The concept of "fake news" is not a new one. In fact, it's been around for many years, but mainly in the form of satire. The Onion, for example, has long been the world's preeminent source for fake news. Most of the Onion's humor is often found not so much in the content of its articles, but in the headlines. For example, who can't laugh at an article with a title like Man Makes Quick Call To Parents So Next Week’s Call To Ask For Money Doesn’t Seem That Bad or Biden Forges President’s Signature On Executive Order To Make December Dokken History Month? They're pretty funny, but quite frankly, reading the actual articles behind them doesn't often add anything to the humor. So what if you take the same basic principle of the Onion -- interesting headlines -- and apply that to material written with the intention of being taken seriously?
A lot of outlets have done that over the years. Nowadays, they're mainly written for online consumption with the singular goal of getting clicks and thereby generating advertising revenue; in other words, the definition of clickbait. Upworthy -- one of the earliest and most consistently awful offenders in the clickbait world -- was co-founded by a former editor for the Onion, with the goal of disseminating news and information to spur social change through articles with titles like "If you don't cry while watching this video of a disabled pot-bellied pig holding an elderly Jewish woman's hand as she crosses the street, you have no heart." Upworthy doesn't so much traffic in fake news as they do largely irrelevant, old, or frankly unimportant stories that are assigned a significance well above their actual impact on the world and repackaged in a way that will break your heart, make you cry, restore your faith in humanity, etc.
Then you've got websites that specifically just make shit up or greatly embellish things to fit a headline. A lot of these online outlets create articles with sensationalistic headlines like FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide. The obvious implication for an article like this is that Hillary Clinton or individuals acting on her behalf killed this supposed FBI agent and any number of other people to cover something up. Well, if that's true, that's outrageous! That would be unforgivable! I could never vote for someone who would do that! I'm sure you can see where this is going.
By now, we all know the result of the 2016 United States Presidential Election. For the American left, this is a time of recrimination and finger-pointing. Some of this is pointed inward and some of this is pointed outward. Not many people on the left want to admit that Hillary Clinton was in many ways a fatally flawed candidate...especially if they write for major publications such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Why? Well, it would force the left to acknowledge that they 100% put their faith in someone who promoted ideas anathema to the American liberal tradition, namely the imposition of American influence abroad through force (or the threat of force) and the impression that investment banking is the cornerstone and most important component of the American economy. For American leftists of the 1960s, this would have been considered absolutely verboten. But then again, we don't live in the 1960s anymore.
The issue with admitting that Hillary Clinton was the problem (or at least a large part of the problem) is that it then forces the people who don't have to run for office and who have no political accountability to acknowledge that they themselves were in some way wrong to support a candidate of this type. What journalist, talking head, or internet/TV pundit wants to offer that type of mea culpa? Are they even constitutionally capable of doing that? Clearly that isn't an acceptable conclusion. The historicity of her candidacy shouldn't be in doubt, of course, but the cries of misogyny in the context of Hillary Clinton's defeat don't really ring true when one considers that exit polls are reporting that close to 45% of female voters voted for Trump in this election.
There are other possibilities. For example, maybe white people in America are just so racist that they had to overwhelmingly support the guy who promised to deport illegal immigrants and severely restrict immigration from majority Muslim countries. Maybe stupid-ass millennials were just such stupid asses that they couldn't be bothered to get out and vote. Maybe Republicans suppressed the vote in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to the extent that members of the Obama coalition couldn't exercise their democratic right to vote. Maybe it was Vladimir Putin interfering with the grand tradition of American democracy. Maybe it was the goddamn alt-right pretending that this whole election was about dank Pepe memes and encouraging people to vote on that basis.
Or perhaps it was the result of a huge disinformation campaign on social media directed against Hillary Clinton. Maybe it had to do with people in Russia and Macedonia and other countries creating clickbait articles for somewhat legitimate-sounding websites such as the Denver Guardian or Americannews.com that featured obviously anti-Clinton and pro-Trump articles for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue. Maybe, just maybe, there were enough Americans who saw articles on Facebook with titles like Pope Francis Just Backed Donald Trump or Denzel Washington Backs Trump in the Most Epic Way Possible and thought "fuck Hillary, I'm going for Trump!" to swing the election in his favor.
Now, let's be clear: there are very few arguments I'm willing to discount prima facie. I like to have a real grasp of the issues I'm dealing with before I render a judgment on them. Right now, this "fake news" thing is a huge talking point on television, in print, and on the internet. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're interested, just Google "fake news" and look at the news section. Currently there are close to 14 million results, many of which come from traditional outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. All of them decry the expansion of the phenomenon and its presumable impact on American electoral habits. A great many of these articles specifically blame Facebook for the proliferation of "fake news."
Let's get one thing straight before we go any further: there is absolutely zero doubt that the material that these places call fake news exists. It's undeniable. It's out there. I don't know this for a fact and I can't prove it, but I'm even willing to grant that the majority of fake news has a pro-Trump and/or anti-Hillary slant. After considering these propositions, however, one has to ask the inevitable and obvious question: so what?
The clear implication is that these fake news articles caused people to vote for Donald Trump. Now whether these voters were previously undecided or were planning on voting for another candidate before reading one of these articles (or even just a headline from one of them) isn't known. But still, they caused people who would have otherwise not contributed to Trump's victory to do so. Clearly fake news needs to be monitored and brought down to an acceptable minimum so uninformed voters don't make the same mistake twice, right?
