When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do it, you know what they’re doing. When Saturday Night Live does it, you know what it’s doing. They’re lampooning the news.
Lampooning. Satirizing. Spoofing. Whatever you want to call it. They’re not pretending, in any way, that the “news” they are presenting is real. There’s no ambiguity about this.
But when you come across a retweet of a retweet originating from someone you don’t know, when someone puts up a fake news web site and you have no way of knowing it’s fake, when you read about it on your Facebook “news” feed, or when something reaches you that originated from a guy sitting in front of his computer in his underwear, snacking on Mallomars, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re reading has any basis in reality or fact. As we have seen a lot lately, a growing and alarming proportion of the “news” we’re encountering isn’t actually news at all but is instead the product of someone’s imagination and it definitely is not labeled as such and is intended for the sole purpose of deceiving you.
It’s fake news masquerading as real news. Some people even believe it altered the outcome of our recent presidential election. Critics want to “do something about it” but others believe this version of “news” is no less legitimate than what you might read in Time magazine or your hometown newspaper or see on your favorite evening news broadcast. They often believe this, moreover, only because it differs from what the mainstream media is reporting and regardless of whether there’s any truth behind the alternative perspective it often provides.
Again we come back to the idea that while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not all entitled to our own facts.
And people are not entitled to support their opinions with “facts” that originate in their own imaginations and have no basis in reality.
The Columbia Journalism Review recently took a look at this relatively recent phenomenon and theorized that fake news comes in six forms.
- Authentic material used in the wrong context, such as when a Donald Trump television ad purporting to show Mexicans streaming across the U.S. border actually showed Africans crossing from Morocco to Melilla. Fake – a lie.
Imposter news sites designed to look like sources we all know and generally trust, like when Eric Trump and Kellyanne Conway retweeted an item about Democrats paying people to protest at Trump rallies. Trump and Conway, for once not labeling as “lies” something the mainstream media reported, pointed to ABC News as the source, citing the abc.com web domain. A closer look, though, showed that the source was actually abc.com.co – a fake site with an equally fake story. Fake – a lie.
- Fake news sites – like End the Fed, the site that reported the pope’s endorsement of Trump. Fake – a lie.
- Fake information, like the warning that Clinton voters could vote by text but Trump voters had to go to the polls, feeding the “rigged election” warnings Trump was sounding. Fake – a lie.
- Manipulated content, like when a photo of an officer making an arrest while wearing a jacket indicating that his employer is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is described as that officer arresting an illegal resident trying to vote when that wasn’t why the arrest was made at all. Real picture, fabricated, manipulated content – a lie.
- Parody content, such as people creating fake Twitter accounts in the names of real people. Fake – a lie, and not to be confused with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others like them.
How pervasive are these practices? You might be surprised: an analysis by the web site BuzzFeed found that the top fake election stories on Facebook alone generated more “engagement” than the same stories from 19 major news outlets.
Some numbers, courtesy of BuzzFeed:
… 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
In other words, pretty damn pervasive.
BuzzFeed also identified the 20 most widely viewed false election stories and found that
… all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump, which the site removed after publication of this article. The only viral false stories during the final three months that were arguably against Trump’s interests were a false quote from Mike Pence about Michelle Obama, a false report that Ireland was accepting American “refugees” fleeing Trump, and a hoax claiming RuPaul said he was groped by Trump.
BuzzFeed also observed that
One example is the remarkably successful, utterly untrustworthy site Ending the Fed. It was responsible for four of the top 10 false election stories identified in the analysis: Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS, Hillary Clinton being disqualified from holding federal office, and the FBI director receiving millions from the Clinton Foundation. These four stories racked up a total of roughly 2,953,000 Facebook engagements in the three months leading up to Election Day.
The Nieman Journalism Lab offers another example of fake news from a non-journalism source that its likely audience would probably assume to be credible.
… I’m from a small town in south Louisiana. The day before the election, I looked at the Facebook page of the current mayor. Among the items he posted there in the final 48 hours of the campaign: Hillary Clinton Calling for Civil War If Trump Is Elected. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President. Barack Obama Admits He Was Born in Kenya. FBI Agent Who Was Suspected Of Leaking Hillary’s Corruption Is Dead.
These are not legit anti-Hillary stories. (There were plenty of those, to be sure, both on his page and in this election cycle.) These are imaginary, made up, frauds. And yet Facebook has built a platform for the active dispersal of these lies — in part because these lies travel really, really well. (The pope’s “endorsement” has over 868,000 Facebook shares. The Snopes piece noting the story is fake has but 33,000.)
Offended at all the accusatory fingers being pointed – justifiably – its way, the Breitbart site decided to fight fire with fire and tell about 12 fake news stories from the mainstream media. To do so, however, it had to go all the way back to 1933 and a Communist-sympathizing New York Times reporter who helped cover up news about all the people who starved in Ukraine that year. Another was really gripping: a story about how reporters bought the idea of the Saturday Night Fever story being based on a real person. Upon closer inspection, at least 10 of the 12 stories Breitbart characterized as “fake” made it into a newspaper or on the air not because the news outlets set out to write fake stories but because the people reporting the stories convinced their bosses they were real.
And that problem, although real, bears no relationship to the willful creation, dissemination, and embrace of fake news we’re experiencing today.
What we saw last year, moreover, was that the more credible news outlets did to point out the misinformation that was being spread, the more the spreaders of that misinformation fought back. When the Snopes web site, acting on its expanded mission to go beyond checking the veracity of urban legends and Bigfoot sightings, started to point to political misinformation, the site itself because a subject of misinformation. As the New York Times reported,
One way to chart Snopes’s increasing prominence is by measuring the rise in fake news about the site itself. If you believe the internet, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson, has a longer rap sheet than Al Capone. He was supposedly arrested for committing fraud and corruption and running a pit bull ring…The underlying message of these spurious attacks is that the movement to fact-check the internet is a left-wing conspiracy whose real goal is to censor the right, and therefore must be resisted at all costs.
Another example: where does Snopes get money to underwrite its operations? According to Snopes, it’s from ads, but anti-Snopes sources now claim the money comes from George Soros, who is to the right what the Koch brothers are to the left. Do they have a source for this assertion? Of course not. Does it matter to them? Of course not.
But the sad reality is that a lot of people don’t know who or what to believe anymore. When the actor Alan Thicke passed away last month thousands of people went to the Snopes site to inquire whether the announcement of his death was a hoax.
Now seriously: why would anyone attempt to start a false rumor that Alan Thicke – Alan Thicke, of all people – had passed away? But that’s the nature of trust in news sources, and lack of trust in news sources, among some people these days. Did you feel a need to inquire further into the passing of Alan Thicke? Of course you didn’t – but then, you’re not an idiot. But that’s where we seem to be today: some people have been so thoroughly manipulated that they cannot look outside and see a blue sky without wondering whether the sky is actually blue or there’s someone out there conspiring to make them think the sky is blue.
And that helps explain how an ignorant, ill-informed snake oil salesman, with the help of people with the most malicious of intent, managed to sell enough snake oil to stand across from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on January 20.