama’s decision as proof that “the system was rigged all along.” “President Obama doesn’t care about what the American people want,” he said, according to abcnews.com.co.
None of that’s true, of course. Abcnews.com.co is a "news" site in the same way that a bowl of glass shards is a balanced meal. It’s but one example of the rapidly metastasizing stage 4 cancer of the Internet - fake news sites - which are flooding our social media feeds with lies and misinformation, often designed to dupe even the well-informed into clicking “share” by confirming as authentic the most extreme versions of our personal prejudices.
The above-mentioned example, and all the quotations in it, are 100% fabricated. But for site owner and professional Internet troll Paul Horner, none of that matters. All that matters to him is that his article has been “liked” and “shared” on Facebook a staggering 251,000+ times, likely generating millions of pageviews for his site, and putting thousands of dollars in advertising revenue in his pocket.
Horner, the originator of numerous Internet hoaxes, including a widely-shared article claiming the Amish had endorsed Trump, thereby ensuring his victory, and another article claiming a protester admitted he was paid $3500 to protest a Trump rally - even Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandoski, fell for those, sharing them on social media - told the Washington Post this week that he makes $10k/month in ad revenue from Google Adsense alone.
Not bad, for making stuff up.
The staggering and the weird: the growth and origin of fake news
We’re learning a lot about fake news this week. Liberal media outfits like Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have donned the crusader's mantle against fake news, unleashing their reporters to evict the infidel off their land, replete with dark hints that the phenomenon may even have been responsible for the election of Donald Trump.
One sobering Buzzfeed article found that in the three months prior to the election the top 20 fake news articles received more engagements on Facebook than the top 20 "real news" stories by mainstream outfits like the New York Times. One story alone by the unscrupulous EndingtheFed.com, claiming falsely that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, received an astronomical 960,000 Facebook engagements. Compare that to the top "real" mainstream article, a hit piece by the Washington Post on Donald Trump, which received only 849,000 engagements.
Where things got really weird, is when Buzzfeed tried to find out where all this fake news is coming from. In “How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News," Buzzfeed reporters traced dozens of fake U.S.-focused news websites to the tiny town of Vales, in Macedonia. (Yes, that Macedonia.) There they found a group of apolitical entrepreneurial youngsters who had hit upon an unlikely path forward in the economically fragile country – exploiting pro-Trump Americans’ gullibility to generate web traffic, and ad revenue.
Of course, the Macedonian sites are only a slice of the fake news industry, typically plagiarizing or embellishing the content of their sleazy U.S.-based confreres. But their success illustrates the impact that fake news is having, and the coldly mercenary motives behind much of it. One of the fake Macedonian sites, USA NewsFlash, boasts 621,000 fans on their Facebook page. The top article produced by the town’s unlikely cottage industry - “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought.’”- amassed over 500,000 likes and shares on Facebook.
Some critics have shot back at Buzzfeed’s investigations, highlighting weaknesses with some of their methodology. But at the end of the day, there’s just no getting around the hard numbers. Fake news is spreading like a virus: and if an informed populace is the basis of a healthy, functioning democracy, then this mass distribution and consumption of fake news is a problem that cannot be overstated.
Google/Facebook to crack down: conservatives wary
Google and Facebook have responded to demands that they take action, announcing plans to crack down by banning fake news sites from running ads from their ad networks - thereby removing the financial incentives that keep the industry alive.
Some conservatives are skeptical. The Drudge Report put scare quotes around the word “fake” in their headline about Google/Facebook’s initiative. The implication was clear: these liberal Internet giants can’t be trusted; expect them to use the controversy to marginalize and punish alternative media sources who dare to violate the liberal mainstream media orthodoxy.
And there are reasons to be concerned. Google and Facebook are not innocent bystanders in the culture wars, having shown themselves willing to throw their corpulent corporate weight behind efforts to advance leftist causes, and to quash conservative ones. Meanwhile, one directory of "false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical sites" created by a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, which was given prominent coverage in the LATimes and New York Magazine, originally included perfectly legitimate, if unapologetically right-wing alternative news sources like The Daily Wire, Breitbart News, Red State, and The Blaze.
But publicly, at least, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has responded to the controversy with circumspection, dismissing the idea that fake news helped elect Trump as “crazy,” and rejecting appeals to outright ban fake news from appearing on Facebook over free speech concerns.
In a post on his Facebook page last week, Zuckerberg announced that while the platform is looking into allowing users to “flag” hoaxes and fake news, he’s suspicious of Facebook’s taking on the role of Internet truth-police. “Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated,” he wrote, observing that while weeding out some outright hoaxes can be easy, a lot of news content, even from "mainstream sources," can fall somewhere in between, getting “the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted.” Facebook, he said, “must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
And a smart move for Facebook, which is still smarting from Gizmodo’s revelations earlier this year that their “trending” news bar was moderated by a team of real-life editors who tended to lean left politically, and who were apparently not afraid to spike (or modify) trending stories if they originated from conservative media sources.
And yet, conservatives who are skittish about the way the outrage at “fake news” may be used to quash free speech must also frankly acknowledge that the explosion of fake news is a real cause for concern – and one that is also, to some degree, of our own making.
Conservatives have a fake news problem...
Buzzfeed gleefully reports that some of the Macedonian impresarios of fake news sites experimented with “left-leaning or pro-Bernie Sanders content,” but gave it up because “nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content.”
Meanwhile, professional hoaxter Paul Horner worries that Trump may well be headed to the White House by virtue of his own success. "[Trump's] followers don’t fact-check anything," he bemoaned to the Washington Post, "they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist."
So, are Trump supporters inherently more gullible - or, as the big media would have it, less scrupulous - than liberals?
