Why Fake News Matters

Fake news, as I discussed last month (“Faking It,” The Rockford Files), is a very real problem, though less for the reasons commonly given (the potentially destructive effects it may have on our “democracy”) and more for the fact that it both flows from a lack of concern for truth (and thus says something about the character of those who consume and disseminate it) and reinforces that lack of concern through the “rush” that sharing fake news (on social media especially) provides.  (As Aaron Wolf explains in his Heresies column this month, social media encourages this disregard for truth through the short-term dopamine “hit” that one gets from striking out at one’s enemies, real or imagined.)  The explosion of fake news, or rather the credulity with which it is accepted and promulgated, is in the end just another symptom of our subjugation of culture (of which the transmission of truth must always be not merely a central concern but the central concern) to politics, in which the only “truth”—or, at least, the only one that “matters”—is winning.

A sober, rational discussion of the danger of fake news has been hampered by the problem of definition: What, exactly, qualifies as fake news?  In the roughly eight weeks (at the time of this writing) since the rise of fake news became a real news story, the definition has morphed repeatedly, depending on the circumstances and the political leanings of the person or institution offering the definition.

The first definition, which most people, left and right, seemed initially prepared to accept, was fairly clear—a fake news story is an Onion-style satire or parody presented by its publisher, and accepted by significant numbers of readers, as if it were true.  Mainstream news outlets, most notably the Washington Post and the New York Times, ran extensive profiles of fake-news publishers, often in Eastern Europe (a very high number are based in Macedonia, for some reason), who crank out poorly crafted (and almost always poorly written) satire by the gigabyte, hoping that one story or another will go viral and lead to millions of page views, thus driving up revenue from ad networks (including, despite its supposed concern for truth and reliability in search results, the one owned by Google).  These fakesters assured the Times and the Post that they are essentially equal-opportunity, throwing stories left and right and not caring which ones will stick, so long as something does.  (Indeed, many of their fake-news stories have nothing to do with U.S. politics and everything to do with trending topics; Pope Francis is another frequent subject of such pieces.)

The second definition of fake news followed only a week or so later, and quickly eclipsed the first.  As I discussed last month, the fake news stories that were most frequently shared on social media in 2016 were those targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign, rather than Donald Trump and his.  That imbalance was worth exploring, though few reporters from mainstream publications were able to do so well, because the reason for the imbalance has to do not simply with “right-wing echo chambers” on Facebook and other social media, but with an overreaction to the left-wing echo chambers found in mainstream newsrooms.  This manifests itself among self-identified “conservatives” in an odd mix of cynicism and credulity, in which any news story, no matter how pedestrian, reported by the mainstream media is immediately suspect, while the fact that an outlandish claim, such as the “Pizzagate” rumor, did not appear in mainstream publications is seen not as evidence of some remaining level of journalistic standards at those publications but as evidence that the story must be true.

Unable to cop to their own role in engendering a backlash that fostered the acceptance of fake news, mainstream reporters had to come up with another reason for the imbalance.  Despite the fact that fake-news purveyors had gone on the record to say that all they wanted to do was to make money, and that in creating fake-news stories they targeted Donald Trump as often as they did Hillary Clinton, and that they were themselves surprised by the fact that negative fake stories about Clinton were shared more often than negative fake stories about Trump, mainstream reporters sensed a grand conspiracy: The imbalance must be proof of a massive fake-news propaganda campaign designed to aid Donald Trump.  That the imbalance existed in the subject of the articles most shared, and not in the subject of the articles created, should have made it clear from the beginning that this theory had problems, but coming as it did at the same time that CIA leaks were alleging that the Russian government had tried to swing the election in Trump’s favor by obtaining and releasing emails and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the theory quickly became accepted as fact.  After all, many of these fake-news sites were based in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s somewhere over there, right?

Where the first definition of fake news made it seem a crass commercial enterprise that may have had some unintended consequences because of the gullibility of American voters, the second took on a much darker cast.  And that led to another backlash, this time among Trump voters and other political conservatives who decided that, if “fake news” were now to be defined as “Russian propaganda,” then those who expressed a concern about fake news could only be doing so in order to call into question the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election—which, to be fair, does seem quite often to have been the case (particularly among writers for the Washington Post).  But it does not follow—as many then concluded—that there is no such thing as fake news, and that the very concept was simply ginned up by the mainstream media for political purposes.  The first, straightforward, definition of fake news can still be correct, while the second may be ideologically driven and wrong.

Yet when truth is subjugated to political necessity, such rational distinctions fall by the wayside.  And so a third definition of fake news arose among Trump voters and fellow travelers: Fake news is all a matter of perspective.  If Pizzagate can be called “fake news,” then so can “Gropegate.”  In this definition, what makes something “fake” is not whether it actually happened—that is, whether there is some element of truth to it (Donald Trump did, after all, actually say what he was recorded saying)—but whether disseminating the story advances or hinders one’s own political agenda.  And so a not insignificant number of people who have for years decried the rise of “relativism” have become relativists themselves.

