A key member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team has revealed a sophisticated plan, codenamed “Failsafe,” aimed at denying Donald Trump the presidency and securing the Democratic nominee a surprise post-election victory. While the scheme’s details are not fully known, its three basic objectives are: (1) Support recount efforts in key states. (2) Use these to spread doubt about the legitimacy of Trump’s election victory. (3) Pressure and coerce members of the Electoral College—including by using bribery and blackmail—into casting ballots for Clinton.
Find that hard to believe? Yeah, me too. Especially as I made it all up. It’s all falsehood and fabrication, fib and fable cut whole from the fact-smothering cloth of my devious imagination. And if you got fish-hooked in by the clickbait headline’s implied promise of warm tingles in your political bits, first, shame on you, and second, no apologies. That was the plan. Now I’ve got your attention, I want a word.
As you probably know, recently there’s been a good deal of handwringing about fake news and its impact on the political process. The whole interminable 2016 presidential muckfest and massacree was embarrassing enough on its own odious merits, but we somehow managed to make it worse. By now it’s clear that lots of us are willing to add literal insults to our collective political injury, to take rhetorical acid distilled by the lowest of fabulists and fling it undiluted into the face of the republic. It is depressingly easy to make mischief and money by feeding ersatz political bulletins to credulous voters. Indeed, fake news consumers seem only too eager to help peddle gratuitous prevarication across social media if it promotes their partisan jollies. And when I say easy, I mean really easy.
The basic steps seem to be these: (1) Throw up a website that sort of looks like a respectable news organization (any 12-year-old can do that in 30 minutes these days). (2) Make up stuff. It’s not a bad idea to season it with a soupcon of veracity, but generally any perjury or libel will do as long as it’s something outrageous that people want to believe (see first paragraph). (3) Chum Facebook and Twitter feeds with this stink bait. (4) Wait for thrashing schools of gullible Gomers to strike at the shiny lure of bias confirmation, and watch them repost, retweet, and generally retreat from verifiable reality. Voila. Post-truth politics achieved. Hillary really is a frigid, sex crazed, dominatrix of the Illuminati, and her deleted e-mails prove she was directing squads of shadowy Benghazi-style cover up artists and hitmen, all while plotting world domination with the Elders of Zion. This is the gold-plated 411 because, you know, it’s on the internet.
Even the people who do this sort of thing are agog it works so well. And I’m not just talking about the alt-right twaddle merchants so in thrall to their ideological phantasmagoria they’ve disappeared up their own click holes. No, I’m talking about people like 22-year-old Beq Latsabidze, a computer science student in Georgia—the former Soviet satellite, not the peach, pecan and peanut juggernaut of the American south—and John Egan, a Canadian giggle-monger. The latter has a news sort-of satire website (The Burrard Street Journal). The former had a Trump suck-up site so laughably void of verisimilitude it should have triggered a functioning BS detector in anyone with a modicum of political sentience. Both pumped out reams of fake news during the election and Americans in their millions spooned down piles of these fabricated dispatches and eagerly sought out seconds.
Want to see what one of these fake news operations looks like? Well, Latasbidze’s main site went dark after The New York Times, in typical lamestream media fashion, started asking some pointed questions about the factual provenance of this “news” source. No worries, there’s plenty more of these low rent rhubarb factories out there. Here’s one: https://newsbreakshere.com/. This was put up by Nika Kurdadze, a college buddy of Latasabitze. It’s all guff and flapdoodle, of course, but Americans can’t get enough of the stuff.
Why are Canucks and youthful code jockeys in Caucasia so into American presidential politics? Short answer is they’re not, not really. What they are interested in is eyeballs they can sell to the cyber admen. And there’s a lot of eyeballs—gullible, just the way the admen like them—in the US electorate. The faux media entrepreneurs mentioned above don’t seem to have any particular political agenda. They tested the fib and fable market for both candidates and went with what worked. What’s fascinating is that what worked is Trump. More specifically what sells big on the bald-ass lie exchange are exaggerations and outright falsehoods portraying his Trumpness in a positive light, or at least put his opponents in a negative one. Whoppers that put a halo on Hillary tanked, so they just more or less gave up on them (here’s an example of what didn’t work: walkwithher.com. Note that this site basically went dormant in July 2016, i.e. when its owners figured out there was no dough in piffle puffing Clinton).
The real question isn’t why people are motivated to put up these sorts of sites, its why so many people readily give them the same sort of credence granted Moses and his stone tablets. Millions of click heads were treating these dodgy repositories of cyber-bunkum as augurs of truth, even though they were easily, demonstrably, mugging facts with fiction. Given what worked it seems a strong possibility that people, or at least certain groups of people, really, really needed to hear/believe that Clinton was the anti-Christ and/or that Trump was absolutely not what his four or five decades in the public spotlight suggested he was. They needed this so badly they didn’t care if it involved cudgeling fact, evidence and truth into a whimpering pile of blubber afraid to come out from under Wolf Blitzer’s desk. They willingly battened down the hatches of their echo chambers and somehow convinced themselves the rising sewage inside was the pure oxygen of truth and breathed deep. Confirmation bias is a human universal but, honestly, this is taking things a bit far.
The techno-priests at Google, Facebook and Twitter are (albeit kind of sulkily) allowing it might have been a tad unwise to let their platforms be used as gargantuan political manure spreaders, and the mainstream media are pondering how to, you know, convince mass audiences that facts are, um, facts. The blame here, though, lies less with the media and more with the mass. Fake news needs a fake news audience and, embarrassingly, we’ve got a big one. If you want a depressing read on just how a ludicrous fact free brain fart can go from one chucklehead’s twitter account to stinking up an entire news cycle you can do so here.
The cure for the corrosive effect of contrived falsehoods on the political process is not tightening the filters on your batty uncle’s Facebook page or having The New York Times point out that a big fat lie is a big fat lie. The real antidote is having a smaller market for big fat lies, which means having a lot fewer people eagerly looking for porcine mendacities to shill out to their entire contact lists. Real news isn’t hard to find, just read a daily newspaper for chrissakes. But what if you’re one of those people who just can’t trust the mainstream media because its professional journalists and fact checkers keep telling you things you’d rather not hear? Well first, you should probably know you’re about two steps away from an aluminum foil hat. Second, just do the rest of us a favor, and stop pretending that whopper shops and internet memes have anything to do with reality.
If you’re actually wondering if your fave news source is a fib factory you can click here to find a list compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a comm studies scholar, that tries to catalog “news” sites of dubious provenance. Keep in mind, though, this is a moving target and is not going to be complete. If you want some pro tips on how to analyze any news source and figure out if it’s on the up and up you can click here to find a handy how-to Zimdars put together.
If you not willing to do any of this, if you are simply not interested in the veracity of the information you feed your political predilections as long it has the right partisan flavor, then gawd help the rest of us. This problem ultimately isn’t about spotting fake news, or figuring out how to tell good journalism from counterfeit crapola. That’s easy. The real problem, at least in terms of the impact on politics, is getting people to want, favor and value the former over the latter. The dispiriting democratic reality is I’m not sure they do.