Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Did ‘Fake News’ Elect Trump?

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New American Journal graphic by Evan Riddle

The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

In the Huge wave washing over the American landscape after the tsunami of Donald Trump’s surprising ride to president of the United States on a surfboard constructed of bullshit, mainstream news organizations and Democrats are beating up on Mark Zuckerberg and poor Facebook, blaming the widespread sharing of “fake news” as the problem.

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Even President Barack Obama got in on the story recently, criticizing how “crazy conspiracy theorizing” is spread on social networks like Facebook, while speaking at a rally for Hillary Clinton at the University of Michigan.

“And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as its on social media, people start believing it,” he said. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”

But are liberals and Democrats really innocent of charges here? Don’t look to me to defend Facebook, or Twitter, the platform Trump actually used to get his fake messages out. I have been highly critical of Facebook myself and will continue to point out the real problems of how people use social networking.

According to this story line, however, allegedly reports of “fake news stories” surfacing on Facebook “spiked” after the social network fired the young, New York editors who ran its “Trending” news section, after criticism from the political right for ostensibly favoring “liberal” news stories and downgrading those with a “conservative” or “Republican” point of view.

Are you already beginning to spot the problem with this controversy?

The political right is quite good at COINTELPRO, a.k.a. counter intel, attacking the media for not adequately reporting its point of view, often calling up, down, or black, white. Lee Atwater and Karl Rove perfected the craft and the Republicans now have a well trained army engaged online. This includes Donald Trump’s right-hand media man, campaign chair and chief strategist, Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon.

It really is enough to make any writer who can think for himself reach for George Orwell’s book 1984 and reiterate the familiar passage: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Partisan News?

Did not call me partisan for saying any of this. Back during the Bush years, whenever the conservatives would come after me, I pointed this out time and time again.

“I’m not criticizing George W. Bush because is a Republican. I am criticizing him because he appears to be a dumbass frat boy who is getting us into bad wars based on false intelligence, crashing the economy and the jobs market by promoting the myth that the answer to America’s future prosperity requires deregulation, cutting taxes on the rich and trickle down economics.”

Even the first president Bush, his daddy, called this “Voodoo economics” when running against Reagan in 1980, lest we forget.

The Reagan Justice Department broke up the phone monopoly AT&T, ostensibly to create competition and thus lower prices for consumers. Bush allowed them to put it all back together again, and the price Americans pay for phone calls never went down a dime. In fact, most peoples’ cell phone bills and what they pay for internet access now rivals their car payments and rent. Can we not call bullshit on that as news?

Just look at what the federal judge, a Republican appointee, said in the BP trial ruling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. He said part of the problem was the lack of federal oversight of the oil industry, where regulators had been caught literally in bed with industry lobbyists — and not doing their jobs to check on the operation of the wells. Corporations had carte blanche, in other words, to do what they wanted. The “free market” at work. This is Trump’s plan?

Facebook’s Algorithm

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said his army of programmers are working to better filter out false and misleading stories from the so-called “news feed,” but of course no major changes have been made and I suspect the programmers who have zero experience in the news business will do nothing to alleviate this problem. In fact, Facebook’s entire multi-billion dollar business model requires the victory of “clickbait,” keeping readers of all points of view glued to their computer screens hitting like, share and commenting on posts, based in reality or not. Most of it is pure nonsense. Call it entertainment. It is working. And they are not going to change that.

Nor are people going to take the advice of some experts and stop using it. It really is as addictive as Adderall and nicotine, maybe more so to the brain. Remember when Hunter S. Thompson described the thrill of news work? Now anyone with a Facebook page can get addicted to the “action,” the adrenaline of chasing news, or at least news links. Like Drudge, only without having to know html.

A technology writer with the Associated Press, an old fashioned wire service still engaging in the two-sided “fair and balanced” stories most people are not reading anymore in the Age of the Internet and the partisan divide in America, weighed in with a story totally designed to try to protect its business model under the headline: Facebook’s fake news problem: What’s its responsibility?

The lede?

Facebook is under fire for failing to rein in fake and “biased” news stories that some believe may have swayed the presidential election. Its predicament stems from this basic conundrum: It exercises great control over the news its users see, but it declines to assume the editorial responsibility that traditional publishers do.

Forgive me while I run for the toilet to barf. The added emphasis on “biased” is mine. What’s really going on here? Bias is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone is guilty. We know this from mounds of academic studies, yet the mainstream media won’t talk about it.

The AP story concludes with a quote from a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies communication technology, Steve Jones. He says under the law, at least, Facebook is no more responsible for what appears on its site than “the paper mills that print newspapers are responsible for their content.”

