Das Tor News

All News is Fake News

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

I did my undergrad at the University of Colorado’s Journalism School in Boulder. I won’t comment on the quality of the education I received there, especially because I majored in Media Studies instead of News-Editorial, and because the CU Journalism School shuttered its doors right after I graduated. Part of that may have had to do with the JonBenét Ramsey murder case and the role that one of our more prominent professors, Michael Tracey, played in the saga. On the first day of my 500-person Journalism 101 class, he showed us crime scene photographs obtained through some less-than-savory routes that shouldn’t have been shown to, well, anybody. He also was responsible for bringing John Mark Karr into the mix, which added no credibility to the program. Perhaps its for the better that he’s out of a job.

Fair and Balanced

Preamble dispensed with, I’d like to move on to three principles that every Journalism 101 class worth its salt should instill in its students (mine did). First, every journalistic institution should be built upon two cornerstones: news-ed and op-ed. The first is focused upon the principle that news, in its purest form, should be conveyed according to a formula that constitutes our second principle: the “five Ws:” Who? What? When? Where? Why? The information provided should be “objective,” meaning absent any particular “slant” or underlying political objective. An article should be able to capably answer those five questions, without “nudging” a reader toward making a conclusion about the facts presented, whether positive or negative.

Beautiful, beautiful clip art.
Beautiful, beautiful clip art.

That second foundational piece of journalistic masonry, the op-ed, is variously defined as the opinion editorial, or the page opposite the editorial page. The key word at work in both of these terms is editorial, which the Merriam-Webster defines as something “a newspaper or magazine article that gives the opinions of the editors or publishers.” In other words, the job of a newspaper is not simply to report goings-on, but to interpret and comment upon those events for readers; to make sense of and/or and decipher them.

This leads us to our third principle: that the concept of journalistic objectivity is something akin to the immaculate conception; a nice story that we’re asked to accept as an article of faith. It flies in the face of all reason and known facts about human reality, but we’re told that it can and has happened, and so we believe in it.

A popular anecdote concerning objectivity and the power of journalism to influence reality is now commonly told to reinforce this point. The year was 1896. Photographic technology had yet to catch up to the demands of print journalism, with subjects of photographs still obligated to sit still for extended periods of time in order to capture their likenesses. The story goes that William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, dispatched a sketch artist by the name of Fredric Remington to send back images of the nascent Cuban fight for independence from Spain, which eventually led to 1898’s Spanish-American war, the result of which was the United States (and its monopolistic business interests) gaining much economic influence in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  This war was squarely in line with the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, a US policy claiming North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean as falling within America’s sphere of influence. In other words, it was time for Spain to get out.

Not finding much action in Havana, Mr. Remington cabled Mr. Hearst in January of 1897, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst’s reply was prompt and pithy: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing 266 American soldiers. The cause of the explosion remains unclear (maybe improper storage of ordnance, maybe an explosion in the boiler room, maybe, actually, a Spanish mine), but in Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the implication was crystallized, and the rallying cry became “TO HELL WITH SPAIN, REMEMBER THE MAINE.” Public sentiment followed.


Thus, a war was born.  There’s no clear evidence of self-inflicted provocation or conspiracy (see also the USS Maddox and Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin incident which led to America’s increased involvement in that conflict 66 years later). But Teddy Roosevelt and his Ruff Riders unsheathed their swords nonetheless, and performed heroically at the Charge of San Juan Hill, as did General John Pershing, who an apocryphal story taken as gospel by President Trump tells us dipped bullets in pigs’ blood before executing forty-nine Filipino Muslims with them, saving the fiftieth to tell his friends what he’d seen; a potential strategy invoked by our President to #MAGA.

Robert McNamara giving the stereotypical military press briefing on Vietnam.
Robert McNamara giving the stereotypical military press briefing on Vietnam.

