In the continuing effort to grasp at every conceivable straw that explains Hillary Clinton’s upset defeat in the 2016 election, one phrase keeps rearing its head: Fake News. Originally, the “fake news” narrative didn’t start as a narrative about explaining away Donald Trump’s shocking victory, though. It was meant as a reinforcement of the “good old days” when there were few news outlets and all of them were cozying up hard with the powerful in Washington.
Complaining that conspiracy theorist sites with their un-vetted news stories were ruining the debate (the debate at the time being of who would be best-fit to lead the country) and twisting the truth, he said:
“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to. There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard, because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world,”
We, the people of the United States, need to agree to a slate of gatekeepers who will keep news stories rooted in truth, and not let these non-approved sources shape the debate.
Fake News Wasn’t Born in 2016
This is not a new discussion, of course. Since the advent of blogging in the early 2000’s, and its later rise to prominence as an alternative media source, the establishment media and career politicians have been trying to discredit the internet and alternative media as an uncontrolled bastion of kooks, while simultaneously continuously redefining what journalism means and who journalists are. I’ve consistently argued over the years that journalism is the act, not the actor, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the country is going, and now we’re seeing the battle rear its head all over again.
It’s odd that Obama would argue that the establishment media isn’t fake news. In fact on this very site a few years ago, I laid out in plain English a clear campaign of misinformation and propaganda, and all of it orchestrated by the mainstream media who Obama thinks should be the guardians of truthiness.
Firstly, there was an examination of how the propaganda unfolds, including the President giving a “homework assignment” to the mainstream media and them lapping it up like the hungry dogs they are.
Then the New York Times talked about the hospital that bombed itself in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
And, finally, the story of the Toyota Highlux trucks that ISIS was utilizing and where did they come from? The government was going to investigate the hell out of this, but there’s only one problem: the lazy media, which reported the US government’s effort to investigate this grand mystery ignored the fact that the trucks were given to ISIS by… Yes, the United States government. That investigation by the US government never really was officially concluded, of course, and the compliant media, who jumped on the story of the “investigation” never really followed up after that. Surprised? I’m not.
There are numerous examples of the mainstream media playing fast and loose with the facts long before 2016, including most famously Dan Rather’s faking of a National Guard report on President George W. Bush, and Brian Williams’ outright lying about his harrowing experiences in Iraq.
How did we get here?
As with the “gun violence versus terrorism” homework mentioned above, the media immediately ran with Obama’s narrative on fake news.
On October 30th, CNN’s Brian Stelter, host of Reliable Sources, warned users not to share stories from “hoax news websites,” or, and this is important, “hyper-partisan” sites that only share one side of a story, but then a mere few days later he fell flat on his face and failed to criticize his own network which made a stealth edit to an online story.
However, the same day Stelter delivered his message about fake news, his employer did something that should have infuriated and angered the media correspondent. Covering Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s Colorado rally Sunday night, CNN published an article claiming Trump encouraged supporters to vote multiple times. The only thing is, he didn’t.
Roughly an hour after the article was posted, CNN stealthily edited the piece to change its headline and quotes from Trump, providing additional context and changing the entire premise of the piece. However, it would be more than an additional hour before CNN placed a correction note at the bottom of the article explaining the edits.
Meanwhile, the initial tweet with the original headline remained up for two and a half hours and was retweeted over 900 times before finally being removed.
Yet, we haven’t heard anything from Stelter, despite this clearly being in his wheelhouse.
Stelter never did comment on this edit, of course.
CNN is at the forefront of the battle between the new alternative media and the old media. In one of the most obvious examples of old media arrogance, Chris Cuomo, during the numerous Wikileaks dumps from John Podesta’s email warned viewers that possessing the Wikileaks emails was, in fact, illegal, and that they need to get their proper context from journalists.
“Also interesting is, remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents,” Cuomo says. “It’s different for the media, so everything you’re learning about this, you’re learning from us.”
That, unfortunately for Cuomo, is an obvious lie. There’s no word softer that would be equally accurate.
