A scourge is killing people’s minds, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, and the world needs a massive campaign to stop it. Across the nation, people lament its rise, and the threat it poses to America. Opioids? ISIS? Nope. “Fake news.” Even homicidal dictators agree things have gotten out of control. “We’re living in a fake news era, as you know,” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said, dismissing an Amnesty International report that his government hanged as many as 13,000 prisoners.
Factual falsehoods and straight-up lies started when the first first caveman claimed that, yes, that handprint on the wall is mine, and it is huge. Fast-forward a few millennia, and you’ll find hoaxes circulating online since Usenet was how people mainly communicated online. But “fake news” as an epithet, if not an accurate description of a story about, say, a child sex ring at a pizza joint, is something new—a seemingly straightforward concept that has shattered into a kaleidoscope of easily manipulated meanings.
But how did the discourse around this so quickly spiral from “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump” (he didn’t) to Donald Trump shouting “fake news” at a CNN reporter during a press conference before his inauguration and incessantly tweeting about it after his inauguration? The origin story of “fake news” reflects the dizzying speed at which semantic shifts occur in the social media era. But it reveals far more: What happens to factuality itself as algorithms replace humans, Facebook supplants traditional media, and the president declares war on the press. That perfect storm has made “fake news” as unstuck from fact—and as unstoppable—as any viral hoax. Watching the meaning of “fake news” evolve shows just how easily even facts about facts can slip away.
1 – Fake Trends – May 9, 2016
On May 9, 2016, at 9:10 AM, Gizmodo publishes a story by Michael Nuñez: “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” Nuñez reports that editors in charge of Facebook’s trending section would prevent conservative-friendly stories from showing up.
Backlash is swift. Talk, talk, talk on cable shows. Third-ranking Republican Senator John Thune calls on Facebook to investigate. Three days later, Zuckerberg says the company “found no evidence that this report is true.” Zuckerberg then hosts a listening session with conservative thinkers at Facebook headquarters. (In an email, Facebook tells WIRED it stands by its investigation into bias and pointed to its ongoing efforts to tweak Trending.)
On August 24, John Herrman’s “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine” runs in the New York Times Magazine. Herrman details the platform’s plague of ideologically-themed pages that become a primary vector for sensationalized “news” and worse, though he doesn’t use the phrase “fake news.” Two days later, Facebook announces it’s automating Trending Topics, reportedly firing the section’s editorial team and replacing them with engineers.
Three days pass, and a story falsely claiming Fox News fired anchor Megyn Kelly for supporting Hillary Clinton surges on Trending Topics. Facebook apologizes. The story, it turns out, originated on endingthefed.com, a site devoted to right-wing takes, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods. “We determined it was a hoax and it is no longer being shown in Trending,” Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations at Facebook, says at the time. “We’re working to make our detection of hoax and satirical stories quicker and more accurate.” For the bots, it seems, the facts were a slippery concept.
“Eventually algorithms and computers are going to get smart enough to do our jobs,” Adam Schrader, a former trending curator, says now. “But I don’t think that this robot was ready yet.”
On September 9, Facebook removes a trending story that claims bombs felled the Twin Towers.
2 – Fake News Becomes Real – October 12, 2016
On October 12, the Washington Post publishes the results of its own experiment. “Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors,” the story reports. Monitoring four users’ accounts from August 31 to September 22, five “indisputably fake” and three “profoundly inaccurate” stories trended, the Post found.
Other media outlets pick up the newspaper’s story, from Fortune—”Facebook Still Has a Fake News Problem”—to Vanity Fair: “Facebook Is Still Grappling with Its Fake-News Problem”.
On October 20, Buzzfeed, which had regularly reported on fake news for years, unveils the results of its investigation: “Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages Are Publishing False And Misleading Information At An Alarming Rate.” Buzzfeed’s extensive analysis finds that hyperpartisan Facebook pages most likely to post inaccurate stories received far more shares, likes, and comments than mainstream news pages. The investigation describes stories and sites as “fake news,” which Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman describes as 100 percent-false stories knowingly created for financial gain.
Despite Buzzfeed’s alarming statistics, “fake news” as a term might have faded away. “The proliferation of fake news links on Facebook, in other words, is probably a problem that will be forgotten before it is fixed—and that might have peaked just as Americans chose their next president,” Herrman writes in the New York Times on Election Day. Or not.