With this story, we have a clear-cut instance of the free press being used as a tool to directly further US political and business interests, and indeed the history of the media and the American military is a complicated one. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. In war zones, the military traditionally maintains a monopoly on information; the popular associated image here is the press pool clamoring for information like dogs for a bone. It’s a natural consequence of this that information is released strategically, whether to help boost morale among the troops or on the home front, or to disorient and mislead the enemy.

There’s also the question of security at stake: the gatekeepers obviously do not wish to release information that could potentially lead to the failure of an operation due to the enemy knowing too much about it. This isn’t conspiratorial nonsense; there’s a long history of its practice dating back to, especially, Vietnam. Reading up on the story of Jessica Lynch, the US Army soldier captured during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and rescued in a daring raid, is particularly interesting in this respect. Said Lynch of her ordeal, speaking before a Congressional inquiry into the events: “Tales of great heroism were being told. My parents’ home in Wirt county [West Virginia] was under siege of the media all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting. It was not true…I have repeatedly said, when asked, that if the stories about me helped inspire our troops and rally a nation, then perhaps there was some good.”

Courtesy pinterest.com
Courtesy pinterest.com

There’s a term for the use of popular media in this fashion. It’s not a very nice one, but let’s return to the Merriam-Webster’s. This is a word describing “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” Alex, what is propaganda? This is an activity that our country has engaged in, is currently engaged in, and will continue to engage in. Why? Well, according to one interpretation, it is in the public interest for the horse to be led to water and made to drink. Especially when that water is a batch of Kool-Aid mixed up by Jim Jones.

Corralling the Bewildered Herd

In 1922, widely-respected author and ivory-tower egghead Walter Lippmann published a highly influential book called Public OpinionLippmann saw the social function of the journalist as providing a link between policymakers and the public. Their responsibility in this capacity is, as he phrased it, “intelligence work;” collecting information from the former group and transmitting it, without further commentary, it to the latter. This service was be considered a public good, as the dissemination of accurate information about public policy and current events is an essential component of a functioning democracy.

Lippmann gracing the cover of Time Magazine, 1932. Courtesy Time.
Lippmann gracing the cover of Time Magazine, 1932. Courtesy Time.

However, Lippmann was a keen observer of humans and their various natures, and recognized that the assumption underlying this model was that it requires the average person to act as an “omnicompetent citizen:” a rational being who acts according to his best interests and those of society. The omnicompetent citizen processes information in a somewhat robotic fashion; unaffected by such things as greed and sex and violence and desire and prejudice. Realizing that 99.999% (repeating) of individuals on this planet are not omnicompetent, Lippmann termed the great irrational mass of humanity “the bewildered herd.”

The conclusion that Lippmann came to, then, was that in order for this grand experiment in American democracy to have any chance at succeeding, the herd must be controlled by a group of the “power elite,” to borrow a term from C. Wright Mills, composed of the best, brightest, and most omnicompetent minds of academia, industry, politics, and warfare: “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” The ultimate point here is that, in order for Democracy to function, the creation and maintenance of a government-operated “propaganda machine” able to shepherd the bewildered herd in the direction most in line with the greater interests of society would be necessary. If Lippmann were alive today to hear a term like “coastal media elite,” I’m sure he would bristle with pride.

But Lippmann took it a step further: if omnicompetence doesn’t exist in the citizenry, then what reason do we have to assume that it does within the journalists who are to serve as impartial conduits of information? To deal with this dilemma, he made a distinction between “news” and “truth:” “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” The job of the journalist, then, is to absorb “news” as an input, and produce “truth” as an output. They are to act as a sort of combination of liver and translator; verifying the facts of an event, filtering out any toxins or untruths through rigorous investigation, and producing, ultimately, a synthesis of the “truth” that is digestible by and beneficial to the bewildered herd.

An early edition of a highly influential text. Courtesy amazon.com
An early edition of a highly influential text. Courtesy amazon.com

Performing this function, of course, precludes the notion of objectivity. In Public Opinion, Lippmann writes of the news profession, “when we expect it to supply such a body of truth we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit, and all-round competence. We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.”

