A month after the presidential election in the United States, a 28-year-old man drove nearly 600 kilometres from his hometown in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., walked into a popular eatery armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle and headed for the kitchen. Forty-five minutes later, after allowing employees and diners to leave the building unharmed and firing at least one shot into the floor, Edgar Welch surrendered peacefully to police. Upon his arrest, he stated that his intention had been only to investigate claims circulating on the Internet that the restaurant, a family-friendly pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong, was the headquarters for a child sex ring with links to the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The bizarre incident drew worldwide attention to an incipient crisis for Western civilization and gave it a catchy name: “fake news.”
The Democrat pedophilia ring conspiracy theory, dubbed ‘Pizzagate’ by amateur Internet sleuths, had its origins in emails from the hacked account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, leaked eight months earlier, in which Podesta and Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis discussed possible fundraisers and a shared love of pizza. Seemingly from thin air — Alefantis, though a generous donor to the Democratic Party, had never met Hillary Clinton — the meme- and mayhem-loving denizens of the message board 4Chan produced a narrative that implicated the highest echelons of the Democratic Party in a horrific crime. In the final days of the presidential campaign, the conspiracy theory was cross-posted to a pro-Donald Trump thread on the more mainstream forum Reddit; from there, boosted by the instantaneous mass communication power of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, it spread to hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of days. That no victims had come forward and no official investigation was opened was beside the point; to succeed, Pizzagate only needed the credulity of a public drowning in information and grasping for truth.
Ten years ago, something like Pizzagate could not have exploded into the public consciousness the way it did, leading newscasts and warranting lengthy examinations by the likes of the BBC and The New York Times. Conspiracist thinking has always existed, of course, but prior to the advent of social media, it was largely contained to tabloids barking at shoppers in supermarket check-out lines, the occasional chain email, and the comment sections of obscure websites, and most people didn’t believe it.
Alternatives to facts
Today, when Donald Trump fires off a tweet blasting mainstream media outlets for biased reporting, or Kellyanne Conway appears on a political talk show to defend the president’s “alternative facts,” they are speaking directly to a growing proportion of Americans — and others — who feel they are being manipulated and lied to by their democratic institutions, and that most, if not all, aspects of their lives are controlled by “elites” who desire nothing less than their enslavement and destruction.
This conviction transcends political ideology; a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in 2015 found that 23 percent of Americans believed Barack Obama was Muslim in spite of the former president’s repeated avowals of his Christian faith. A 2016 survey by California’s Chapman University found more than half of Americans doubt the official narrative about 9/11. Fully a third of respondents to the Chapman study said they believed the government was hiding information about the ‘North Dakota crash’ — a fiction invented by the researchers.
Thanks to the Internet, today’s news consumer is spoiled for choice when it comes to reliable sources of reporting and information on these and other contentious issues ranging from vaccines to climate change, much of it accessible for free. And yet, according to a Gallup poll released last fall, public trust in the news media has never been lower.
What’s going on? Why does it seem as though the democratization of knowledge is making us less enlightened and more frightened?
The Internet democratized the production of news and information by eliminating the need for huge, expensive printing presses or elaborate broadcasting studios. But for a time, traditional media retained its lucrative monopoly on the distribution of information. Newspapers still landed on doorsteps at 6 a.m., cable news networks enjoyed the security of mandatory carriage regulations, and people still accessed online news from homepages arranged to reflect an editor’s judgment.
News on steroids
Social networks, emerging in tandem with mobile technology, disrupted this monopoly on distribution by making it possible for anyone to share information with any number of people at any time. This included those in power, who could now bypass the traditional media gatekeepers and communicate directly with constituents.
Concurrently, publishing on social media destroyed any notion of a news cycle limited by time or geography. And as their numbers of active users grew, Facebook and Twitter in particular enabled the commercial success of a new and different kind of publisher, whose singular motivation was to attract as many viewers as possible, which they did by pushing out massive amounts of content. The content didn’t have to be particularly well written or relevant; it just had to be there, and it had to get clicks. The more daily visitors a site could boast, the more they could charge advertisers. Unsurprisingly, what got clicks wasn’t the straight, objective, factual reporting once thought so necessary for the selling of news and the maintenance of a healthy democracy, but controversial opinions, trivial human interest stories and gossip about the lives of celebrities, delivered in such a way as to promise the reader a revelatory experience in exchange for their click. (‘You won’t believe what happens next!’)
