Understanding the causes and making of fake news

Summary: I have been writing about fake news for a decade, during which the problem has grown worse. Now it gets attention, but ignoring the underlying cause. Reporters and analysts follow the usual flattering narrative: us poor snowflakes abused by evil bad guys. Instead we should look at the man in the mirror to see the cause. Demand creates supply.

“{A} man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials.”
— King of Brobdingnag in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It applies well to the production of fake news. The Constitution prevents government action, but not by private media.

We’re not running from an invasion of fake news. Our gullibility causes it.
Fake news

In our free market society, our demand for exciting if fake news creates the supply. As awareness of our gullibility spreads, entrepreneurs and political engineers exploit it. We saw rivers of it during the election, and more afterwards.

What about the uncounted ballots for Trump in States where he has a large lead — so that Clinton really isn’t in the lead (e.g., at the American Thinker)? Google News highlighted this fake news from an obscure new website by an anonymous author. It is a deliberate lie spread by the far right. All ballots are counted. See Snopes debunking of it. Or click through to the sources they cite, such as the DoD’s voter assistance program.

Ditto for the fake news that “three million illegals voted for Clinton“. Ditto for “Pizzagate”, the story that a pedophile ring is operating out of a Clinton-linked pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. And for “Hillary Clinton and the Phantom Tantrum” — “Unreliable sources are reporting that Clinton had a violent temper tantrum upon learning she had lost the 2016 election”.

Both the Left and Right love fake news, although only the right wallows in it. Exaggerated or outright fake stories about climate change have become SOP to keep the faithful fearful. My favorite was “The North Pole Is Melting” hysteria, circulated after scientists debunked it.

Stop the lies

About fake news

Some analysis is finally appearing, showing how fake news originates and spreads. For example, this in the NYT: “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study” — the Soros busing protestors to Chicago story circulated long after it was busted.

Some fake news is standard agitprop. The Left used it during the election, attempting to discredit Trump, and even more afterwards. Such as this in March: “Northwestern University students charged with hate crime, vandalism to chapel“.

“A Cook County judge on Saturday lashed out at two Northwestern University freshmen accused of spray-painting racist and homophobic messages along with the name of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump inside a nondenominational chapel on the university’s campus.

“‘These allegations are disgusting to me,’ Judge Peggy Chiampas said as she eyeballed Anthony Morales, 19, and Matthew Kafker, 18, her voice rising several times during a bond hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. The judge ordered both men held in lieu of $50,000 bail for charges of institutional vandalism, hate crime to a place of worship, and criminal damage to property for several spray-painted messages at the Alice Millar Chapel earlier this week.”

Some people consider “fake news” stories that are just heavily spun. Consider this: “As Trump Builds His Authoritarian Presidency” by Steven Rosenfeld at AlterNet, 21 November — “Echoes of 1930s Germany and 1950s McCarthyism Abound.  Domestic crackdowns. Militarism abroad?” It’s wildly exaggerated, just fear-mongering. Also, the “militarist abroad” more accurately describes Clintons’ foreign policy team of neocons and interventionist “Responsibility to Protect” liberals. One more step from spin to fake news: Sarah Palin’s accusation that Obamacare would lead to “death panels” (see the origin of the story here).


Manufacturing fake news for profit

In America we exploit every opportunity, as in this WaPo story: “Facebook fake-news writer: ‘I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me’

What do the Amish lobby, gay wedding vans and the ban of the national anthem have in common? For starters, they’re all make-believe — and invented by the same man.

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. He has twice convinced the Internet that he’s British graffiti artist Banksy; he also published the very viral, very fake news of a Yelp vs. “South Park” lawsuit last year.

But in recent months, Horner has found the fake-news ecosystem growing more crowded, more political and vastly more influential: In March, Donald Trump’s son Eric and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even tweeted links to one of Horner’s faux-articles. His stories have also appeared as news on Google.

Q: Why did something like your story about Obama invalidating the election results (almost 250,000 Facebook shares, as of this writing) go so viral?

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Q: You mentioned Trump, and you’ve probably heard the argument, or the concern, that fake news somehow helped him get elected. What do you make of that?

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

Q: But a Trump presidency is good for you from a business perspective, right?

It’s great for anybody who does anything with satire — there’s nothing you can’t write about now that people won’t believe. I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it. I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff — like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line — and people went along with it!

…I make most of my money from {Google’s} AdSense — like, you wouldn’t believe how much money I make from it. Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.

The WaPo did a follow-up story about these information entrepreneurs: “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’.”NPR ran a similar story: “We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned“.

One step further, this is speculative, but worth considering — and watching for more information: “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy” by Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts and JM Berger of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posted at War on the Rocks, 6 November 2016 — “Trump isn’t the end of Russia’s information war against America. They are just getting started”. The FPRI opened in 1955 (see Wikipedia).

Update: this is looks like the fake news version of the above story — “Russia is Manipulating US Public Opinion through Online Propaganda” at the PropOrNot website. Many of the examples they give look weak. But their analysis of Zero Hedge is looks well-sourced and accurate: “An Example of Multi-Source Identification: ZeroHedge“.


"Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies
Available at Amazon.

Fighting the fake news epidemic

These guides can help those who wish to fight it, rather than just mocking fake news by political foes. They are useless unless you monitor your own allies, the only people that will respond to your criticism.

Guides like this help as palliatives. A broad cure requires first that we understand why we have embraced fake news to a degree unknown in our history, and second that we swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.

For more about this see Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See the links at the pages about tribalism, about information and disinformation, about the quiet coup in America and about reforming America: steps to new politics. Especially see these…

7 thoughts on “Understanding the causes and making of fake news”

  1. I’m confused. The story about the Northwestern students links to the Chicago Tribune. Is this a fake news story? If so, how is one to determine it is fake if it appears as original reporting in a mainstream newspaper?

    1. dmk43,

      Great question! That section shows the amorphous nature of what is called “fake news”. The NW student story is agitprop, successfully injected into the major media — a home run for a fake news manufacturer (the equivalent for a double play is getting it into Google News).

      The next story show how the concept of fake news is take one step further, to misrepresented or exaggerated news (the primary product of ZeroHedge, for example).

      So what is fake news? My opinion, indirectly shown in this post (due to length) is that it is inaccurate news that we consume due to our indifference to truth and accuracy. Since we want only simple exciting morality plays that flatter our biases, our news media provide it to us. The media are sorting out according to their success meeting our demands. Sources like Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, and Zero Hedge thrive. Reuters and the NYT stagnate, losing influence. America is a free market.

      I hope this makes it clearer.

    1. Breton,

      Yes. I’ve written scores of posts about this, most especially The Big List of Lies by our Leaders. Post it everywhere to change America.

      The AntiWar post is the usual whining about us special snowflakes being taken advantage of by bad guys. If we are gullible, we should accept that it is our lot in life to be lied to. By everyone. Get used to it. If you don’t like, become skeptical. Think; learn to research. Most of these stories can be seen through in seconds or minutes.

  2. FUD.

    Actually upon reflection, the current “fake news” phenom could actually be exactly what is desired. Possibly? Of course. The Internet is the perfect ground for its growth and willful propagation.
    What better way is there to disempower a citizenry, encourage willful consent by default than a small amount of faked news or info. If some of it is faked how can one trust many other sources. Search Daily? Such a job most routine lives have little time for.

    Are you old enough to recall the nightly News Reports by Walter Cronkite and the effect it had upon the course of the Viet Nam War?
    They had enough of that and abandoned the Draft thereafter. And voila embedded reporters next.

    Propaganda or not?
    who pray tell is this?

    Please. Is there really any wonder?


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