In other words, “objective news” sources are, 1) Limited in their ability to make sense of a complex world, and, 2) In reality, so horribly dull that the average person’s tastes would likely not permit their interest to be piqued by such a source. Subjectivity and analysis are required, then, to both interpret the news and to make us care about it.

As a thought experiment, let’s consider some news sources that consist of the purely objective recitation of facts. Police radio comes to mind; it provides an up-to-the-minute litany of strictly factual information. It’s of interest only to its users, who depend upon it to do their work (or to criminals trying to prevent them from doing their work). C-SPAN is another example off the top of my head. For somebody not well-versed in current events and the American political process, an hour spent watching the proceedings on display would be an exercise in extreme dullness. That some person, however, may be more interested in the analysis of a moment of import reported on, say, CNN.

C-SPAN: Consistently riveting television. Courtesy Youtube.
C-SPAN: Consistently riveting television. Courtesy Youtube.

In the interest of painting a complete picture of the man, Lippmann distanced himself from his wish for a media elite to guide the bewildered herd in the decades following the publication of Public Opinion. This change of heart coincides with the increasing prominence of public advocacy groups, the spread of access to public education, the rise in individuals pursuing advanced education, and the belief that the herd maybe wasn’t as bewildered as he originally thought.

In 1923, the year following the publication of Lippmann’s book, however, another prominent intellectual would pick up on the threads laid in Public Opinion, and take the question of the value of propaganda to a new level.

Private Profit vs. Public Good

Edward Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891. Notably, Sigmund Freud was his uncle through Freud’s 1886 marriage to Edward’s aunt, Martha. The year following Edward’s birth, the family moved to New York City, where Edward trained and eventually made a living as a journalist.

A typical product of the Creel Committee. Harry Hops, 1917. Courtesy Wikipedia
A typical product of the Creel Committee. Harry Hops, 1917. Courtesy Wikipedia

During the First World War, Bernays went to work for the Wilson Administration’s Creel Committee, an independent government organization with a mandate to monitor and steer public opinion throughout the war’s duration. In so many words, it was the government’s propaganda arm, an operation which was transformed into the United States Office of War Information (OWI) during the Second World War, a department which had many of its duties transferred to the CIA following its creation in 1947.

Noting the effectiveness of propaganda efforts during wartime, Bernays became interested in applying these techniques during times of peace. Influenced as much by Lippmann as by the ideas about the roles played by subconscious impulses and desires in determining human behavior being promulgated by his uncle Sigmund at the time, Bernays published a book in 1923 called Crystallizing Public Opinion.

Ed Bernays: the original Mad Man. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Ed Bernays: the original Mad Man. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Today, this book is regarded as the foundational text of the public relations discipline. That phrase, by the way, was another clever innovation of Bernays’. Recognizing the negative connotations attached to the word propaganda, Bernays coined the term to describe the same form of engineered social control called for by Lippmann; a sort of “guidance” described by Bernays’ daughter Anne in Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary The Century of the Self as “enlightened despotism.” (I’d here be remiss if I didn’t insert a plug for Curtis, the most brilliant documentary filmmaker working today and the subject of a recent mind-expanding piece by novelist Jonathan Lethem for The New York Times Magazine; all of his films can easily be found for free online with a modicum of sleuthing.)

But where Lippmann yearned to apply this despotism to the success of American-style democracy, Bernays followed the money. By combining the techniques of propaganda with the principles of psychoanalysis, Bernays effectively created the disciplines of advertising and corporate brand management. He understood how desire (or fear, or any other emotion, for that mater) could be manufactured by distorting and manipulating reality, accentuating certain elements while suppressing others in order to push the right subconscious buttons to create the desired effect.  After hanging his shingle out as a public relations consultant in 1919, Bernays soon went on to attract the business of some of the largest corporations in America, including Proctor & Gamble, CBS, General Electric, and Dodge Motors.

