Fake News And The “Post-Truth” Society: Are We Doomed?

Jan 1, 2017

 I've had a pretty contentious relationship with my online social network this past election season. My Facebook newsfeed exploded with caustic political memes, links to articles of suspect provenance and fiery rants by folks I thought I knew pretty well, but who displayed previously unrevealed anger management issues.

If we allow a post-truth attitude to become the norm, if believing things without any real evidence becomes an accepted practice, if we permit our leaders to make assertions with nothing to back them, our democracy will decay and crumble.

And I wasn’t alone. NPR.org ran a post-election story about people purging their social media accounts with mass un-friendings, some even closing their accounts completely, out of weariness and disgust with the tone of discord and disrespect. “I am finding Facebook to have a negative impact on my continuing to keep a positive feeling regarding some of the people I have known longest and cherish most,” wrote Rachael Garrity as she announced she was deleting her account.

As disheartening as it’s been to deal with that negativity among Facebook “friends,” I find myself even more dismayed by the growing ubiquity of so-called “fake news,” articles that are either dishonestly misleading or actual lies concocted out of whole cloth. Here are just a few headlines:

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump”

“Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons To ISIS …
Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News”

IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”

“Just Read The Law: Hillary Is Disqualified From Holding Any Federal High Office”

“FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide”

An analysis by BuzzFeed News found these to be the top five fake election stories. Combined, these stories were shared, reacted to and “liked” on Facebook well over three-and-a-half-million times in the three months leading up to the election.

Some of these scurrilous articles are posted by hyper-partisan websites that are baldly misinforming voters in hopes of getting their candidate elected. Others claim to be satire sites, saying with a straight face that they’re simply entertainment.

But it turns out that many of these junk stories were produced by young entrepreneurs in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, of all places. BuzzFeed News tracked down at least 140 fake news sites there, nearly all aggressively pro-Trump. But it turns out these young Macedonians don’t give a rip about Donald Trump; their interests are strictly mercantile.

“I started the site for an easy way to make money,” one 17-year-old who helps run a site called DailyNewsPolitic.com told BuzzFeed. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money.”

When you post articles that get hundreds of thousands of clicks, even the fraction-of-a-cent-per-click rate that Google AdSense pays can add up to big bucks.

There are many similarly-motivated sites operated in the US, as well. The Washington Post spoke with 38-year-old Paul Horner, who’s built what it calls “a Facebook fake-news empire.” At least one of Horner’s fake news stories was picked up and tweeted by top Trump campaign officials, one that alleged the Clinton campaign hired people to protest at Trump rallies for $3,500 a pop.

“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time,” Horner told the Post. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.” Horner said he makes about $10,000 a month, one click at a time.

One pernicious impact of partisan fake news was brought sharply to light in early December. That’s when a 28-year-old father of two from North Carolina drove to Washington, D.C., took an AR-15 assault-style rifle into a crowded pizza restaurant and fired. No one was hurt. The man later explained to police he was “investigating” allegations made in a slew of bizarre online articles that claim the pizza place is the hub of a Satanic pedophile sex slave ring operated by Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats. Yes, really.

The restaurant owner says he and his employees have been deluged with hate mail and death threats from enraged, anonymous citizens who actually believe this absurd tale.

Almost as dispiriting is a recent study from Stanford University that found most middle school, high school and even college students couldn’t distinguish between real news and fake news online. The researchers described themselves as “shocked” with the results and wrote that the students, with “stunning and dismaying consistency,” were unable to accurately evaluate the credibility of news sources.

But as comforting as it would be to blame the problem on credulous morons and kids, I’ve repeatedly had to call out otherwise intelligent and sensible Facebook “friends” when they’ve linked to some bogus “news” item. I usually include a link to a Snopes.com article methodically dismantling the false story.

Sometimes my chastened “friends” sheepishly apologize for not being more careful. Other times, I get a snippy response along the lines of, “Well, I didn’t say it was true. I just thought it was interesting.”

Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” its 2016 “Word of the Year.” The dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The editors say they documented a dramatic spike in the use of the word during the UK’s Brexit campaign, as well as the U.S. presidential election.

Recently, Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, said on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show that “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” That Donald Trump said three million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton – and that millions of his supporters believe it’s true – makes it true, Hughes said, despite the total lack of credible evidence to back the claim.

So, are we entering an era when the truth simply is no longer relevant? I hope not. The only thing that keeps a democracy functioning is its citizenry taking the time to responsibly inform themselves and to make informed decisions.

But these days, most people get their news in large part from social media. And that means that, in a very real sense, we’re all journalists now. And we need to accept responsibility for what we spread across the internet. That makes it incumbent on each of us to do some fact-checking before we link and share and “like” things we see on the web.

Because if we allow a “post-truth” attitude to become the norm, if believing things without any real evidence becomes an accepted practice, if we permit our leaders to make assertions with nothing to back them, our democracy will decay and crumble.

I cling to the words of Daniel Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, who said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” May it be so.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years. After a stint as JPR’s News Director from 2002 to 2005, Liam covered the environment in Seattle, then reported on European issues from France. He returned to JPR in 2013, turning his talents to covering the stories that are important to the people of this very special region.