3 – Trump Rises – November 9, 2016
By the afternoon of November 9, Max Read of New York has come up with an answer to why the media missed the biggest story of the year. “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news,” he writes in a story,”Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.”
Read now says that he meant more to critique technology’s influence on politics, less to contribute to the idea of fake news as “the great journalistic moral panic of late-2016 early-2017.”
“I think that ball got carried down the field further than I would have wanted it to, or that I would have carried it myself,” he says.
But as Read’s story and other, similar critiques spread, “fake news” slotted perfectly into the dominant narrative emerging in the aftermath of the election identifying a schism between coastal elites and the white working-class so vast that mainstream journalists were blind to Trump’s surging support. Journalists chastened by election results they didn’t anticipate could point to conspiracy theories and falsehoods on social media—where 62 percent of Americans get news, according to Pew Research Center—as further evidence of this American divide.
Meanwhile, speaking at a tech conference three days after the election, Zuckerberg disputes that Facebook-propagated fake news was a serious problem. “I’ve seen some of the stories they’re talking about around this election,” he says. “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea.”
Zuck’s soundbite (pretty crazy!) riles critics and catalyzes the ideological cleaving of “fake news”: Liberals embrace it as an existential threat to democracy while conservatives use it as a joke to tweak liberals looking to blame Clinton’s loss on anything other than their own shortcomings. “Anger and humor are probably the two big reasons why it spread,” Jeff Hemsley, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media, says of the term. “I think people were angry about the idea that Facebook could have influenced the election.”
Then “fake news” erupts with violence into the real world. On December 4, a man inspired by false stories about a non-existent Hillary Clinton-affiliated child-sex ring, walks into a Washington pizzeria at the center of the conspiracy theory and opens fire. (No one is hurt.) Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a reporter for the New York Times, tweets, “The consequence of fake news: Real bullets.” And so “fake news” evolves from a threat to democratic norms into a menace to public safety.
4 – Presidential Fake-Out – Dec. 10, 2017
A week later, president-elect Donald Trump tweets: “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue,” he writes. “FAKE NEWS!” (CNN cited NBC and Trump sources in reporting Trump’s role with the show.)
With the presidency comes great power, and with that one tweet, Trump makes “fake news” his own. “Now ‘fake news’ has a completely different meaning. Now anything that Trump doesn’t like can be fake news,” Hemsley says.
Sensing the term’s co-optable potential, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan on January 8 warns fellow journalists: “It’s time to retire the tainted term ‘fake news.’”
“Though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost,” she writes.
On January 10, Buzzfeed publishes an unverified dossier detailing allegedly deep ties between Trump and Russia. “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” Trump tweets in response (all caps his own).
The next day Trump refuses to take a question from Jim Acosta of CNN, which first reported the dossier’s existence, though it didn’t report the specific contents. The number of searches for “fake news” on Google reaches its zenith when Trump’s press conference goes viral: “Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question,” Trump tells Acosta. “You are fake news.” (He then takes a question from a Breitbart reporter.)
After the Inauguration, Trump and his staffers dismiss photos showing bigger crowds at Obama’s swearing-in, and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway inaugurates “alternative facts.” In a later series of tweets, Trump berates news organizations for failing to predict his victory. “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election,” Trump tweets on February 6.
The president’s slings continue, and the term goes global. The campaign for Emmanuel Macron, a leading candidate in France’s April presidential election, preemptively blames Russia for influencing the outcome through its use of “fausse nouvelle.”
On February 16, the president stages a press conference that CNN’s Jake Tapper calls “unhinged.” Of reports of aides’ contact with Russia, Trump says, “The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake.” The next day, he raises the stakes again: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
On Monday, Trump lambasts the media for calling out his reference to a non-existent incident in Sweden: “Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!” (All caps his.) Since then, he’s been uncharacteristically quiet, at least until Friday.
“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake,” Trump says at the Conservative Political Action Conference, to cheers. “A few days ago I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people,’ and they are.”
And so the cries of “fake news” echo still. Like its forebear “political correctness,” the protean meanings of “fake news” have made the term meaningless. It’s a rallying cry to some, a joke to others. It’s both and neither. It was born from a media frenzy bent on describing a murky reality, and it died by that, too. Mostly, it’s become a signifier of cynicism, a term feeding a public sense that maybe nothing is believable, or worth believing, anymore.
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