News reporting is often slanted. During the election cycle, it was frequently galling to see the light coverage given to Donald Trump’s astounding lies and hate speech, while the press devoted a million column inches to whether Hillary Clinton had seen a single letter “c” nestled deep inside an email. But even biased news coverage generally involves events that actually happened. In this reality.
However, as the election drew near, that form of news was displaced by something that goes beyond biased. Completely fictional news. “News” that is simply made up to create a response.
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.
That means that things like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, which didn’t happen, got passed around and read more times than things like Trump groping a reporter, which did. There’s a reason why post-truth is the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year.”
Fake news had such impact over the last few months, and was so widely read, that there are real (i.e. non-fake) reasons to believe that just one man may have swayed the election.
What do the Amish lobby, gay wedding vans and the ban of the national anthem have in common? For starters, they’re all make-believe — and invented by the same man.
Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. He has twice convinced the Internet that he’s British graffiti artist Banksy; he also published the very viral, very fake news of a Yelp vs. “South Park” lawsuit last year.
Horner pulls no punches in describing the ease with which he’s able to fool the public. Making money off ads placed within fake news? It’s as simple as giving people what they already want to believe. For example, Horner just released a story claiming that President Obama will invalidate the results of the election. That story has already been shared a quarter of a million times, and it’s just getting warmed up.
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That’s a fake news man delivering the sad truth about our reality.
Oh, and remember that tweet last week in which Trump complained about “professional protesters?”
Where might the president-elect of the United States get the idea that something as ridiculous as thousands of paid protesters being shuttled around the country could be a real thing? Ahem.
“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.”
What’s not fake? That this is a real problem. For decades now, rumors and false charges have circulated through right-wing media. Often those charges were based on distortion, or O’keefe-like editing of recordings.
Now the news is simply created, and those creations are accepted by millions of Americans not just as a supplement to actual news, but a replacement. That’s already happening with just a few people who have discovered they can make a good living $0.02 at a time.
However, we’ve just seen a white nationalist propagandist named to a White House position, a propagandist who has a ready-made fake news organization combined with all the resources of the government. Remember that when thinking that institutions, or traditions, or laws will prevent the incoming administration from taking some drastic, undemocratic action.