I’m sick of the term “Fake News”.
It’s one of those intentionally simplistic terms – like “The Big Bang Theory” – that exists because the general public can’t deal with complex concepts without them being stripped to their basest form. Still, it’s the term du jour, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll use it.
As it relates to the US presidential election, “Fake News” is more accurately known as propaganda: distorted news stories and statistics used to push lies about immigrants, urban crime, Muslims, and other boogeyman designed to scare you. This form of propaganda isn’t unique to the US, of course; Brexit was fueled by it, and fear of the “other” has been the politicking weapon of choice since the first politician gave a speech.
But in the broader context of our lives, “Fake News” has always existed, and it has never been a liberal or conservative issue, just a matter of laziness and opportunistic cynicism.
A Long and Tortured History of Fake News
I’ve been calling out my friends’ tendency to spread fake news for years – and lost some for doing it – only to see the same people lambaste Trumpers for spreading fake news. The irony physically hurts.
The uncomfortable truth about the current form of fake news – the Facebook-viral, Russian bot-pushed, grammatically-indifferent breed – is that it didn’t just appear out of nowhere with perfected tactics for reaching the most susceptible (gullible) targets. These tactics have been deployed and honed for years by all kinds of sources pushing their dubious claims, most of them not inherently political. Some you probably trust.
I didn’t call them “fake news” back then, I called them bullshit.
To help explain this, I’m focusing on one website (though there are many) and how it fits into both the current political moment and the road that got us here: Naturalnews.com
Natural News is one of the most unapologetic sources of bullshit I’ve ever seen. There was a time a few years back when it would pop up in my Facebook feed almost every day.
In its heyday, NaturalNews.com existed as a poorly-designed, green-hued nightmare of circular reasoning and supplement peddling. It ostensibly existed to provide information about “alternatives” to Western Medicine (a.k.a. “medicine”). There have always been snake oil salesman, and there always will be. Natural News just did it digitally.
Natural News became a phenomenon largely because it pushed the roundly debunked and thoroughly bullshit idea that vaccines cause autism. Even now, as I type this, the top link on the site declares “Highest AUTISM rates found in countries with highest VACCINE compliance” (playing the hits). It also went all-in on the “evils” of GMOs, another bullshit scare tactic that you – yes, I know you’re reading this – probably still believe is a big concern.
What made this site so effective and so useful for people spreading its lies is that when you clicked on an article, it appeared to be a legitimate news article, with quotes from relevant experts and links to supporting articles. For a reader ready to buy what Natural News was selling, that’s all it took to be convinced that the article was properly researched and well-sourced. Click, share.
But those articles were garbage.
The quotes were almost never actually quotes. They often referenced “a person there” or “an expert”, but never gave a name, as if they had to maintain the person’s anonymity lest Big Brother snuffed them out.
Worse, if you clicked on a link embedded in the article, it inevitably took you to a different article on naturalnews.com, generally written by the same guy (or avatar, at least). Keep clicking and you’d go further and further down the rabbit hole of that website, perhaps even coming right back around to the original article. It was an ouroboros of bullshit, and goddamn was it effective. The creators of the site knew, if you’re predisposed to believe them, you wouldn’t check their work.
The site’s most dedicated readers were usually those who called themselves skeptics, those people who never trust the “official story” and pat themselves on the back because they voted for a third party candidate once. Self-proclaimed skeptics are always the easiest to fool.
If you go to naturalnews.com now (I wouldn’t recommend it; except to check my claims, so I guess you should do it), the website has transformed, unsurprisingly, into a pro-Trump, “Deep State” conspiracy-pushing, manure factory. Still poorly designed, but at least it’s keeping up with the latest bullshit.
I say “unsurprisingly” because, as someone who has been tracking bullshit for my entire adult life, as soon as I saw the political “fake news” websites during the election popping up in my feed, I recognized all the same tactics being used, both in terms of self-referential links and the way they preyed on “skeptics” and “free thinkers.”
Nowadays, Natural News has gotten a little more sophisticated: Its links go to other websites, sites with names like “Deep State News.” Regardless, it’s the same tactic as always, linking back to different like-minded (almost certainly interconnected) sources to give the sheen of authenticity to its claims. The snake is still eating its tail, one source of bullshit feeding another. (Who would have thought that “The Human Centipede” would turn out to be the most culturally astute film of our times?)
It’s possible that Natural News’ turn to Trumpism is just a natural development of its anti-establishment roots. If you don’t trust doctors and the medical establishment, it stands to reason you probably look askew at the political establishment, too.
On the other hand, if you’re a bit more cynical – as I am – you might note that Natural News always had a political slant at its core. I don’t mean Republican or Democrat, or even conservative or liberal. Rather, its politics were about persuading its readers that all “official” sources were lying, so you could only trust them. (And while we’ve got you here, why don’t you buy some vitamin supplements?)
“Everyone else is lying but me.” Sound familiar? When Trump praises Fox News and calls all other news sources “fake” he’s relying on the same tactic that Natural News used to secure a loyal and defensive audience. As soon as you’ve earned someone’s trust and, more importantly, built their distrust of others, they’re yours for life.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying Natural News was a Russian-backed front for spreading fake news (unless it turns out it really was, in which case, I’m also not not saying that).