Bernays made smoking a socially-acceptable activity for client Lucky Strike with the phrase "torches of freedom." Courtesy Pinterest.
Bernays made smoking a socially-acceptable activity for women with the phrase “torches of freedom” for client Lucky Strike. Courtesy Pinterest.

In 1955, Bernays gave further definition to his trade in the title of an essay, later published as an anthology of writings on the principles of public relations: The Engineering of Consent. News, then, became less about the steering of the bewildered herd than it did attaining its acquiescence, keeping it content, and gaining access to its wallets. At this point, a tension developed between the desire to treat “truth” as a public good essential to the health of a functioning democracy, and, as media outlets began to operate as businesses (and, eventually, public companies beholden to shareholder interests), the profit motive.

This tension was foreseen in the Communications Act of 1934, signed into law by FDR, which, in addition to creating the FCC, agreed to permit private companies access to public broadcast infrastructure (telephone, radio, and, later, television), provided that access is used for “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” In other words, NBC could sell the Flash Gordon cheeseburger, so long as they also made consumers eat their veggies in the form of news programs that were governed by a certain set of standards of commitment to truth and objectivity codified by organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists.

Give the People What they Want

In the interest of brevity, we’re going to jump forward a bit to today’s environment of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The pursuit of profit in journalism goes back as far as Hearst and Pulitzer warring over who could muster the most sensational stories (the era of “yellow journalism“) and, by transitive property of the axiom “If it bleeds, it leads,” sell the most papers. But if you want filled in on this period, watch Newsies. If you have kids, make them watch it, too; it’s a great primer on leftist direct action.

The Big Gamble. Courtesy pophistorydig.com
The Big Gamble. Courtesy pophistorydig.com

Let’s talk, instead, about Mr. Ted Turner, and the world he’s created. The value of the entrepreneurial spirit lies as much in identifying previously unidentified problems as it does in solving these problems. Turner’s brilliance, in this respect, was flawed. When CNN was launched on June 1, 1980, it was far from clear that the lack of a news network on-air 24/7 was necessarily a problem. But its immense success went on to show that, even if it wasn’t a gap in the marketplace in need of filling; it was something people wanted.

The prospect of witnessing breaking news, of vicariously “being there” when history happens, proved exciting enough to support not only CNN’s operations, but those of an alphabet soup of other media outlets, all claiming strict adherence to the principles of journalistic objectivity but in reality differentiating themselves by offering interpretations of events (Lippmann’s news-to-truth process) in line with popular political sentiment, whether “left” or “right.” Consumers could develop brand loyalty based on their own personal political leanings.

Courtesy abcnews.com
Courtesy abcnews.com

While we witness plenty of sibling-bashing and name-calling between the networks (of the “Faux News” and “Clinton News Network” variety), the reality of the situation is likely something closer to the sham “Soda Wars” of the 1970s and 80s, in which Coke and Pepsi launched aggressive advertising campaigns touting their own relative superiority…and sales of both skyrocketed. As Roger Enrico, CEO of PepsiCo during this period wrote in his 1986 memoirs, “If the Coca-Cola Company didn’t exist, we’d pray for somebody to invent it…The more fun we provide, the more people buy our products – all our products.” Nothing builds loyalty like the presence of a villain.

Compare Enrico’s statements to what Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, told attendees at a February, 2016, Morgan Stanley conference on technology and media in San Francisco about Donald Trump’s campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?…The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” It’s worth noting that CBS is a subsidiary of Viacom, the enormous media conglomerate which controls both TimeWarner and 21st Century Fox, parent companies of, respectively, CNN and Fox News. It was a very good year for them, indeed, and especially for 93-year-old Viacom head Sumner Redstone, who has a reported net worth of over $5 billion and whose place at the table is limping along amid aggressive challenges regarding his mental fitness to retain the role.

