Of course, it is. It is intended to be. And it is working. It is boggling minds
First, let’s try to agree on a few basics. News coverage of people or movements with which one vehemently disagrees is not, by definition, fake news. Legitimate news outlets often have strong editorial points of view, some strongly conservative and some strongly liberal or progressive. That’s just healthy journalism, and while one might disagree with a given news outlet’s point of view, opinionated editorial content does not constitute fake news.
Conversely, news that is simply fabricated to persuade people to believe what the fabricator wants them to believe is fake news. The real danger lurks in this age of world-wide-web connected social media when spurious and deceptive information can be packaged to look authentic and be instantly and widely distributed. Fake news is pernicious, deceitful, and a danger to our democracy. Democracy depends on ready access to factual information. It atrophies when smothered in deliberately and widely distributed false information masquerading as news.
As the old and often misattributed saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on. Actually, it’s much worse than that. Today, information (including misinformation) can travel all the way around the world about as fast as the speeding bullet used to analogize the speed of an old Action Comics superhero.
With a nation besotted by the power of social media, we have a perfect storm on our hands. Machine-learning algorithms that enable unscrupulous political tacticians to refine messaging to appeal to fear, uncertainty, and even anger, along with irresponsibly ambitious politicians and an obscene flow of cash, all conspire to manipulate public opinion and our elections.
Today, most Americans consume their news online. Research shows that over two-thirds of adults use news websites, and about 65% rely on search engines such as Google. Slightly more than half draw their news from social media and about 25% from various podcasts. We rely on various electronic devices for our news. That’s fine as long as everyone knows who is feeding their devices and what their motives are. But few people do.
NewsGuard, one of several sources I use to check and corroborate information I receive online, shows that people are increasingly, and unsuspectingly, turning to sources that peddle unreliable content. Misinformation masquerading as news or real insight is polluting the flow of information in the United States.
BuzzFeed found in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from established major news outlets. While Facebook began identifying phony and malicious news distributors before the 2020 election, it was too little, too late.
The US-based online activist network Avaaz found that if Facebook had tweaked its algorithm and moderation policies in March of 2020, instead of waiting until October, it would have prevented an estimated 10.1 billion additional page-views on the 100 most-read pages it has now classified as repeat spreaders of misinformation. Think of that. And think of this—Facebook reported last March that it took down 1.3 billion fake accounts between October and December 2020 and that it had over 35,000 people working on tackling misinformation on its platform.
Here are some examples of fake news presented as legitimate news on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election:
“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” attracted 960,000 engagements, meaning “likes,” “comments,” or “shares.”
“Wikileaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS…Then Drops Another Bombshell! Breaking News” 789,000 engagements on Facebook.
“It’s over: Hilary’s ISIS email just Leaked, and It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.” 754,000 engagements.
“Just read the Law: Hillary Is Disqualified from Holding any Federal Office” 701,000 engagements.
“FBI Agent suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apartment Murder-Suicide” 567,000 engagements.
These five false stories are a small indication of the massive traffic in misinformation speeding along the social media highway. They generated nearly four million engagements on Facebook, not counting the enormous number of Facebook users to whom these stories were shared.
During those critical months of the 2016 presidential campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. As the election drew closer, engagement for fake content on Facebook skyrocketed and surpassed that of the content from major legitimate news outlets.
Partisans on the left are as active as partisans on the right in generating fake news. This from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC): “It [fake news] affects both the right and the left. It affects educated and uneducated. So the stereotypes of it being simply right-wing and simply uneducated are 100% not true,” says Jeff Green, who is the CEO of Trade Desk, an internet advertising company that was recently commissioned by American TV channel CBS to investigate who is reading and sharing fake news online.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that Google serves up 48% of ad traffic on “fake” news sites. Google has issued a statement acknowledging that it has removed ads from “more than 1.3 billion pages” that breached its policies last year.
Social media platforms are, belatedly, taking steps to remove posts that they deem to be irresponsibly and chronically purveying fake news. Good for them. That isn’t censorship, as the purveyors and consumers of fake news complain, but simply responsible management. No newspaper is obligated to run any advertisements, letters to the editor, or opinion pieces submitted for publication that the editors deem inappropriate, untruthful, or simply not worthy of publication. It is entirely appropriate that social media platforms are setting standards as well.
People have contacted me with the “news” that the American Medical Association had changed its position on hydroxychloroquine, having found it to be an effective treatment for COVID-19. Because I try to corroborate any information I receive that seems the least bit questionable, I searched what the American Medical Association had to say about this revelation. Sure enough, they had already issued a statement in their official publication, Lancet, debunking the false assertion that had been circulating on social media and talk radio. It was phony. The Lancet rebuttal presented research that showed that hydroxychloroquine had not demonstrated any meaningful benefit.
Massive misinformation about Dominion Voting Machines had been trafficked on social media, and in the mainstream news, especially by former Trump attorney Sidney Powell. When Dominion filed a billion-dollar defamation suit against Powell, her defense was, “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were true statements of fact.” Think of that. Anyone who was sucked into the misinformation campaign about Dominion Voting Machines should remember that the person who sucked them in now pleads “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were true statements of fact.”
Sadly, many people simply seek out “news” that merely affirms their point of view. Critical thinking is enfeebled in the process. Yes, the enormous traffic in fake news is, indeed, mind-boggling. Tens of millions of Americans have been, and are being, mind-boggled.
All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.