What I am saying, though, is that all “fake news” sources use this same tactic to create loyalty. It’s not a new tactic. It originated with the original – and still best – purveyor of lies the world ever knew: Religion.
In the beginning…
Once you’ve convinced your followers that only your book, your prophets, your preachers, your celebrity spokesperson have access to the truth, it becomes impossible to dispute your claims.
I said above that I have been tracking bullshit my entire adult life. What I meant was that, as soon as I de-converted from Christianity at the age of 20, I began to look for all the ways that religion convinced its followers – convinced me – to stay in its grasp, even when so little of it made sense.
As a young, firebrand atheist, I was obsessed with debunking Christian myths and disproving its claims. I followed a pretty standard trajectory for an atheist, from excitable (and mean) reactionary to stately but acerbic provocateur, to where I am now: an old man tired of the fight. I mostly don’t write about it anymore, because the debate has gotten tiring, and the results non-existent.
But I bring up my young atheism because that’s where I first noticed the tactics of modern “fake news”: utilize self-referential sources, engender distrust, muddy the waters around what can be known (i.e. facts).
In one specific topic, I saw those tactics being used to prolong a debate that had long been settled: Evolution vs. Creationism (Intelligent Design).
Creationists like Ken Ham have no chance of winning the debate on the merits of facts or reason, so they turn to other methods for winning adherents to their political views: repeating assertions ad nauseam, no matter how baseless (repetition creates the illusion of veracity); arguing that one can’t trust what is seen with one’s own eyes; and proclaiming that biologists (all scientists, really) are part of a conspiracy to trick the world.
These same tactics are used by Climate Change deniers, Natural News quacks, and Donald Trump, among others.
When writing article after article about religion in my early 20s, I felt a bit like Chicken Little screaming that the sky was falling. Some people humored me, some even agreed. Turns out, the sky really was falling, and everyone thought they were safe under their particular awnings.
The future is bleak
Things are going to keep getting worse because of technology. Don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing, but its most amazing feature is also its greatest danger: it makes what isn’t real look like it is. Whether it’s getting us emotionally invested in the arc of a talking raccoon in a space epic or creating a video in which Obama appears to be calling Trump a dipshit, our world is increasingly virtual; in other words, fake. Eventually, our tech will overwhelm our ability to tell the difference.
For those looking forward to 2018 or 2020 in hopes of the truth winning out and Trumpism being eradicated, well, don’t hold your breath.
It’s not enough to know that “fake news” exists; we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are susceptible to it, and to blame for it.
You are to blame. I am, too.
I’ll admit, I reposted that fake Trump quote about Republicans. I’m at least partially responsible for that “quote” having more legs than it deserved.
This is the simplest form of fake news, and it’s one that was pretty easy to debunk because it gives the supposed source. Trump never said those words, and obviously he wouldn’t have. The fact that I reposted it speaks to my own willingness to put aside common sense when something feels true enough.
(There is a similar damning “quote” going around, with George Soros supposedly admitting to using Black Lives Matter to stir up violence in America. It’s just as bullshit as the Trump quote and proof that tactics know no political allegiance.)
When I read that the quote was fake, I double checked and was dismayed to find I’d been suckered. I deleted my post and now tell other people when they post it. People often smugly respond, “Well, even if he didn’t say it, the quote is true,” not getting the irony that they’re making fun of other people for believing lies. We have to be better than this.
Calling out these blatant lies is a small thing, but it’s some effort towards stopping the deluge. Sadly, I fear it’s a bit like cleaning up an oil spill with a teaspoon.
You’re to blame for Fake News.
You have spread fake news. I don’t care who you voted for, I don’t care how much of a “skeptic” or a “free thinker” you are. You have helped spread false information. Maybe you found out and corrected yourself, maybe you quietly buried the evidence, or maybe you are still convinced of its veracity. Whatever the case, you’re guilty.
And to prove it, I will list some lies that you believe or did believe. I won’t provide my sources, but I assure you, these are all facts. If you doubt me – good, that’s the first step – I encourage you to do the research yourself and learn why these lies became so massive that most of society accepts them as truth.
Here are lies you have undoubtedly believed at some point in your life:
- Carrots improve your night vision
- Diamonds are rare
- It’s dangerous/too difficult for women to get pregnant after 35
- Vitamin C will cure a cold
- Milk strengthens your bones
- Mary Magdalene was a prostitute
- You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day
- A woman frivolously sued McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on herself and that’s why we live in a nanny state
We not only live with our lies, we love them. We define our world by them. Like it or not, there is a good chance your idea of the world has largely been shaped by at least one of those lies above (I used to drink a big glass of OJ every time I felt a tickle in my throat).
The spreading of lies isn’t going to stop. Liars aren’t going to stop. The only way to make a better world is to be better consumers of information.
It’s not enough to just be a “skeptic.” We need to be curious. We need to be invested in the truth. We need to be interested in the wider world.
But, before all that, we need to admit, we’re part of the problem.