Sumner Redstone: the $5 Billion Man. Courtesy New York Times
Sumner Redstone: the $5 Billion Man. Courtesy New York Times

The broader importance, I believe, of the cable news model lies in its turning Lippmann’s “truth” into a commodity. It should go without saying, but the advent of a 24-hour news network necessitates the production of news, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether that news is President Trump’s Russian connections continuing to devolve into something that smells like high treason or speculation about the future of Tony Romo, two stories I pulled from CNN’s website just now and given equal prominence. When everything is news, and everything demands our attention, it becomes difficult to discern what’s legitimate, what’s actually deserving of our time and attention. And during the 2016 Presidential campaign, this became pretty near impossible.

From “Truthful Hyperbole” to “Alternative Facts”

In his bestselling 1987 autobiography, The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump (or, more accurately, his ghostwriter Tony Schwartz) wrote, “I play to people’s fantasies…People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”

A young Trump with his 68 stories of pride. Courtesy NYT.
A young Trump with his 68 stories of pride. Courtesy NYT.

This New York Times article from November, 2016, provides the perfect illustration of this. New York’s Trump tower is 58 stories tall. The panels in its elevators, however, say that you can travel all the way to floor 68. Ten of the buttons don’t function. Why not? The floors simply don’t exist. Similarly, promotional material for the Trump World Tower, a short walk to the south and east from the other building, claims the building is 900 feet tall, clocking in at 90 stories. According to the New York Building Department’s records, however, these numbers are actually 843 feet and 70 stories.  As the article explains, this technique of outright fabrication has caught on with a number of other developers: “By 1985, the year after Trump Tower opened, the developer Harry B. Macklowe had employed the same stratagem to turn his 67-story Metropolitan Tower into a 78-story skyscraper…Mr. Macklowe’s team credited Mr. Trump for the idea.”

If Mr. Trump had remained a simple property developer, this would be perhaps a fun bit of trivia; fodder for jokes about New York’s richest and most powerful lying in a contest over whose is bigger. But, as we know, Trump wasn’t content to remain where he was; he decided to become President of the United States. When he started employing the technique of “truthful hyperbole” in comments that frequently didn’t even have a hint of relation to the truth,  the media was flabbergasted. When Trump says that millions of illegally-cast votes cost him victory in the popular vote, despite, 1) The complete absence of proof that there is any truth to this statement, and 2), He won the election regardless, the fodder for commentators and “experts” to kick one another around over is doubled: we have both the fact that the President made the statement and its un/truth to scream at one another about. This, as Les Moonves’s above statements confirm, has not been a bad proposition for the news media.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Trump could use their services right about now to help find the "sick man" who put a "tapp" on his phone. motherjones.com
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Trump could use their services right about now to help find the “sick man” who put a “tapp” on his phone. motherjones.com

Furthermore, Trump’s tactics have rendered journalists completely incapable of performing their watchdog function. Gone, apparently, are the days when Woodward and Bernstein could bring down a presidential administration using nothing more than the tools of investigative journalism and persistence.

The reason for this is Trump’s 26-million-plus Twitter followers, many of whom, like those who would rather order a glass of water in a restaurant that serves Pepsi products rather than drink the anti-Coke, accept the man’s statements unquestioningly for the very reason that they don’t originate with the coastal media elite. It is his very illegitimacy that, through some form of strange alchemy, has been able to corral the bewildered herd.  A flurry of stubby thumbs tapping furiously upon the screen of a smartphone can send something like this out to the entire world:

Courtesy President Trump's Twitter Account
Courtesy President Trump’s Twitter Account

In the first few days of the nascent administration, aide Kellyanne Conway offered the world a twist on Trump’s “truthful hyperbole” line that has come to define the zeitgeist beautifully. Speaking to Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, Conway was asked to defend a statement made by Trump press secretary Sean Spicer that the President’s inauguration had been the most heavily attended of all such ceremonies ever, a claim which the New York Times almost immediately debunked (adding insult to injury, they published an article the following day presenting evidence than an anti-Trump rally the day after the ceremony drew up to three times as many attendees as the inauguration itself.)