Obviously, it's a loaded question - and an impossible one to answer. And yet, while liberals certainly have their own fake news problems, it's hard to deny that in the lead-up to this election fake news sites disproprotionately targeted Trump supporters. Indeed, if my own Facebook news feed is any indication, in the days before the election far too many Trump supporters were far too quick to play the unwitting mules to the digital crack being trafficked by the fake news kingpins, clicking "share" without fact-checking, or, strangely, apparently without being deterred by the grotesque and often downright immoral ads that plastered many of these crudely erected ersatz "conservative" sites.
The stories were juicy, sensational, and, in an election cycle rife with the bizarre, clandestine, unsavory, and duplicitous, at times believable: Anonymous had obtained a video of Bill Clinton having sex with an underage girl, and was planning on releasing it days before the election; a “hacker” on the “dark web” had revealed that Wikileaks was going to release the entire trove of 33,000 e-mails the Clinton team had deleted from her private server before turning it over to the FBI on Nov. 2; “anonymous sources” had revealed in gruesome detail precisely what the NYPD had found in the Clinton e-mails discovered on Anthony Weiner’s computer, including evidence that Hillary is a pedophile; one of Clinton's aides had said she was "acting like a retard" and smelled like "boiled cabbage"; Facebook was hiding pro-Trump comments; the "media" had edited a photo of a Clinton rally to make it look far bigger than it was.
While hoaxes, unscrupulous or heavily slanted news sources, and incompetent journalists and bloggers have been around a long time, the rise of a large and concerted fake news industry is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many of us are still adjusting to the fact that there are people out there, skilled in the business of marketing and content creation, who are deliberately seeking to deceive us by manufacturing wholesale believable-sounding news, posting it on believable-looking sites with believable-sounding names, and all to make a buck.
But we can no longer count ourselves uninformed. It's up to all of us to engage in a concerted effort to fight the scourge of fake news in the two ways that we all can: firstly, by not sharing anything questionable that we haven't first fact-checked (a 15-second Google search is often enough to debunk many of the worst offenders), and secondly, by charitably flagging fake news that we see being shared by others on social media.
...but the mainstream media helped create the monster
And yet, if the Buzzfeeds, Washington Posts, and New York Times of the world spent half the energy they're now expending on preening themselves on how "real" and "legitimate" they are on brutally honest post-Clinton self-analsyis, they might be surprised to discover to what degree they are responsible for generating the climate in which fake news flourishes.
There is unintentional irony in Buzzfeed's use of the word "real" in the the above-mentioned exposé of how some fake news outperformed "real" news on Facebook. In their list of the top five real news articles, every single article is a hit piece on Donald Trump. Among them is the laughable HuffPo op-ed in which the author argues that the only reason people hate Hillary Clinton (who, by the way, is a paragon of honesty and transparency) is...because she's a woman (Seriously. Go read it); or that exceptional piece of NYPost journalism in which they released photos from Melania Trump's nude lesbian photo shoot; or that totally objective and non-partisan WaPo article: "Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?"
In a delightful and devastatingly playful piece over at The Free Beacon, Bill McMorris has done us the favor of compiling a list of many of the shamelessly and fatally slanted, or downright inaccurate "legitimate" news articles produced this election cycle by the New York Times, which is now wringing its hands over the question of how "real" news can survive the surge of the fake.
In a revealing piece in Vanity Fair, "Maybe the right-wing media isn't crazy after all," the former CEO of NPR, Ken Stern, describes his experience of daily reading the unapologetically pro-Trump Breitbart News - whose reporting he describes as "mean-spirited and fantastically one-sided" - and then the eureka moment he experienced whilst reading The Washington Post:
When I checked the news the other day, it was more of the same. I counted some 20 articles about the presidential race, each espousing the unequivocal view that one candidate is collapsing due to moral failings, financial improprieties, and complete and utter lack of judgment and ethics. Notably, I was not reading Breitbart. Instead, I was reading The Washington Post, delivered to my doorstep, and the attacks were squarely waged not against the Clintons but rather against Trump.
Stern begrudgingly admits:
[T]his election is different: for the first time in my memory, some of the major media organizations in this country have now abandoned all semblance of objectivity in furtherance of electing Hillary Clinton, or perhaps more accurately, in furtherance of the defeat of Donald Trump.
On that score, I'm not so sure how very different this election was from past ones, other than that Stern finally noticed; at the most it was a matter of degree, not kind. However, one notable difference is that this election Republicans felt empowered by knowing that they at least had some powerful media in their corner, in the form of Breitbart, Wikileaks, and a handful of other alternative, more-or-less legitimate news outlets.
Indeed, much can be explained, and much understood, simply by the fact that Republicans were forced to rely on the cloak-and-dagger tactics of Wikileaks to learn substantial truths about Clinton. While Democrats could rest easy knowing that the media were doing due diligence - and more than due diligence - in digging up any dirt on Trump, Republicans had no such confidence that the same was being done in the case of Clinton.
The un-self-reflecting and one-sided insularity of much of the mainstream media, together with the atmosphere of uncertainty, drama, and subversiveness surrounding Wikileaks' timed releases of Clinton's e-mails, and a populace untrained in the difficult business of fact-checking were a potent mix this election: together they created the vacuum of trust into which fake news swarmed, catering to the craving of disenfranchized citizens for alternative media voices where they might find their worldview reflected and their concerns being addressed.
At least The New York Times has got one thing right though. As Times journalist Jim Rutenberg writes: "The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism. And how well the news media gets through its postelection hangover will have a lot to do with how the next chapter in the American political story is told.”
I'm not holding my breath.