“Fake News” Causes Real Scariness in the Trump Election
More than a month after the shocking and horrifying election of snake oil salesman Donald Trump, lots of folks are shaking their heads. Folks are trying to figure out “what do we do now?” and, at the same time, asking, “How could this have happened?” Progressives are at work cobbling strategies to protect against the most Draconian possible policy moves by the incoming Trump administration (it’s still hard to write “Trump administration” with a straight face). But here’s my argument for one big reason why Trump won the election (at least the arcane Electoral College vote).
Trump won, in part, because of the rampant, unbridled proliferation of what we’ve come to call “fake news.”
Let me ‘splain, Lucy. Trump was the source of scores and scores of lies that were spread by Internet websites and a variety of social media platforms. (And they weren’t significantly challenged or vetted by so-called mainstream media.) They didn’t challenge Trump’s prevarications. For example, without any basis in fact, Trump repeatedly claimed that Hillary Clinton was “soon to be prosecuted” by the New York D.A. and the U.S. Justice Department (and maybe in the courtroom of Judge Judy.) All lies, but Trump supporters ate it all up.
Responsible, credible journalists and news organizations have an important role to play. They don’t always do their jobs as well as they should, but they are at least rooted in a sense of ethics and fairness. It’s a struggle. But the fake news platforms that have proliferated on the Internet aren’t constrained by solid journalistic traditions or rules of ethics and fairness.
These social media outlets aren’t out to provide valid, verifiable information to the public. They are out to spread a point of view – and they often do it with wild prevarication. And those who tweet, re-tweet and wallow in such slime are among those who voted for Trump. Lots of them. The “bucket of deplorables” relish the junk in social media, including conspiracy theories that are so ludicrous as to make any reasonable person’s head spin. And it’s all potentially dangerous.
The most recent example is the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria shooting. I mean, you just can’t make this shit up. You’ll recall that a wacko named Maddison Welsh, a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter, burst into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. and started shooting up the place with an AR-15 assault rifle. He was arrested right away before anybody was killed. Unbelievably, he told cops he was there to rescue children who were part of a “child sex slave” operation run by Hillary Clinton in the pizza place. He had read about it on the Internet. “So, it must be true,” he probably reasoned – as if the word “reason” should be used in conjunction with a nut like this.
That outrageous (and demonstrably untrue) conspiracy theory had been perpetuated on social media. Even someone on Trump’s team, Michael Flynn, Jr. tried to give credence to such a ridiculous conspiracy theory. The son of the guy, who will be Trump’s national security advisor, wrote (on social media, of course): “Until Pizzagate is proven to be false it’ll remain a story.” Wow! How scary is that?
Lots of wacko ideas are out there on social media. For example, conspiracy nuts claim that the mass murders of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut were faked. They claim the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job by a shadowy government cabal. And, of course, they claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya. And the crazy conspiracy theories go on and on. (Years ago some conspiracy nuts claimed the 1969 moon landing was a fake, created on a Hollywood sound stage, but that was before the Internet.)
I recently took a look at a number of these websites that spit out what can only be described as “fake news.” (My laptop seemed to shutter.) White supremacist websites, neo-Nazi websites and plain ole wacko websites. I won’t give out their names for fear of encouraging them. Here’s some of the content of their “news stories:” Mexican immigrants murder a white person in the United States at least once a day. Muslims are plotting kidnappings of teen-aged white girls. Most homosexuals are pedophiles. The fake news seems to have no limit. Oh, and Trump keeps tweeting that there were “three million illegal voters” who cost him the popular vote. Another lie. Fake news social media and Donald Trump tend to go together, like rice and beans.
An argument could be made that the proliferation of all this phony news on social media influenced a great number of those who voted for Trump, thus helping him get elected. Let’s be clear. It’s irrefutable that Trump tapped into a feeling among working class white voters that, somehow, they’ve been forgotten by the elites in Washington and in the corporate ivory towers. Unfortunately, they bought into the idea that a billionaire charlatan was their ally and – ultimately – their savior. But that aside, the scary thing about all this is what these people feel about what constitutes “news.” They don’t trust the so-called “mainstream media,” but they don’t read the New York Times or the L.A. Times or even their local newspaper. They watch Fox cable news and they swear by “what ah saw on duh Internet” – whatever its original source. We seem to be becoming a nation of illiterates.
A recent BBC News profile featured lots of these folks. “Whatever the mainstream news media says, I just figure to go with the opposite,” said one guy. “I don’t trust ‘em and I trust Trump,” said another person in the BBC piece. A recent study revealed that more than half of the people in this country get their “news” from Facebook. (How much can you learn about foreign policy by watching cats playing Rachmaninoff on the piano? I wonder.) And there seems to be this sad and frightening notion that, “I saw it on the Internet – so it must be true.”
People are selective in what they read (or scan). They look for stuff that confirms their point of view. (That goes for rational progressives as well as far-out wackos, by the way.) But the overriding point is, fake news has taken on the apparent legitimacy and veracity once reserved for genuine, professionally produced news. (And believe me, the major news organizations have a lot to atone for, but they do strive to be fair, thoughtful and accurate.)
That’s the difference between genuine news and “fake news.” Because of the head-spinning advances in technology and the rise of social media, anyone can claim to be a “journalist.” Anyone can use his or her two index fingers to type out a blog saying anything that comes to mind. No attribution. No contextualization. No facts.
You know, when I hear some of these Trump supporters and surrogates I tell them: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Facts are different from opinions. Certain aspects of reality are immutable. And no amount of ideological spinning is going to change that.
Aha, you might say: “Well, Torres, you’re writing a blog, why should we believe what you say?” Fair enough. First of all, I don’t lie. I don’t invent “facts” to suit an argument. For better or worse, I am rooted in traditional journalism, with its boundaries and requisites. I’ve been a professional journalist for 40 years. For what it’s worth, I have a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I worked for 30 years as a journalist for CBS Radio. (Okay, I’m open to charges of “elitism”, despite my working class origins.)
But the big point is I respect the process of gathering information, distilling it and honestly turning it into “news” either in broadcasting or publishing. In the blogs I’m emancipated from the notion that I shouldn’t inject opinion into a story. Well, this blog is a commentary, so todo se vale as far as opinion and point of view are concerned. But even in a blog I’m guided by the principles of accuracy, proper attribution and adherence to facts not unfounded conspiracy theories.
Sure, people can – and should – determine for themselves what’s credible and what’s suspiciously false. It takes judgment. It takes a bit of education. And it takes a concerted effort to try to sort out the truth – at least with a lower case “t”. And it’s become a challenge, hasn’t it?
The greatest damage from the proliferation of fake news (some would say it can’t get worse than its contribution to Trump’s ascendancy), is not that lots of people buy it as accurate news. The biggest damage comes from muddying the waters so that people just don’t know what to believe. They don’t know whom to trust, so they end up not trusting anyone or anything. That kind of blind cynicism does not make for a healthy, vibrant republic. And I can tell you, I’m scared as hell. Perhaps we all should be. You can see it on the Internet, so it must be true.
Copyright by Luís R. Torres. Luis is a veteran journalist and author.