Courtesy WordPress
Courtesy WordPress

Conway’s defense: Spicer’s claims were legitimate because they were simply “alternative facts.” In the days following Conway’s accidentally brilliant statement, sales of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984, which describes a totalitarian society in which statements like “Ignorance is strength” govern the citizenry and the “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears” as their “final, most essential command,” increased by 9,500%, shooting it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

In the introduction to the new (unsubtly-titled) book Insane Clown President, a collection of campaign trail dispatches by Rolling Stone‘s political correspondent Matt Taibbi, this dynamic is rendered so wonderfully that it’s worth quoting at length:

“This was part of the reason Trump’s supporters seemed so stubborn in their lack of interest in “the facts.” They were contemptuous of anything that came from us and our habit of trying to rub their noses in their mistakes – well, it was just as off-putting as correcting their spelling, another thing educated liberal types tended to do a lot, especially on social media.

But the ineffectiveness of ‘facts’ didn’t stop there. The election of Trump was not just a political choice, a vote against minorities and foreigners, against intellectuals, a cry for better jobs, etc. This was also a metaphysical choice.

Sixty million people were announcing that they preferred one reality to another. Inherent in this decision was the revolutionary idea that you could choose your own set of facts.”

Adding to the confusion was the proliferation of actual fake news. This phenomenon is almost certainly a function of the changing ways in which we receive and consume our news. When the iceberg of the Internet collided with the hull of the journalistic establishment around the turn of the millennium, it was decided that investigative journalism as a profession would have to go down with the ship.

Investigative Journalism: no longer just for those trained to do it! digitaltrends.com
Investigative Journalism: no longer just for those trained to do it! digitaltrends.com

Woodward and Bernstein would be replaced by the “citizen journalist:” the social-media-native amateur without professional training whose lack of obligation to corporate advertisers and distance from the quid-pro-quo Beltway political sausage factory might, well, somehow actually provide us with a greater approximation of truth than the stodgy old establishmentarians could.  As 2012 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show, the journalism profession was shrinking at a rate of 13% annually while another industry was growing by 12%. The latter industry I think I’ve mentioned a few times by now: public relations.

The implications of this for the journalism industry have been fairly straightforward: newspapers are growing skinnier and skinnier, and an ever-increasing proportion of the stories they contain are press releases prepared directly by government agencies and corporate brand management departments. Ironically, we’ve come full-circle to something like the herd management of Lippmann, but instead of his intelligentsia leading the way it’s Bernays’s public relations specialists.

The failure of democracy's liver.
The failure of democracy’s liver.

Concurrently, the “citizen journalist” has led to a further of erosion of public trust in the media establishment. Anybody with a smartphone who happens to be in the right place at the right time could break a story; the satellite-topped news truck started to go the way of the woolly mammoth. But there was a trade-off involved, here. By allowing access to the media establishment to become democratized, we lost the editorial “gatekeeper;” the person who had the job of making sure that what was published was, to some degree, in the public interest. And, as we’re now learning, this function also involved keeping out the things that are harmful to the public interest. American democracy’s liver failed, and the presidency took on a jaundiced orange hue.


hushing_to_conclusions_01Fake News is a great American tradition. From the halcyon Hollywood Babylon days of scandal rags like Confidential and Hush-Hush peddling trashy celeb gossip along with advertisements for X-Ray Spex and Charles Atlas muscleman training kits to the Weekly World News and National Enquirer screaming headlines about Elvis sightings and angelic apparitions at us in supermarket checkout lines, it’s as American as apple pie. But it’s always been characterized by a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential absurdity. Everybody’s in on the joke; it’s a harmless, if  not entirely intellectually-stimulating, pastime.

