Fake News? Or Political Propaganda

The proliferation of fake news scares the shit out of me — that we’ve so quickly slipped into a world that is casually described as ‘post-truth’, one in which fringe political movements are strengthened by social media algorithms, and reckless conspiracy theories can have major impacts on presidential campaigns.

“Fake news is so easy to make trend on Facebook that Macedonian teens are earning up to $3,000 a day duping Trump supporters with viral fake stories that confirm their viewpoints,” Ryan Broderick points out, in an terrifying story on Buzzfeed.

I was really struck by Mark Danner’s recent piece, titled The Real Trump, which describes in shocking detail his experience at a Trump rally in Pittsburgh, days before the election:

The rich satisfactions of a politics of villainy! Complicated decades-long tales of technological advance and social change dissolve into the self-satisfied sneer on a hated face. All around me I saw it reproduced, mostly behind bars, on “Crooked Hillary” buttons and “Hillary for Jail!” sweatshirts and much, much worse. “Hillary Clinton murders children!” a middle-aged woman waiting in the two-mile-long line had shouted. “It’s been proved. Hillary Clinton rapes and murders children.”

In David Remnick’s essential profile of Barack Obama, the President too warns of the dangers of fake news:

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

But perhaps referring to the rapid and deliberate spread of misinformation as ‘the problem of fake news’ is itself misleading. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Sarah Kendzior argues that,

“Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting…when Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.”

Propaganda is a problem as old as politics. I fear, however, that in an age of social media and the internet, finding solutions will be difficult.  How do we push back? Can Facebook or Twitter stop the flood? Are they willing too? Is a Chrome extension going to save us?

Amy Sanderson21/12/16