In fact, for all the talk about how we need “curaters” of news, the biggest fakeries and half-truths have come from the mainstream media. Aside from the examples above, we have had numerous non-cited stories find their way into mainstream media outlets, and even hard-copy proof that the mainstream media colluded with, at the very least, the Hillary Clinton campaign (oddly enough, involving CNN consultant Donna Brazile) by giving her questions in advance of a debate and a town hall.
What should be done?
This is where the story starts taking a turn. For anyone who’s read dystopian novels such as 1984, you understand where things can go with one wrong turn, and based on Obama’s encouragement, they’re rushing there in a hurry.
Google and Facebook, facing criticism for fomenting a climate (bolstered by fake news, of course) that got Donald Trump elected, have moved to ban “fake news” sites from their respective ad networks. Mark Zuckerberg has even gone further in hinting that sources of fake news would be reduced in prominence in users’ news feeds based on their reputation, and based on a report by Buzzfeed, the viral media experts (who, coincidentally, are never mentioned when discussing fake news, and are owned by old media giant NBC), Ars Technica writer Annalee Newitz posited that it’s time to shred the “newsfeed” from Facebook altogether since it isn’t actually news anyway (the irony in citing Buzzfeed as a source on what’s news is apparently lost on Ms. Newitz):
There are several ways forward from here. Facebook could get out of the news business entirely and go back to being a pure social network. It could abandon media partnership initiatives like Facebook Instant and Facebook Live. It could tune its algorithms to feed people only fun updates from friends, and enjoy the benefits of being one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies.
Or the company could go in a more radical direction and declare itself an actual news provider. It could hire a legitimate team of news writers and editors and bring readers the news they seem to crave. But this scenario seems unlikely, given what I said earlier about how Facebook’s business model depends on CDA 230 immunity. Almost nothing would get posted to Facebook if the company had to take full legal responsibility for everything in the feed.
Or, as a third option, Facebook could keep walking the line, but in a much more honest fashion. It might do this by creating a separate news section, curated in part by humans and perhaps by better algorithms. This section could draw from a vast array of professional media organizations, the same way Google News does. It would also be separate from the friend feed, to make it easy for users to understand when they’re reading something from an accountable organization and when they’re reading goofball crap.
No matter what Facebook does, it needs to stop pretending that “news” can be anything from anyone, granting equal weight to the trivial and the truly important. Most people think that news means truth and accountability. We know the public depends on the company to help show them what’s important in the world. Facebook needs to take full responsibility for posting news or get out the game. That’s not just a matter of ethics—it’s good business.
That last paragraph is a home run, and it’s emblematic of the thinking we’re seeing from the “anti-fake news” crowd.
It’s also frightening, and why? Because it requires an objective answer to a subjective question: “What is important and what is trivial?”
Let’s use Ms. Newitz as an example. As a very forward thinking clearly progressive anti-authoritarian member of the anti-Trump brigade, I’m sure her beliefs run along the typical lines of people in the SJW circle, mainly because of wonderful pieces like this, talking about True Blood hates gay people.
The idea that civil rights campaigns for gay people could legitimize similar campaigns for demons is really no better than the idea that idea that demons are equivalent to gay people. Either way, the message is clear. If you legitimize sexual nonconformity, you’re basically giving people permission to murder the people they have sex with.
When you consider thought like that (which I’m fine with, by the way; intellectual exercises are important), I think we have a good idea of Newitz’s views on many things (disclaimer: There’s a good chance I share her views on many things, but I also know I’m an outlier and nothing about her strikes me as such).
Now suppose people started arguing that things like micro-aggressions weren’t important discussions for adults to have in the real world. Imagine a world where Jordan Peterson’s refusal to call people by their preferred pronouns wasn’t considered an important story. No one would hear these “edge case” stories if the people deciding what is and isn’t newsworthy had their way.
And that’s the huge problem: who decides what constitutes fake news, truthful news, and important news? And how is that decision made for, to keep the numbers simple and only refer to the US, 320 million people?