8fa3b463fdbde489489a4ae5bc185b05But then something changed. With an increasing number of people getting their news from social media, where content originators can receive a partial cent for each click, like, or share, there developed an incentive, if one chooses to fabricate a news story, to make such a story somewhat plausible rather than outlandish. One story that was shared on Facebook over half a million times during the campaign season, was titled “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The article purportedly originated in the Denver Guardian, an outfit that does not exist, and had no other published content on its website.

Courtesy Facebook
Courtesy Facebook

As recounted in this fascinating NPR story, the domain could be traced to a rented Amazon Web Services server, which was tied to a number of other domains with plausibly legitimate names (like nationalreport.net, USAToday.com.co, and WashingtonPost.com.co) and owned by a company called Disinfomedia. As it turned out, Disinfomedia was actually just one guy named Jestin Coler, who lived in the L.A. suburbs with his wife and two kids, and who was responsible for fabricating the stories found on his sites.

Coler started publishing fake news a few years back in order to troll white nationalists and the nascent “alt-right.” As he explains: “The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.” He then discovered that his trap was both highly effective and highly profitable. Coler, a registered Democrat who was strongly opposed to Trump during the election, gives a very telling response when asked why these stories tended to spread so rapidly among Trump supporters:

“The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.”

He adds: “We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.”

While he never yields an exact figure, Coler says that estimates of fake news empires like his bringing in anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000 per month purely from ad revenue are accurate.

If the thought of the kind of baseless, conspiratorial, right-wing internet nonsense that gets eaten up by the Infowars crowd originating with a liberal suburban dad in the L.A. burbs isn’t strange enough, then take a look at Veles, Macedonia. As this Wired story reports, in the months leading up to the election, it was revealed that “the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news.” As a result, some unfamiliar brands like BMW and Moet started showing up in the town, where the average monthly salary is about $371.

At least one of the people in this photo was Punk'd by a Macedonian teenager. huffingtonpost.com
At least one of the people in this photo was duped by a Macedonian teenager. huffingtonpost.com

Evidently, a group of teenagers in Macedonia had discovered the same thing discovered by Coler in L.A., and by Pepsi’s Roger Enrico during the Soda Wars: that even if blind taste testing proves conclusively that people, on average, prefer Pepsi to Coke, there will always be those who refuse to pick up a can of the former. And if you can identify these people and ensure they have a steady supply of Coke, authentic or bootlegged, there’s likely some money to be made.

Media Literacy: Our Only Hope

Thanks, pal! fastcompany.com
Thanks, pal! fastcompany.com

Facebook has taken a lot of heat since the election.  While it’s true that type of fake news mentioned above would not have been able to spread if not for the potential for instant global virality that  Facebook presents, the most sensible rebuttal to that criticism is, I think equally valid: “Who could have known?” Information technology is moving and changing at such a rate that its broader effects on society are likely to be, as in this case, noted only after the fact. “Would Donald Trump have won the election if Facebook didn’t exist?” is not a worthwhile question to ask for the simple reason that Facebook does exist. A more sensible proposition to consider as we move forward is how to inoculate society and civic participation from the more harmful effects of what this technology enables.

The answer, I think, is simple: teach our society the principles of media literacy (although with the United States coming in seventh worldwide in overall literacy in this recent study, a refresher course there wouldn’t be a bad idea either). Facebook itself has, in the last 24 hours, taken a big step toward simply automating the function of media literacy. Stories that have been flagged as fundamentally untrue will now appear with notices that researchers for websites like Snopes and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning PolitiFact have found them to be so.

Will steps like this ultimately make a difference? Well, hopefully. When the unrestrained id of the President of the United States can blast out something like the following to a bewildered herd of 26 million at the push of a button, prayer may be the wisest course of action.

Courtesy the President of the United States of America's Twitter Account.
Courtesy the President of the United States of America’s Twitter Account.

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