How fake news online skewed the US election
Somewhere in the middle of 2002, when the Bush administration was making its case for the Iraq war, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind had an illuminating conversation with a senior adviser to the president on the subject of truth and reality.
Suskind recounted it in a piece for The New York Times Magazine in October 2004, headed “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ ”
Suskind wrote that he did not at first realise the full significance of what the adviser said; that it wasn’t just about the Iraq war, but about its whole approach to governing and maintaining power.
Bush and his party had created a “high-performance electoral engine” that ran on confidence and faith, not evidence and analysis, he said.
Suskind labelled Bush a confidence man, not so much in the sense of being a huckster as in the sense that his appeal was based on the projection of certitude rather than reason.
Mark McKinnon, a former senior media adviser to Bush, drove the point home to Suskind. The administration didn’t mind at all when the information elites of the east and west coasts treated Bush – and by extension middle America – like an idiot.
Middle America liked “the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him,” McKinnon said.
“And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!”
By “you”, Suskind interpolated, McKinnon meant “the entire reality-based community”.
His piece noted many establishment Republicans were at the time troubled by this “retreat from empiricism”.
But the party as a whole went for it, attacking the purveyors of any and all inconvenient truths. In particular they went after the so-called liberal media, the most venerable and respected of outlets – McKinnon mentioned The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times – as purveyors of bias.
In his guise as a right-wing pundit, the satirist Stephen Colbert offered a mock defence of this new post-truth politics to an audience including the president, first lady and administration heavyweights at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
“Reality,” he said, “has a well-known liberal bias.” Colbert then instructed the press corps on “the rules”.
“Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spellcheck and go home.”
Assault on the truth
The same year the Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared “truthiness” – a word invented by Colbert, defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” – its word of the year.
Now we are seeing where this determined assault on reality, the concerted effort to deny objective facts, the substitution of truthiness for truth, leads.
And that is to some odd places, such as the Macedonian town of Veles where, as the online news site BuzzFeed reported on November 4, a small group of young people had set up more than 140 websites, purporting to be news sites related to the United States election. Between them they attracted hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers.
“These sites,” wrote Craig Silverman, the founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, “have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.”
Most of the posted material was “wildly sensationalist, recycled from American alt-right sites”.
The young Macedonians were not politically motivated, however. They were in it for the money. Traffic attracts advertisers and, as Silverman noted: “The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising – a declining market for American publishers – goes a long way in Veles.”
He was told by several of those who ran the sites that they had learned the best way to generate traffic was to cater to Trump supporters.
This entrepreneurial spirit is not confined to foreigners. Earlier this week The Washington Post carried a piece about two 26-year-old flatmates from Long Beach California, Paris Wade and Ben Goldman, who were unemployed restaurant workers until about six months ago, when they realised there was big money in fake news.
The Post story begins with Wade awakening from a nap to find only 2000 readers on their site. Still in his bedroom, he selects a suitable topic – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – and in 10 minutes fabricates a 200-word story. He starts with the headline “CAN’T TRUST OBAMA” and ends, “Comment ‘DOWN WITH THE GLOBALISTS!’ below if you love this country”. After posting the piece and promoting it on his Facebook site, he sits back to watch his analytics monitor. Readers flood to the site.
The Post reporter, Terrence McCoy, interviewed Wade and Goldman as they went about their business of making up stuff. They told him – and we should perhaps take this with a grain of salt, given Wade and Goldman are professional purveyors of untruth – that between June and August, when they had fewer than 150,000 Facebook followers, they made between $10,000 and $40,000 every month “running advertisements that, among other things, promised acne solutions, Viagra alternatives, ways to remove lip lines, cracked feet”.
When the drama of the American election escalated as the race narrowed, their audience expanded fivefold. McCoy writes that “Goldman sometimes thinks that what he made in the last six months would have taken him 20 years waiting tables at his old job”.
Neither Wade nor Goldman is particularly political – they voted twice for Obama although they have drifted a little – but they target their lies at Trump supporters for purely commercial reasons.
One more case study. Paul Horner has made a good living from online hoaxing for years on all sorts of issues besides politics. He twice persuaded the internet he was Banksy, and now does a sideline in “I Am Banksy” T-shirts. He considers himself a satirist and got into it for the laughs as well as the money.
He enjoyed fooling people, particularly other media, and also enjoyed their embarrassment when eventually somebody did some fact-checking and realised they had been had. In 2013, to his great amusement, one of his “satirical” pieces, headlined “Obama uses own money to open Muslim museum amid government shutdown”, was briefly picked up and reported as fact by Fox News.