A concrete example can be found in the abandonment of Pizzagate by its chief promoters (Alex Jones of InfoWars and his ilk) when, in the wake of the shooting at Comet Pizza (the supposed site of Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s “underage sex-slave ring”), the story became a political liability.  Jones and others who had promoted Pizzagate did not recant the story, much less apologize for having promoted it; they simply expunged it from their websites and social-media outlets, trying to send it down an Orwellian memory hole (after, it should be noted, a brief attempt to claim that the shooter was simply an actor hired to try to discredit the promoters of Pizzagate—a particularly odious claim considering the role that they had played in destroying this man’s life, yet one that was not surprising, coming as it did from people who had also claimed that the massacre of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 was a “false flag” operation designed to further the Obama administration’s gun-control agenda).  Either the allegations that formed the core of Pizzagate were true, or they weren’t; that they were politically useful before the election and no longer so after some poor patsy landed himself in jail because he believed them shows that a concern for the truth played no part whatsoever in the decision of Jones and others to promote Pizzagate.

A concern for the truth—no matter how politically inconvenient it may be, or how politically useful a lie may prove—lies at the heart of any true conservatism (and, it goes without saying, at the heart of Christianity).  Those who cannot see that—or, rather, refuse to see that—are as much the enemies of civilization as those who deliberately attempt to undermine it.  Like everything else in life, sharing something on Facebook or Twitter is a moral act; failing to determine whether something is true because you hope to harm your “enemies” by spreading the story around does not mitigate the sin of calumny—it deepens your culpability.        

First published in the February 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Faking It

If one were to believe the mainstream media—and who doesn’t believe the mainstream media?—Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of these United States this month because over 60 million Americans are unable, and possibly unwilling, to tell the difference between true, objective reporting, filled with facts and designed only to help the citizens of this great nation make enlightened decisions, and “fake news,” chock-full of Russian propaganda designed to put a latter-day Manchurian candidate in the White House.

It’s easy, of course, to tell the difference between real news and “fake news”: Real news is found in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, in the Washington Post and on CNN, while “fake news” is found—well, almost anywhere else.  The proof that “fake news” is responsible for the election of Donald Trump is equally obvious: Donald Trump was elected, and anyone who relied solely on the purveyors of real news would clearly have voted for Hillary Clinton.  The frustration that reporters and editors for the Times and the Post and the Journal have expressed over the role that “fake news” supposedly played in this election cycle belies their own claim to objectivity, which just might lead the cynic to question whether the real news offered up by the mainstream media is so very different from “fake news” after all.

None of which is to say that “fake news” isn’t a problem, though it’s hardly the new one that the postelection hysteria would seem to indicate.  To take just one example: Back in 1999, a columnist for Chronicles sent his text well past his deadline.  This wouldn’t normally be a problem—we editors are writers ourselves, and therefore understand the bad habit of procrastination—but this column included a lengthy quotation from Attorney General Janet Reno, supposedly delivered in an interview with Reader’s Digest some time before, which seemed to herald an imminent federal crackdown on homeschooling families.  Eighteen years ago, very little could be fact-checked on the internet; we actually had to go to the library and examine books and magazines and newspapers, and if we couldn’t confirm a quotation, we would have to contact the publication directly.  Under deadline, unable to confirm the Reno lines and still waiting on a response from Reader’s Digest, a former editor of Chronicles made the call: So long as the columnist was certain of the quotation, we would run it.  And so we did.

One needs no imagination whatsoever to see where this story is going.  A week after the issue went to press, Reader’s Digest answered our inquiry—they had been forced to examine hard copy as well; they had no electronic index of all their text—and the lines in question had never appeared in the magazine.  I then spent several weeks trying to determine if the quotation might be real but incorrectly sourced, a process akin to hunting for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster: Even today, two decades further along in the internet age, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.  But finally, when a friend with access to LexisNexis (the premier search database of its day for news sources, and incredibly expensive, which was why Chronicles did not have a subscription) turned up nothing, we reached the reasonable conclusion: The quotation was fake.

Today, fake quotations, fake statistics, and entire fake narratives (“news stories”) are even more prevalent than in 1999—a paradox of sorts, since it would seem that ubiquitous internet access and the magic of Google indexing would make it easier to determine what is real and what is not.  Yet the ease of finding things on the internet is matched by the ease of placing things on the internet, and once something is retweeted, shared, and blogged a handful of times, it takes on a life of its own.  Even those publications that pride themselves on setting the standard for real news look to Twitter and Facebook for trends, and routinely include tweets (and not just those of the President-Elect) in their news articles.

Once the genie is out of the bottle—once a fake quotation or even just a mistaken “fact” has gained enough traction online—there’s no way to prevent it from spreading, or to stop people from believing it.  And the next thing you know, a man is traveling from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and walking into a pizza parlor with a rifle to search its kitchen for tunnels where children are supposedly being held for use as sex slaves in a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.

