Donald Trump: The man that made the world take fake news seriously

After years of bubbling under the surface of conspiracy-soaked internet communities, fake news is finally being taken seriously. The trouble is, with many taking the spurious content equally seriously, will this feel like just another layer to the conspiracy?

The unexpected election of Donald Trump to the White House left a lot of people wondering what had happened. Some blamed the shakiness of the electoral college system, which at the time of writing still has Clinton closing in on a three-million-vote lead. Others blame Russian hackers, who the CIA believes attacked the Democratic Party to put their favoured candidate in charge. Yet more blame the Democrats themselves, who wouldn’t have been so weakened by a hacking attack if their ethical house was in order in the first place. Typo or no typo, the leaked emails allowed Trump to ride a wave of populist belief that only he – a Washington outsider – could clean house effectively.

Then there’s the fake news. As I wrote in the aftermath to the election, many people believe Facebook has a lot to answer for, for treating demonstrably untrue reports as equal or better than fact-checked, heavily researched news articles created by professionals. A Buzzfeed investigation uncovered an entire Macedonian cottage industry of teen story writers, who tapped into America’s appetite for positive stories about the Republican for the ad money. A recent Pew survey found that 23% of Americans had shared Facebook news that they knew (or later found out) to be false.

At first Zuckerberg dismissed these criticisms, arguing that “the idea that fake news on Facebook… influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”. The world didn’t buy it, the pressure continued, and Facebook eventually conceded that maybe it did have a role to play in a functioning democracy. As former Facebook ad salesman Antonia Garcia Martinez told The Guardian: “It’s crazy that Zuckerberg says there’s no way Facebook can influence the election when there’s a whole sales force in Washington DC that does nothing but convince advertisers that they can.”

Part one of the fake news assault involved hitting the fake news creators in the wallet, while part two is all about stopping the spread. As ever, with a platform that contains 1.8 billion people, it needs your help to make it function. “We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully,” writes Facebook’s VP for News Feed, Adam Mosseri, introducing the changes.reporting-a-story-as-fake

First of all, along with the usual reasons for flagging content as inappropriate, there’s now a box for “fake news”. Selecting it will give you three options: block the person who shared it, message them to inform them it’s fake, or flag the story as fake. Doing the latter will let Facebook know it’s time to get the fact-checkers in. “We’ve started a program to work with third-party fact-checking organizations that are signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles,” explains Mosseri. “If the fact-checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.” While you’ll still be able to share such stories on Facebook, the platform will warn you that “independent fact-checkers disputed its accuracy”.

The problem with Facebook’s solution

For what it’s worth, I think these are decent solutions, but it feels a little like “too little, too late” – and not because Trump has already been elected: this isn’t a partisan point I’m trying to make.

My problem with it is this. If you’ve been absorbing conspiracy theories on a daily basis through Facebook, believing that the social network is the only source of genuine unbiased news away from the hated mainstream media and its links to a self-serving political elite, then why on Earth would you trust Facebook when it starts echoing the same sentiments?

Don’t believe for a second that the reassurance of “independent fact checkers” will have any sway. Here’s what Rush Limbaugh – the Conservative radio show host with 13.25 million weekly listeners – has to say about fact checkers:

“There is no fact-checking. The fact that The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and USA Today, and all these other papers and networks now have fact-checkers is for one reason. It allows them to fool you into thinking they have an objective, nonpartisan staff or person analysing everything the candidates are saying, and telling you what they’re saying is true, or what they’re saying is false. When in fact the fact-checkers are no different than the biased left-leaning reporters and columnists at these papers and on networks. But the fact-check, the idea that it is a fact-check story is designed to say to you that it is objective and analytically fair, and all it is is a vehicle for them to do opinion journalism under the guise of fairness.”

Earlier this year, I spoke to Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, and looking back, one quote seems to ring true about the current batch of fake news helplessness. “If there’s no evidence at all, then of course you’d expect that because it’s being covered up,” he explained. “And if there’s evidence against it, well you’d expect that as well, because the conspirators are throwing out misinformation to throw us off the trail.” In other words, good luck trying to get people taken in by fake news to believe Facebook is on the side of truth – especially if it seems to be burying stuff you believe is 100% true.sharing-disputed-story1

My personal view on this is that there has always been fake news, but as most authority figures avoid engaging in it – by ignoring it completely, disavowing it as nonsense, or cynically letting it work to their advantage without ever tacitly endorsing it – it hasn’t been an issue worth tackling.

This is just another example of Donald Trump tearing up the rule book as he campaigned: by openly embracing conspiracy theories and bashing paid, qualified journalists as the real source of fake news, conspiracy theorists have got authority backing like never before. As a result, people who would previously have been cautious about their news sources are more open to the possibility that they’ve been lied to for years. It’s that, I believe, that has brought matters for a head for a fix: we’ve never had a mainstream Western political figure indulging conspiracy as blatantly as Trump does. That’s prompted a fix, albeit one far too late to be effective – at least in the short term.

Still, at least Trump will have to release any files he has on covered up alien invasions now. Unless they get to him too…

Image: Alessio Jacona used under Creative Commons

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