On a day in December, a would-be hero from North Carolina left his home and drove all the way to New York, where he fearlessly strode into a pizza parlor amid a barrage of pepperoni, pulled a gun and confronted the management. He was there to rescue the children, you see. The children who were being exploited in a sex trafficking ring by Hillary Clinton and her evil accomplices. He knew it was happening because he’d read it on social media. He’d no doubt even read about how the placement of symbols on the pizza joint’s menu was really an elaborate code for pedophilia practices.
The story sounds like it might have been scripted by writers at Saturday Night Live or maybe by the Coen brothers on acid. Yet it nearly led to violence because this fellow believed it totally. And he’s not alone. Millions of people out there buy into fake news stories. Facebook has finally taken measures to reduce the fake news traffic on its highways, but it’s too little too late, for it already hath wrought the election of Donald Trump.
Not surprising, then, that Trump’s cheerleaders, upon hearing complaints about fake news, shifted into gear with their defense of the phenomenon — which included ridiculing the complaints, redefining fake news and denying that it even exists. They’ve brushed it off with the glib comment that “fake news is a fake story”, and have even suggested that even if it exists, it’s harmless because most Americans recognize it when they see it.
Which does not jibe at all with the statistics: about a fifth of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, most think he has raised their taxes, about 40 percent believe in “death panels”, about 25 percent think evolution is a false belief, about half think Saddam was behind 9-11, and 52 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote.
An ever-dependable, perennially flatulent AM talk show host characterized fake news as “satire and parody that liberals don’t understand”. Which brings up two questions: (1) Is he really so stupid that he can’t distinguish a Saturday Night Live skit from a supposedly serious report about “Pizzagate”? (2) Is he really so stupid as to think it was “liberals” who were taken in by all the phony (and often bizarre) stories about Clinton and Obama?
Like many other right-wing fanatics, he wants you to believe that the real fake news is actually the real real news — you know, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, etc. etc. He even offers some examples of fake news stories:
[Quoting someone else: “You want to hear fake news? Fake news is every story you read reporting Obama said you keep your doctor if you like your doctor. You get to keep your plan if you like your insurance plan. Your premiums are coming down $2,500 average, every year, under Obamacare.”] That was fake news, and that’s exactly right.
Yes, you heard that right. Accurately reporting what someone said — at least if that someone happens to be someone you loathe — is what he and his kind consider fake news. Another example he cites of his brand of fake news is the Obama administration saying that a video helped inspire the attack in Benghazi — which in fact is quite true; but since it doesn’t support the right-wing narrative, it must be fake anyway. Got it?
He does the same thing for the “hands up” narrative. It’s fake news, he says, because an investigation later appeared to contradict the witnesses who had said Michael Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot by a cop. (He doesn’t mention that the investigation also found there were strained relations between Ferguson police and the African-American community, the real point of the “hands up” meme.) Even though the media accurately reported what witnesses had said, it was fake news, just because he says so.
Media Matters reports on this habit of turning reality on its head:
Other conservatives are even using fake news to describe reporting from credible news outlets with which they disagree. Fringe right-wing conspiracy site Infowars.com declared that “The mainstream media is the primary source of the most harmful, most inaccurate news ever,” and included outlets such as The New York Times,The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, and Politico (and Media Matters, for good measure) on their “full list of fake news outlets.” Fox contributor Newt Gingrich lamented the Times’ reporting on the fake news phenomenon, arguing,“The idea of The New York Times being worried about fake news is really weird.The New York Times is fake news.” Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham — a contender for Trump’s press secretary — lashed out at CNN while appearing on Fox News’ Hannity, stating “the folks over at CNN” and “the kind of little games they’re playing are so transparent … they’re the fake news organizations.”
These comments exhibit two tactics you will see reactionary propagandists exercising over and over and over again: projecting their own sins onto someone they want to demonize, and redefining terms to suit their purposes. “Fake news”, like any other word or expression, comes to mean whatever they want it to mean.
But despite such attempts by the punditocracy to muddy the waters, the complaint from “liberals” about fake news has never been about bias. Most “liberals” (and even a lot of “conservatives”) realize that news is always biased in some manner and to some degree. Nor is it a matter of accuracy; accuracy is certainly important, but errors invariably creep in from time to time, even in the most conscientious journalism. And fake news quite often is constructed at least partially with actual facts.
We previously mentioned an internet story claiming that President Obama took a separate plane along on his vacation just for his dog. Part of the story was true: the president did take two planes, and the dog flew on a separate plane from the family. But the plane was not deployed just for the dog; it was carrying crucial personnel and the dog just hitched a ride.
Fake news is determined neither by bias nor error; it is determined by a false narrative that serves as the spine to which bias and error are so often attached, along with real facts. The “War On Christmas” narrative is a good example of fake news because it uses a phony narrative supported both by lies (President Obama, contrary to Fox claims, wished Americans a Merry Christmas on numerous occasions) and facts (some people really do say “happy holidays” instead).
It may not always be easy to classify a story as fake news. Should every false rumor be tossed into that bin? Sometimes false rumors begin with an honest misunderstanding of the facts. One likely specimen is the rumor that only 5 (or 6) percent of the Clinton Foundation’s proceeds actually go to charity. This probably stems from ignorance about what kind of organization the Clinton Foundation actually is. Despite its rather misleading name, it’s not really a foundation at all, but a public charity. That means, among other things, that it performs its own charitable services rather than acting as a conduit for funds (as a foundation would do). And 89 percent of its proceeds go toward that function. Additionally, the organization donates 6 (or 5) percent of its proceeds to other charities. Some people just assume that’s all it does, because that’s what they want to assume. (Incidentally, contrary to additional rumors, the Clintons don’t make a dime from it.)
It may be questionable whether that story should be classified as fake news or merely a false report. In many other cases, however, there is no doubt. These occur when the perpetrator either deliberately creates a false narrative or creates a narrative without due regard to whether it is true or not. This applies to all of the manipulative videos distributed by James O’Keefe. It also applies to a story recently posted at Breitbart about a mob of Muslims attacking a German church.
Breitbart is uquestionably one of the prime purveyors of real fake news. And its chairman, Steve Bannon, is going to have a special role in Trump’s administration. Which is altogether appropriate, since the election of Trump is the culmination of the work that fake news and distorted news outlets have been doing for some three decades. They have created an alternate universe for their fans. And now the rest of us must live in it as well.
(The good news is, there may be a way to fight it.)