Here's the problem with that. There is literally no way to measure the impact of fake news on voting behavior. We have absolutely no way of knowing how people who read, shared, or clicked on a fake news article actually voted. How would you even phrase the question at an exit poll? "Was your vote in any way influenced by fake news?" If people believe it, it's not fake to them, so obviously the answer would be "no." That would also imply that the person in question has no access to alternate news sources beyond social media platforms. Even if someone was completely unaware of the outside world beyond the fake news on their Facebook newsfeed, we have no way of knowing to what extent that influenced their decision to vote in a particular way. It's just not knowable.
What we have to do, then, is make assumptions based on extrapolations. I've seen estimates suggesting that somewhere around 60% of American adults use Facebook. Let's say that's true. And let's also grant the figure that says 66% of Facebook users get their news from that particular platform. This doesn't mean that Facebook itself is writing the news or that they are endorsing every single article that someone shares on their timeline as being real or valid. Rather, the "news" comes from individual users sharing particular articles and then those topics becoming "trending" items on Facebook. Either way, we then would have to accept that 120,000,000 Americans get their news from stuff they see on Facebook. About 125,000,000 people voted in the most recent election, so let's assume that all 120 million Americans who are estimated to get their news from Facebook voted in the election (even though this is surely not true). Let's then further assume that all 120 million of these people get their news exclusively from things they see on Facebook and they neither require nor desire any input from any other source to consider themselves aware of current events. Mark Zuckerberg estimates that about 1% of articles shared on Facebook are of the fake news variety. Zuckerberg is clearly just trying to cover his own ass, so we can't trust anything he says, so let's pump that number up to 10%. Now there's no way to distinguish between satire and parody on the one hand and malicious fake news on the other, so we need to just lump it all together into that 10% figure and assume it's all fake news that people believe out of hand. What we're then going to look at is...
STOP. The number of assumptions we have to make here based on incomplete information is very high. The ultimate thing we're trying to figure out is how many people voted the way they did based on fake news articles but we've got to go through several levels of calculations that can't be verified or really even guessed at. Just like in every other election, you have a certain number of people who are going to vote a particular way no matter what. Your die-hard partisans were never going to support the other party's candidate. For them, a fake news article supporting their candidate would effectively be preaching to the choir and that's under the assumption they believed the article in the first place.
Not only that, we have to try to pin down the impact of fake news on a geographical basis because as everyone is hopefully aware, the president is actually chosen by the electoral college after voters pick the electors for their state, which means that fake news would disproportionately have to affect people in places where the presidential election is actually competitive; fake news wouldn't matter in Alabama or Oregon, for example, because Alabama is already reliably Republican and Oregon is already reliably Democratic. So fake news would have to disproportionately target and affect people in places like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and somehow not have an impact on people in other places. If the effect was really that important, why didn't Trump get closer to 400 electoral votes? Is there really a major qualitative difference in how savvy people in Minnesota are about things they read on social media as opposed to people in Wisconsin?
And that actually gets to the real crux of the issue, doesn't it? The unstated but barely concealed implication in this whole debacle is that "real" news provides people with all the information they should need to arrive at the correct conclusions about things. This is the true reason why all of these traditional media outlets are freaking out about "fake" news: they see that their monopoly on the ability to build a narrative about an issue and craft public opinion around it accordingly is endangered. If the goal of fake news was to shift the election to Trump, then what does that say about the goal of real news? Does having a goal beyond telling the public about current events have any bearing on the distinction between whether an outlet is real or fake?
Real news (on the internet, anyway) has been transitioning toward a clickbait model for a while now. It's a little bit more subtle than the Upworthy stuff but it's still noticeable. Look at the proliferation of headlines on the websites for outlets such as MSNBC, FOX News, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, etc., that are questions that can be answered with either "yes" or "no." Right now on MSNBC.com, three of the top 10 news stories have headlines that are questions, two of which are yes-no. If the answer is possibly "no," then it's not news, it's just text taking up space that reveals no breaking or important information. But people will click anyway to find out "is Flynn too cozy with Putin for the job?" Well, I don't know. If he is, call the article "Flynn is too cozy with Putin for the job." If he isn't, call the article "Flynn is not too cozy with Putin for the job." But the thing is, neither of these headlines or their presumptive subjects are really "news," they're opinions, and they push an agenda. A headline asking a question is more neutral but inevitably the subject matter it summarizes still isn't news.
Another big tip-off in the clickbaitification of news in general is when headlines don't actually reveal any information about the subject they purport to cover. FOX News has "Mitt Romney comments on meeting with Donald Trump." Well, what are the comments? What did they talk about? What did they say to each other? Did Trump offer Romney a job or did he tell him to go fuck himself? Did they talk about whether or not the best way to eat a steak is to have it well-done with ketchup on the side? You have to click on it to find out literally anything about the subject. In this case, Romney gave a perfectly non-committal answer that said in so many words "we talked about various issues facing the country and the world and we exchanged our ideas" without elaborating and walked off. That's not news. Obviously they talked about issues and exchanged ideas. Why in the hell else would they be there? But an article with a headline like "Romney and Trump discuss issues, exchange ideas" gives it all away. Maybe it would have worked even better as a question, like "did Trump just offer Romney the position of Secretary of State?" (Spoiler alert: we don't know because Romney said like 8 words about the meeting before leaving and he didn't address the subject at all.)
To me, this type of reporting is only marginally better than fake news. With fake news, you at least have to be inventive enough to entirely create a story out of thin air and if you're doing it for laughs, you have to make it funny too. All the hard work is already done for real news that's reported in this way because the only things that are left to do is to create a narrative around the topic at hand (or adapt it to a preexisting narrative) and to come up with a headline that is often only vaguely pertinent to the story that generates interest. The struggle, then, isn't one between truth and lies but between a highly massaged and manufactured version of the truth and lies. It is obvious that one is fake but I can't honestly say at this point that the other rises to the level of being "real."