One leftist professor took a shot at telling everyone who trustworthy news is, with hilarious results. New York Magazine property Select/All highly recommends the list:
As Facebook and now Google face scrutiny for promoting fake news stories, Melissa Zimdars, a communication and media professor from Merrimack College in Massachusetts, has compiled a handy list of websites you should think twice about trusting. “Below is a list of fake, false, regularly misleading, and otherwise questionable ‘news’ organizations that are commonly shared on Facebook and other social media sites,” Zimdars explains. “Many of these websites rely on ‘outrage’ by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits.”
Wow. That’s amazing that she did all that work!
Be warned: Zimdars’s list is expansive in scope,
No it’s not…
and stretches beyond the bootleg sites (many of them headquartered in Macedonia) that write fake news for the sole reason of selling advertisements. Right-wing sources and conspiracy theorists like Breitbart and Infowars appear alongside pure (but often misinterpreted) satire like the Onion and The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report.
Right wing? Yeah… We’ll get to that.
“Not all of these sources are always or inherently problematic, but I’m including them because they should be considered in conjunction with other news/info sources due to their tendency to rely on clickbait headlines,” Zimdars notes. You should read it closely, feel free to disagree, and, in the spirit of media literacy, do your own research.
Hmmm… Okay, so looking through the list there is one glaring thing.
Project Veritas, The Blaze, and The Free Thought Project, all of which are reasonably well sourced are there, as are sites like The Independent Journal Review which actually hosted a debate in this election cycle (February 6, 2016, partnering with ABC). It’s almost as if there’s an ideological bend to her choices of what you need to “be careful” about. So what does she read?
Some people are asking which news sources I trust, and all I can say is that I read/watch/listen very widely, from mainstream, corporate owned sources (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes) as well as The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and various local and alternative sources with different political perspectives, some of which are included on this list.
Have you ever noticed that when you corner a progressive on what they listen to/watch/believe, they always tell you that they listen to/read/consume a wide variety of opinions? Let’s analyze just the ones she mentioned by name. Here’s all of them, categorized…
No right-leaning sources, and even the center-leaning ones aren’t as much center-leaning as they’re “less left-leaning” than the others.
Does this strike you as someone who has a wide array of news sources? And while I’m sure she didn’t name every news source she considers on any given day, I’m pretty sure that if she had a few right-wing sites on that list she could at least name one. She clearly was trying to show she’s “open-minded” by counting Forbes and WSJ as right-leaning, but she ignored much more prominent right sources like, for example, Fox News, altogether.
What does that tell you? To me it says pretty clearly that Professor Melissa Zimdars has an agenda, and were she to be able to create the filter for what is and isn’t fake news, we would end up with all the left news we could stand and no alternative viewpoints at all because none of them would be considered legitimate.
Professor Jeff Jarvis, Professor of Journalism at CUNY (the City University of New York) whom I respect a great deal, co-authored a piece on his blog asking for cooperation on fake news, and in it shared a 15-point plan… Some highlights include making it easier to report “fake” news, how well-established the outlet is, and having verified sources (think the blue checkmark on Twitter), a trackback system that goes back to primary sources, make it easier to investigate memes and “dog-whistles” (the term progressives use when they can’t find racism or something else offensive, so they seek out hidden meaning in plain language), and so on. Overall it’s a good list, but one of the suggestions jumped out at me immediately, and it was the second in the list.
Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. The Trust Project is working on getting media to generate such signals. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.
The Trust Project? Well with a name like that what could be bad? I don’t know, but let’s look at the organizations participating in this endeavor:
- American Press Institute
- Bay Area Newsgroup
- Center for Investigative Reporting
- El Universal
- Financial Times
- Maynard Institute
- The McClatchy Company
- Mother Jones
- New York Times
- La Stampa/La Repubblica
- Toronto Globe & Mail
- Vox Media
- The Washington Post
- Zeit Online
There is not one hint whatsoever of any diversity of thought in that list. The list ranges from organizations who I’ll call neutral to left-wing, and yet again we’re right back to the problem: who decides who’s fake and who’s not?
Mediaite recognizes this as the central yet under-discussed problem of the whole “let’s get rid of fake news” discussion. In a piece by Alex Griswold, who is often one of the shining lights of sanity in a media landscape consumed with insanity, puts it thusly.
