Oxford Dictionaries has chosen “post-truth” as its international word of the year. It defines the word as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
It’s a definition that mirrors the conversation going on right now about Facebook. In an epic battle sparked by the U.S. election and fought on the vast planes of social media, news stories – stories powered in the main by researched truth – were pitted against fake stories, and fact and truth took a severe beating. One could say a small-fingered Lord of Lies was victorious.
Fact is reeling right now. Fact is bleeding from every pore. Team Truth is trying to figure out how exhaustively researched journalism – presented by legitimate news outlets; fact-checked until it was true in the face, and in the heart; run through legal, after attempts made to reach all sides for comment, all at great cost – drew far less attention than hastily hoisted screeds of pure fright and fancy typed up, often enough, by some entrepreneurial teens in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
BuzzFeed and The Guardian reported that the Macedonian town of Veles, boasting a population of 45,000, is the cradle of at least 140 American-politics websites. Working overwhelmingly for click-earned ad money, not love of Donald Trump, the youth of Veles offered up thousands of invented, mostly anti-Hillary Clinton stories (there just wasn’t much of a market for anti-Trump stories, they found) under eye-catching headlines.
Basically, a bunch of kids took on fake newspaper routes and e-trudged around the world, delivering “news” such as “Hillary’s illegal e-mail just killed its first American spy” for pocket money.
At a time when, according to a study led by the Pew Research Center, 44 per cent of the U.S. population reads news on Facebook, this is cause for concern, but it’s hardly the only cause for concern.
It’s easy to say fake news swung the election. Too easy. The entirely false story, “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president,” didn’t walk out of someone’s screen and down to the polling station and vote. A person had to read “Spirit cooking: Clinton campaign chairman practises bizarre occult ritual,” maybe share it, then vote for Donald Trump at a time when, yes, it has never been easier to access lies, but it has also never been easier to fact-check them.
You don’t even have to go to the library any more. The truth isn’t out there; it’s right here for most of us. Come on, people, type in “snopes.com,” for example – it’s only 10 characters.
I assure you, I will now get a lot of e-mail telling me that Snopes, a site that examines Internet rumours and urban legends – and those e-mails claiming that Hillary Clinton laughed about helping a child rapist escape justice, which your uncle forwards to you – is a left-wing propaganda site. As is The New York Times, I’ve been told, and The Washington Post, and this paper, if you don’t like what you’re reading right now.
What makes this a “post-truth” election, instead of just your average “people lying a lot about everything” election, is that folks seem entirely indifferent to the truth. The “John Podesta is literally a witch” side didn’t win by showing itself to be more trustworthy because it produced more compelling arguments and evidence of Democratic necromancy than the “No, really, witches aren’t even a thing, why are we talking about this?” side.
The “our opponents are witches” side won by rendering the idea of trustworthiness pretty much meaningless, making it seem reasonable to just “go with your gut.” They did this by talking about witches. Web traffic shows this is exactly what people wanted to hear.
What I’m saying is, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t convince him that George Soros isn’t putting chemicals in that water to make all the frogs gay.
At a certain point, it’s down to the horse. Claiming that Facebook swung the election by allowing fake news to be posted absolves voters of the responsibility to make an informed choice. Like much that has been said about the 2016 campaign, “Facebook swung the election” infantilizes voting-age adults.
None of this is to say that we should just let fake-news dogs lie, as Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to suggest last week in his initial, tone-deaf response to questions about the proliferation of fake news on his site. He has since updated his status and seems to be looking into this mess.
However, people insisting that all Facebook needs to do is put its thumb on the algorithmic scale to prevent fake news stories from trending and the problem will go away are likely the very people who would be alarmed if they learned that Facebook was picking their news for them.
The use of human editors primping the Facebook feed has, in the past, been met with the same cries of alarm now greeting our programmed-to-sleep-at-the-wheel algorithmic overlords. Those overlords, or rather us and our clicking and sharing, caused that classic piece of fiction “Hillary Clinton in 2013: ‘I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought,’” to trend and garner 480,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.
This, as BuzzFeed noted, is almost three times the number of Facebook interactions The New York Times got for bothering with that major scoop about the $916-million in losses Trump declared on his 1995 income tax returns.
Returning to the good old days of human-curated “trends” is an obvious step, but it’s far from a complete solution. People don’t go to Facebook eager to see what a small box in the top left corner tells them is trending. They go to social media to see what their friends and the pages they follow are posting.
It’s technically possible to de-prioritize fake news, making it less likely to appear in users’ news feeds. Google already does this both in search results and Google News, and it’s a sensible move (like preventing undeniably fake news sites from profiting from ads, as Google and Facebook are both doing), but it does change the nature of Facebook.
That feed you would be looking at would no longer really be showing you what your friends or followed pages are sharing; it would be showing you the things they share that an automated system at Facebook has determined to be credible.
Ultimately, the issue that needs to be addressed is that bullshit is a demand problem, not a supply problem, and it’s certainly not a new problem, either. It predates the word “post-truth” by the entire history of the human race.
Humans have always had an insatiable hunger for it and, from folk tales told around the fire to small-town gossip, to Bigfoot-bedecked tabloids in the checkout line and now to TotallyNotFakeNewsWeSwearWeAreNotFromTheBalkans.com, that need has always been met.
We do love our fairy tales. Fairy tales reflect and reinforce our prejudices, and they give us sweet dreams. A wand is waved and somewhere in America a pumpkin turns into a cost-free massive border wall with Mexico that will make coal environmentally and economically viable again and 12 white mice will start making iPhones, while earning a living wage, but, magically, they will still be able to afford to buy those iPhones.
Be alarmed, but not surprised, then, that Americans let former Goldman Sachs banker turned editor of that generator of usually insane and often racist folklore, Breitbart News, turned Trump campaign “chief executive,” Steve Bannon spin them a tale about brave Orangilocks vs. the “Globalists.”
He is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist and, if they so choose, and I suspect many will, Americans can curl up on the lap of Steve Bannon, that one-man Brothers Grimm of proto-fascism, and hear fairy tales late into the night.Report Typo/Error