Fake News: A User’s Guide


Gosh, we all knew journalism was in trouble but now we have the proof in a Buzzfeed article by Craig Silverman, “Viral Fake Election News Outperformed Real News On Facebook In Final Months Of The US Election.” According to Silverman’s analysis — which I read after taking a Buzzfeed quiz that revealed, to my distress, that I am only 43% Hufflepuff — “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others” during the final three months of the presidential campaign.

But if you actually look at the list of top stories, it’s hard to tell whether the fake news or the real news was more misleading. The fake news was largely pro-Trump garbage and, according to Buzzfeed, “came from…news websites that only publish hoaxes or from hyperpartisan websites that present themselves as publishing real news.”

But a number of the examples were so patently stupid and so quickly proven false that it’s hard to see how much impact they might have had. For example, the biggest hoax story, which ran in September, claimed that the pope had endorsed Trump. A few cretins might have taken the story seriously but I doubt it changed many votes.

Meanwhile, the second biggest hoax story, that Hillary had armed ISIS, had a somewhat hysterical headline and ran at thepoliticalinsider.com, which periodically just makes shit up. But it referred to a real covert deal that Secretary of State Clinton allegedly approved to arm Syrian rebels.

That story has been covered by a number of legitimate news outlets, like Politico, the Sunday Times and, naturally, Washington Babylon. “Questions about U.S. efforts to arm Libyan rebels have been mounting, since weapons have reportedly made their way from Libya to Syria, where a civil war is raging between the Syrian Government and ISIL-aligned fighters,” the Politico story said. In other words, there may be something to the “hoax” story.

The “real” news was supposedly virtuous and serious because it was published in mainstream outlets, many which were quite evidently pro-Clinton in their coverage (the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR and Buzzfeed) and one, Vox, which was effectively embedded with the Clinton campaign.

Not surprisingly, then, much of the “real” news was pro-Clinton propaganda written by hyper-partisans. Often it wasn’t even news, but merely opinion. The top-performing “real” story ran in the Washington Post, under the headline, “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?”

This article, which basically argued that the media should be reporting more about Trump corruption and less about Hillary corruption, was written by Paul Waldman of the American Prospect, who is not exactly a pillar of objectivity. “Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president of the United States—there, I said it,” he wrote on October 24. “Given her clear lead in the polls and her vastly superior ground operation, it would have to be a truly monumental scandal, of the kind Republicans are always dreaming about but can never deliver no matter hard they try. Unless she turns out to maintain a dungeon in Chappaqua where she conducts gruesome medical experiments on kidnapped runaways, this race is unlikely to move enough to keep her from the White House.”

The second biggest real story was a Huffington Post piece, “Stop Pretending You Don’t Know Why People Hate Hillary Clinton” (the answer: her opponents were all misogynists) and the fifth biggest was a New York Times op-ed, “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton,” by Michael Morell, who now works for Beacon Global Strategies, a DC consulting firm whose managing director is Philippe ReinesHillary Clinton’s former “principal gatekeeper.”  

The only real non-opinion news story finishing in the top 5 was a New York Post item, “Melania Trump’s girl-on-girl photos from racy shoot revealed.” This was admittedly not the year’s top investigative story but it did add new details to the public record and presented information in a balanced fashion, which is more than can be said about most of this year’s campaign coverage.

OK, fake news is a real problem. The real news is too.

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Politically eclectic DC-based investigative journalist and CEO, Chief Sleaze Purveyor (CSP) and Creator of WashingtonBabylon.com.