Of course, he jumped on the lucrative fake news bandwagon that accompanied the Trump campaign. One of his fake stories, about someone being paid $3500 to protest at a Trump rally, was picked by mainstream media, and then by Trump’s campaign team.
He couldn’t believe it, because the very idea was “insane”. As he told the Post: “No one needs to get paid to protest Trump.”
The fact that his made-up story survived debunking didn’t accord with his experience, which was: “Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots.”
That didn’t happen this time. Instead, his fake stories just kept running and running. Now he feels bad that he might have helped elect Trump.
Creating a monster
Horner overestimated the power of the reality-based community to set the record straight. But others didn’t – notably Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk show host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A couple of months before the election, in an interview with Business Spectator, Sykes explained that the falsehoods kept circulating because over many years his side of politics had inoculated a large segment of its constituency so it was now immune to facts. “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers,” he said.
When someone in his audience presented him with a falsehood picked up on Facebook or uttered by Trump or some far-right pundit, he said, it was impossible to persuade them otherwise.
“…I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact-check.’ And they will say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.’”
There was no way to break through “the alternative media reality”, he said. And when he tried, he was accused of having sold out.
“When this [election] is all over, we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this,” Sykes said. “We’ve created this monster. And look, I’m a conservative talk show host. All conservative hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted to the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonising the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot of it has been justifiable. There is real bias.
“But at a certain point you wake up and you realise you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there. And I am feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind of that. And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute?’”
On reading Sykes’s words, New York University journalism professor and noted media critic Jay Rosen took to Twitter: “I have been waiting for this to land on the right since October 2004.”
It was a reference to that Suskind piece that introduced the phrase “reality-based community”.
When The Saturday Paper contacted Rosen about it, he referred us to a long, rather sad post he had written on the eve of the presidential election he feared Trump would win, tracing the devolution of America’s political culture. The media covered elements of it more or less competently, but missed the bigger story. Many actually became somewhat smug about their membership of the reality-based community.
Rosen noted the shift was not exclusive to the Republican Party, either. It just found more fertile soil there. And the market – one reality in which the political right still believes – bears him out.
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets, according to analysis by BuzzFeed’s Silverman.
“Of the 20 top-performing fake election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton,” he wrote.
The purveyors of false stories knew the money was to be made by appealing to those who preferred faith to reason. Perhaps not coincidentally, the most shared of all fake stories was the one that claimed the Pope had endorsed Trump. At the election, Trump, notwithstanding his personal history, reaped more than 80 per cent of the votes of white Christian evangelicals, a higher proportion than even George Bush. Conservative Catholics were among his most loyal supporters.
Mercifully, there is little evidence of fake media taking off in this country. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that Australia is not so sharply divided. But mostly, the experts in the digital economy tell me, it’s because the Australian market is not big enough to make them profitable.
The rise of fake media was a sudden thing. It was nowhere in the previous US election cycle. In the past couple of years its growth has been phenomenal but, says Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, it’s “just the latest in an evolution of bogus information that’s been spread, I guess, since the beginning of the internet”.
And even before that. A generation ago the mainstream media – now frequently dismissed by both right and left – were the arbiters of truth. They essentially based themselves on facts, and fact was powerful.
It caused a sensation when, on February 27, 1968, the news anchor for CBS, Walter Cronkite delivered a rare editorial at the end of a series of reports on the Vietnam War, saying that it was unwinnable. The doyen of broadcast news, he was deemed by opinion polling to be the most trusted man in America. By the account of then president Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary, Johnson responded by saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Five weeks later he announced he would not contest another term as president.
Then the media fractured. Cable television took off in 1980, at first in the relatively straight if sensationalist form of CNN. In 1996, America got the hyper-partisan Fox News on the right, and, reflexively, MSNBC on the centre-left. Partisanship became ever more apparent across the broadcast media, or else they simply dumbed down. Talkback radio became the province of the right; TV satire the province of the left.
And print media struggled, as advertisers left them and went online.
In 2007 Walter Cronkite was 90, very deaf, but still spry and sharp as a tack. In what I believe was his last interview he lamented to me the state of the media. He was scornful of most of it, particularly TV.
The exception he made was for the quality press – by which he meant newspapers – which he said continued to do “a very good job”.
“The print press – with some, of course, notorious exceptions – is presenting well-prepared copy each day,” he told me. “It is at about the same level, I think, of substantial journalism [as ever]. The press stands alone.”
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, those very outlets were the focus of partisan claims of bias.