I barely even trust news outlets to police our own. It was the NBC-and-Comcast-backed Vox.com that declared that other outlets reporting on the Hillary Clinton email story was “fundamentally bullshit.” That from the outlet that constantly and uncritically reports on unverified hoaxes. (Will Vox be banned in the glorious new Truthing Revolution? Not a chance.)
If Google or Facebook wants to punish X outlet for Y story, at some point some human being somewhere will have to make that call. Who will be the paradigm of neutrality who has the ability to deny outlets millions in clicks and revenue based on a whim? Will they face any public accountability for their decisions? Who will watch the watchman?
Additionally, what if the watchman are appointed and are then insane?
The Wrong Way
It seems like all the anti-fake news advocates have a plan that, in one way or another, involves the current mainstream established media as the ultimate arbiters of the truth, but what happens when one of those organizations, driven by an agenda of stifling its competition and silencing ideological opponents.
Enter the Washington Post.
They ran, on November 24th, an article with a headline emblazoned across it that read thusly:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say
and whose first paragraph read thusly:
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
Independent researchers who tracked the operation? Well that gets my attention. Who did it?
Well we’ll get to that, but it’s important to note that in spite of their first paragraph, they later write the following.
There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders.
Well, so much for that. End the article there, right? No way.
So sophisticated Russian hackers bypassed security in “several states” but were so sloppy they not only got caught, they also got identified!? These are the most brilliant idiots ever. And troves of “hacked emails.” That sounds a lot like Wikileaks. Let’s read the article they link to…
The DNC publicly disclosed the intrusions in June, saying its investigation determined that Russian government hackers were behind the breach. That was followed shortly after by a major leak of DNC emails, some so embarrassing that they forced the resignation of the DNC chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
The administration also blamed Moscow for the hack of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the subsequent leak of private email addresses and cellphone numbers of Democratic lawmakers.
Hmmm, I notice they forgot to mention where the leaks were published, but it sure does sound like Wikileaks, except that the guy who got the emails, Julian Assange, has already denied that Russia gave him the emails.
“The Clinton camp has been able to project a neo-McCarthyist hysteria that Russia is responsible for everything. Hillary Clinton has stated multiple times, falsely, that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that Russia was the source of our publications,” Mr. Assange said, according to a preview published Thursday by the state-funded television network formerly known as Russia Today, RT.
“That’s false — we can say that the Russian government is not the source,” Mr. Assange told Mr. Pilger, RT reported.
Well, given the track record of Julian Assange, I’m going to go ahead and believe him and say the DNC is either wrong or lying, so what is the Washington Post really doing here? Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton have a theory, and it ain’t good.
In casting the group behind this website as “experts,” the Post described PropOrNot simply as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” Not one individual at the organization is named. The executive director is quoted, but only on the condition of anonymity, which the Post said it was providing the group “to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”
In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”
The credentials of this supposed group of experts are impossible to verify, as none is provided either by the Post or by the group itself. The Intercept contacted PropOrNot and asked numerous questions about its team, but received only this reply: “We’re getting a lot of requests for comment and can get back to you today =) [smiley face emoticon].” The group added: “We’re over 30 people, organized into teams, and we cannot confirm or deny anyone’s involvement.”
And, to sum it up (beautifully, I might add):
EVEN MORE DISTURBING than the Post’s shoddy journalism in this instance is the broader trend in which any wild conspiracy theory or McCarthyite attack is now permitted in U.S. discourse as long as it involves Russia and Putin — just as was true in the 1950s when stories of how the Russians were poisoning the U.S. water supply or infiltrating American institutions were commonplace. Any anti-Russia story was — and is — instantly vested with credibility, while anyone questioning its veracity or evidentiary basis is subject to attacks on their loyalties or, at best, vilified as “useful idiots.”
Two of the most discredited reports from the election season illustrate the point: a Slate article claiming that a private server had been located linking the Trump Organization and a Russian bank (which, like the current Post story, had been shopped around and rejected by multiple media outlets) and a completely deranged rant by Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald claiming that Putin had ordered emails in the WikiLeaks release to be doctored — both of which were uncritically shared and tweeted by hundreds of journalists to tens of thousands of people, if not more.