And no, this is not fake news.  (The man with the rifle, not the sex-slave ring, lest there be any doubt to which part I am referring.)  A North Carolina man really did walk into a D.C. pizza parlor on December 4, and even fired two shots to encourage customers and staff to leave, the better to conduct his “investigation” in peace.  And the fake news story that led to the man’s pilgrimage had been retweeted during the general election by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump’s choice for national-security advisor, and retweeted many times by Flynn’s Twitter followers, some of whom also shared it to Facebook.  You can see the reasoning (or at least part of the reasoning): If a respected retired lieutenant general retweeted this “story,” there must be something to it, right?

But respected retired lieutenant generals are people (and politicians), too, and like the rest of us—including the gatekeepers of real news in the mainstream media (like those at the Washington Post who seriously reported the rumor that Hillary Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 memorial service may have been the result of poisoning by Russian operatives)—they can let the wish become the father of the thought.  The flip side of our widespread cynicism concerning political elites is all too often an expansive credulity when it comes to stories about any elites whom we particularly despise.  (In the wake of the December 4 shooting, Michael Flynn’s son, who had previously worked as Flynn’s chief of staff and for whom the Trump transition team had attempted to get security clearance, continued to promote the false “Pizzagate” story on Twitter.  After the younger Flynn suggested on Twitter that the shooting was a hoax designed to discredit those who had promoted Pizzagate, he was fired from the Trump transition team on December 6.)

That combination of cynicism and credulity may explain, at least in part, the anecdotal evidence that suggests that there was more “fake news” targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign in 2016 than there was targeting Trump and his.  It’s certainly true that more stories involving Clinton gained traction.  Much of this has been blamed on the “echo chamber” effect of social media.  While people may start their social circles on Twitter and especially Facebook by friending or following their real-life friends and acquaintances, which allows for some initial diversity of social and political views, they tend to expand those circles by finding others (or being found by others) who share similar opinions and views.  From there, especially on Facebook, the algorithm takes over, and people routinely discover stories in their feed that are similar to the ones they and their friends have previously liked.  And if they like or repost the new stories, the funnel continues to narrow.  Those who arrive at a fake news story because someone they respect and admire (such as a retired lieutenant general) tweeted or posted it are more likely to believe, like, and repost it, and thus unintentionally to signal to Facebook that they want more of the same.

In other words, the artificiality of social networks creates and reinforces the echo chamber.  But is that really all that different from certain “real life” social networks—such as the newsrooms at mainstream newspapers and TV networks?  No one in the business argues anymore that the mainstream media doesn’t exhibit a liberal bias.  And those few outside of the media who still try to explain away entire newsrooms with an 80- to 90-percent record of voting Democratic by claiming that the mainstream media has a “bias toward reality” simply confirm the suspicions of those who wonder why “reality” would, after several millennia, suddenly lurch to the left.

And so cynicism about liberal elites spills over into cynicism about the media elites who vote for them, and the echo chamber of the mainstream newsroom helps create a very different kind of echo chamber among those who distrust the mainstream media, one in which cynicism about political and media elites turns into credulity concerning all those who seem also to mistrust the political and media elites.  Inside the latter echo chamber, the fact that a fake news story doesn’t appear in the New York Times or the Washington Post or on CNN is not evidence of its falsity but a reason to suspect that it may be true.

There is no easy solution to the problem of fake news.  Structural solutions—Facebook algorithm changes, Google flagging sites for having “knowingly” promulgated fake news—open up potential avenues for abuse, and that very possibility, even in the absence of any evidence of such abuse, will just reinforce the echo chamber.  The only way out is individually—a healthy skepticism about any “news” one may read—but even there, the signs are not promising.

After Chronicles published the fake quotation from Janet Reno, I spent five or six years handling requests from readers for confirmation of the quotation, even though we had published a correction in a later issue.  A few of those readers desperately wanted the quotation to be true, but they felt compelled to confirm it before distributing it to others.  Most, however, had attempted to confirm it for themselves, found that they could not, and decided that they should let us know.

The behavior of both groups seems almost quaint today.  Much of the truly fake news that is distributed on Twitter and Facebook is simply retweeted or reposted by people who haven’t bothered to read much (if at all) beyond the headline, much less attempted to verify its veracity.  And those of us who routinely but gently point out false information posted by those in our networks are less likely to receive thanks for having done so than to get a cold shoulder—or, all too often, attempts at justification that quickly descend into belligerence.

In the end, the real problem that lies at the root of fake news is a disregard for the truth—an ideological frame of mind that sees “news” as nothing but a tool in political battles.  The mainstream media have taken a side, while denying that they fix the facts to their preferred narrative; why shouldn’t those who stand up for everything that’s under attack not do the same?

Those who cannot answer that question will be stuck in the echo chamber forever. 

First published in the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.