When we spoke, Facebook was only a few years old, and not yet a dominant force. The Oxford Dictionary of English had only accepted “Google” as a verb the previous year. Some hyper-partisan websites existed – Drudge Report had been going since 1995 – but the explosion in their numbers was just starting, in tandem with the rise of social media. The late Andrew Breitbart was in the process of establishing his eponymous news site, initially intended to be “unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel”.
But these sites were still different from the ones that defined Trump’s election. They were not fake news sites. What they did was aggregate and report news that was advantageous to the right of politics. They didn’t make it up; they just left out the bits that didn’t suit them and “reported” what fakers were saying.
‘Darkness is good’
Breitbart News is a particularly interesting case study. Its founder had previously helped set up the leftish Huffington Post. But after Breitbart’s death in March 2012, the site shifted quite radically under the direction of Steve Bannon, finding common cause with the so-called alt-right. In April this year, the Southern Poverty Law Centre wrote that the “outlet has undergone a noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right” promulgating “racist”, “anti-Muslim” and “anti-immigrant” ideas.
Under Bannon, the online site went after not only the left and the mainstream media, but also the establishment right. It did a job, for example, on Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative The Weekly Standard. The headline on the story – all in capital letters, as is Breitbart’s wont – was “BILL KRISTOL – REPUBLICAN SPOILER, RENEGADE JEW”.
There was never anything subtle about Breitbart headlines. Other examples: “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS PROTECTS MUSLIM RAPE CULTURE” and “RACIST, PRO-NAZI ROOTS OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD REVEALED”.
We could go on, but you get the picture. And Bannon himself was equally inflammatory. After the election, when he assumed his adviser role with Donald Trump, having been his campaign manager since August, he told Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Wolff he didn’t mind that the left saw him as evil.
“Darkness is good,” Bannon told the publication. “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Breitbart News also split early from the conservative pack, supporting Trump from the very start of the primaries. This proved to be a happy symbiosis.
In January this year The Washington Post noted the site had more than doubled its number of unique visitors over the previous year, to some 17 million.
“That puts Breitbart.com at the head of the jostling pack of conservative news sites that have sprouted and thrived in and around Washington in the past few years,” it said.
The Post also noted that Trump had doled out so many exclusives to Breitbart News that some had wondered whether Trump was in business with the site. It recorded an incident some six months prior where Trump high-fived the site’s political correspondent after he had asked a friendly question.
More than any other organisation, Breitbart helped set Trump’s agenda for the first post-truth election.
Consider some statistics, from the independent, Pulitzer Prize-winning site PolitiFact, which subjected hundreds of claims made by Hillary Clinton and Trump during the campaign to its rigorous process of checking. They graded them on a six-step scale: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and “pants on fire”.
Among the 293 Clinton claims assessed, 40 were mostly false, 29 false and 7 “pants on fire”. Among 334 Trump claims assessed, the comparative numbers were 63, 113 and 57. That is to say, more than 50 per cent of the assessed “factual” claims made by Trump were completely untrue or outright lies. Only 30 per cent were wholly or even partly true.
The fact-checkers clarified all of this, but it made no impact, as FactCheck’s director Eugene Kiely ruefully notes.
“We have an annual piece that looks at the most egregious claims made. We called Trump the king of the whoppers. He earned that title. The number from Trump was just overwhelming,” he wrote.
“I don’t know where is this maelstrom we’re in right now going to lead. Will there be a backlash against this spread of disinformation and distrust in the media? Will people gravitate towards sites that are working honestly and diligently to get accurate information to the public. That doesn’t seem to be the case right now.”
Facebook and Google have suggested they might stem the flow of fake stories, including by changing advertising policies to make it more difficult for people to profit from them.
But that is more fraught than it might appear. In any case, such moves would do nothing about the underlying deficit of trust in objective truth, fostered by decades of growing partisanship.
As Jay Rosen wrote: “The retreat from empiricism was a disturbance in 2004. Twelve years later it is a political style in utter ascendency. ‘When we act, we create our own reality,’ was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world.
“Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.”
And not just the political press. Also the world’s great democracy.
Breitbart’s Bannon is now senior adviser to president-elect Trump. Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is now approaching two million. Responsible media are carrying reports of voting irregularities in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and suggestions the results could have been skewed by foreign hackers. There are growing calls for a recount.
Heaven knows where it goes from here. The only certainties are that either way, half the country will feel cheated. Suspicion, distrust and conspiracy will grow. And political truth and reality will be harder than ever to discern.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "How fake news changed America". Subscribe here.