The Post itself — now posing as a warrior against “fake news” — published an article in September that treated with great seriousness the claim that Hillary Clinton collapsed on 9/11 Day because she was poisoned by Putin. And that’s to say nothing of the paper’s disgraceful history of convincing Americans that Saddam was building non-existent nuclear weapons and had cultivated a vibrant alliance with al Qaeda. As is so often the case, those who mostly loudly warn of “fake news” from others are themselves the most aggressive disseminators of it.
Indeed, what happened here is the essence of fake news. The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth that reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War. So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.
So the story spread in a flash, like wildfire. Tens of thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions, consumed it, believing that it was true because of how many journalists and experts told them it was. Virtually none of the people who told them this spent a minute of time or ounce of energy determining if it was true. It pleased them to believe it was, knowing it advanced their interests, and so they endorsed it. That is the essence of how fake news functions, and it is the ultimate irony that this Post story ended up illustrating and spreading far more fake news than it exposed.
Absolutely 100% spot-on.
But fake news isn’t always coordinated. Sometimes it’s subtle. Witness anti-fake news crusader NBC News exhibiting some deplorable fake news spreading:
The tweet on the right left something important out… The tweet on the right did not… Which tweet do you think got more attention?
Remember, NBC News, and by extension its properties Vox and Buzzfeed are crusaders against fake news and here they are spreading it from their own mouths on their own social media outlets. And while the news media contorts the truth and spins everything in front of them to be some grand Russian plot, Congress, in its lame duck session, has decided they’re going to “do something,” which of course means “make a visible action that accomplishes little but looks good on paper.” Via Zero Hedge:
On November 30, one week after the Washington Post launched its witch hunt against “Russian propaganda fake news“, with 390 votes for, the House quietly passed “H.R. 6393, Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017“, sponsored by California Republican Devin Nunes (whose third largest donor in 2016 is Google parent Alphabet, Inc), a bill which deals with a number of intelligence-related issues, including Russian propaganda, or what the government calls propaganda, and hints at a potential crackdown on “offenders.”
And what defines an offender? Organizations that manipulate the media by doing the following:
- Establishment or funding of a front group.
- Covert broadcasting.
- Media manipulation.
- Disinformation and forgeries.
- Funding agents of influence.
- Incitement and offensive counterintelligence.
- Terrorist acts.
That’s just vague enough to be dangerous, really. Media manipulation and funding agents of influence? Well, just based on this year’s election, CNN is a propaganda organization in that it gave information to a Presidential candidate, and had people on staff connected to the party. And covert broadcasting? Would having Donna Brazile on to talk about the elections while on the payroll of CNN while she was consulting Clinton’s campaign and feeding her information?
Sounds to me like CNN would have to be shut down under the law.
And now you see the problem.
So is this really a problem and do we need to “do” anything?
How do people know sites like Newsmax or Daily Kos are complete garbage? People know this because they have a reputation for being garbage, and that reputation was developed over years of disseminating bad information, poor analysis, and partisan nonsense. Somehow, without government, people figured it out, and realistically, the people who don’t know wouldn’t care if they did. If someone is getting their news from Newsmax, do you think the President saying “Don’t trust Newsmax” will have any impact whatsoever? You’d have to be insane to believe that.
You don’t fix the problem of low-information voters by banning the sources of their information. You fix the problem of low-information voters by educating them on how to determine the veracity of the sources of their news, and you teach people that the source could be “good” and still publish bad information (as I’ve demonstrated at multiple times throughout this piece).
The simple answer to fake news is this: No news source that consistently provides bad information will survive, and the ones that do have little to no influence on policy, the electorate, or anything else that matters. No one considers Newsmax or Daily Kos a primary site for news, and that alone is enough proof that this “fake news” crisis isn’t really a crisis at all.
What it strikes me as, though, is an attempt to explain an election that was lost by the candidate that was expected to win, and that attempt is being made instead of any kind of introspection about those reasons.
Fake news is, ironically, fake news.