Some of the pioneers of clickbait, like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, have recognized their influence and matured; Buzzfeed in particular has tried to establish itself as a source for hard news and offbeat original journalism in addition to its quizzes and video recipes, with mixed results. But another generation of upstart publishers has come of age and discovered that in a world seemingly unhinged by things like the near meltdown of the global financial system, proliferating terrorism and refugee crises, and a much-heralded imminent climate catastrophe, the public does not crave objectivity so much as confirmation of their suspicions that some nefarious global game is afoot.
These publications have no physical product, so their overhead costs are next to nothing. Their writers often have little formal education or training. Most of what they publish is aggregated from other sources and passed through an extreme left- or right-wing filter. They have SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly names with just a whiff of legitimacy: World Tribune, Christian Times Newspaper, Truth Examiner, U.S. Uncut, Counter-Current News. Armed with passable graphic design skills and a breathtaking disregard for journalistic ethics, they regurgitate conspiracy theories or craft elaborate fallacies that mirror political talking points, then unleash their creations into the bland homogeneity of the social newsfeed, where one source is as good as another and you’re only as influential as your most recent post.
With an estimated 1.8 billion monthly active users, Facebook is now the single largest publishing entity in the world, yet it employs no human editors. Everything that appears on the platform, from the stories that show up in users’ newsfeeds to the ‘trending topics’ displayed beside the feed, is generated algorithmically based on the demographic profile and online activity of each user. The company has repeatedly come under fire for its inconsistent enforcement of its own guidelines, and has until recently resisted calls for more vetting of the trending topics, which occasionally end up featuring fake stories simply because lots of people are discussing them.
In Zuckerberg we trust
In a post published after the U.S. election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the platform, insisting “99 percent” of what appears on Facebook is authentic and that therefore it was highly unlikely that exposure to heavily biased or fake news on Facebook had had an impact on how people voted. But Facebook is built on real-world relationships, and various recent studies of news consumption habits have found that information is more likely to be perceived as trustworthy when it’s shared by a friend. So even if Zuckerberg is correct, and only a tiny percentage of the content users are exposed to is technically “fake,” the impact of that content is amplified by the fact that it comes via a trusted source.
However, it follows that the inverse is also probably true: someone who is motivated to share fake news out of a sincere belief in its accuracy is more likely to be receptive to a debunking that comes from a loved one. In this regard, Facebook can at least credibly claim the continuity of our real-life associations in its own defense. On Twitter, where ideas are expressed 140 characters at a time and according to recent estimates, an average of 6,000 new messages are posted every second, continuity is a foreign concept. News breaks, is amplified, discussed and forgotten at breakneck speed. Topics trend seemingly at random, and users react with ferocious intensity, only to disperse like piranhas after the carcass has been picked clean or a juicier chunk of meat has entered the waters.
In this manic parody of democracy, even seasoned reporters fall for hoaxes or share inaccurate or unverified information in their rush to be the first to develop a story or post a witty take, blurring the lines between fake news and news that supports a particular narrative. In the time it takes to verify facts and issue corrections in the analog world, spurious tweets have already been shared dozens of times, or read and absorbed to be parroted in real life by a user who only logged on for a minute while waiting in line at the grocery store.
Twitter has done more than any other platform to break down journalism’s pretensions of objectivity, to the great detriment of our civil discourse. Writers and reporters on Twitter are expected to be authentic and engaging while remaining spotlessly impartial, but they are constantly drawn into pointless and vitriolic debate with disillusioned readers who challenge their interpretation of the facts and conflate bias with a lack of ethics. It eventually gets to be too much for some, but leaving Twitter means turning their backs on one of the last captive audiences for their work.
The diminishing influence of legacy media and the attendant rise of fake news lacks an obvious solution, although it’s certainly not increased government funding and regulation, as it increasingly appears the Trudeau administration is preparing to do. Instead, it may be prudent to allow the hand of the market to guide us back into charted waters. When Donald Trump attacked the “failing” New York Times (on Twitter, naturally) for doing its job and fact-checking the various claims the president made in his first week in office to justify his executive actions, many news consumers bit the bullet and did what they’ve been putting off for years now: actually paid for a digital subscription. The Times picked up 276,000 new digital subscribers in the three months following Trump’s election – more than in all of 2015. You get what you pay for, as the axiom goes, and if we keep expecting journalists to produce good journalism on demand, for free, eventually all we will be left with is the spectre of our own worst fears.