That’s a head scratching analogy. You would think an editor at the AP would have caught it. Paper mills don’t print newspapers. They make the paper newspapers are printed on. Of course they are not responsible for anything except cutting down entire forests to make paper we don’t need to get the news from anyway. We have the web now. It can be bad, sure, if abused.

Web News

It can be good, sometimes very good, better than print or broadcast journalism. If we give it a chance.

Let’s face facts. What the mainstream media critics of fake news seem to be saying is that all news stories should report “both sides” of an issue or they must be “fake news.” But that is a deep and wide stretch of the proverbial imagination and ignores hundreds of years of history and several categories of news.

Every news outfit in America has been reporting fake news for at least a couple of centuries, well before there was a such thing as the Internet or Facebook. In Ben Franklin’s day, he penned letters under fake names and printed them in newspapers he owned. For most of the 19th century, newspapers were partisan rags, much like the British tabloids, paid for by political parties.

Imagine what the AP must have reported about Hitler about the time of his rise to power in Germany that led to World War II.

An artist and political activist named Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany’s Third Reich today in an election some say could lead to a great new century for Germany. Others say this Hitler is an authoritarian little guy hell bent on world domination who will try to exterminate the Jews and drag the world into another global conflict.

In other words, “we report, you decide.”

Bias is in the eye of the beholder.

There’s nothing wrong with a writer having a point of view.

Make America Dumb Again

Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was hauntingly similar to other nationalistic campaigns in the past, including Hitler’s, although there’s apparently no direct evidence he used the exact phrase “Make Germany Great Again,” or “machen Deutschland wieder groß.”

Even Snopes admits German nationalism was a centerpiece of his campaign. Would any credible commentator argue that it was not Trump’s?

Now we are faced with another president who used hyper nationalism to get elected and, like Bush, Trump will try deregulation again, cut taxes on the rich again — and likely crash the economy again. Not one single moderator at any of the presidential debates even tried to ask about that. It was not part of the national conversation.

How in the world are average people who know nothing about the news business to draw any other conclusion than that the issue of the day was to vote for a tax and spend liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican who would reduce the size and power of the federal government and “put America back to work again?”

Fake news is the problem? Really? Do you think maybe repeating Trump’s bullshit day in and day out in every newspaper and on every television news broadcast (as well as their websites and Facebook pages) might have something to do with the problem?

Faux News

Fox News is already considered fake news by most people with a graduate level college education. Most people on Facebook just call it Faux News. Is talk radio not filled with fake news every day, partisan shock jocks with the job to get people’s adrenaline going in political rants?

By the way. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again to make sure everybody gets it. Every liberal Democrat is guilty who spread those same Trump messages through the echo chamber by sharing the MSNBC stories or fake partisan news sites quoting Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Trump. Oh, you thought you were outing Trump as a dangerous liar? Guess what? You helped guarantee his message would dominate the Facebook news feed, because the algorithm is designed to push messages getting shared the most. Sorry to burst that bubble for you. But it’s a fact.

Trump believes something people sometimes wrongly attribute to Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner, who is said to have lived by the slogan: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” There’s no hard evidence Barnum ever said that, but Oscar Wilde did say: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Like many journalists, I have faced criticism myself. Just the other day, a commenter on one of my Facebook pages accused me of “living in a bubble” and being “biased” against Trump, I guess. The troll really wasn’t clear in his criticism. I’ve had anonymous commenters complain that I’m “not a real journalist,” ostensibly because I do not get paid anymore by mainstream media outlets who produce these two sided and supposedly “unbiased” stories.

Objectivity Defined

But as I explain in my book, Jump On The Bus, the economic model of objective journalism has gotten it wrong for decades. What we need is a new journalism based on a definition of objectivity that is rooted in science.

The First Amendment says nothing about protecting the rights of newspapers to make a healthy profit by covering football. Sorry Newhouse.

In fact, I do publish many, many straight news stories that have no partisan slant at all. These are just fact-based stories about the latest study showing the world growing hotter and the climate changing as a result, for example. Why would I seek out some global warming denier to “balance” my story by claiming that there is “no such thing” as global warming, as if it was a matter of opinion?

Just recently I published a straight little news story with a video about Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson, mainly because we just happened to run into him speaking at The Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico on our trip out west. It was original content about the presidential election. He had some critical things to say about both Trump and Clinton.

If I had been doing this story for the old UPI wire service, I guess I would have had to take the time to call the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign and include their points criticizing the Libertarian. The national broadcast media made him look like a dolt.

But I thought readers would simply appreciate seeing what the guy had to say, without all the partisan bickering and hype. He seemed pretty bright to me, certainly in great physical shape. He rode 60 miles on a bicycle the day of his appearance. He lost me on the “size of government” thing. Tired of hearing it. Totally irrelevant to economic reality.

But of course my mainly liberal audience mostly ignored the story, not bothering to share it on Facebook, because they were all focused on either trying to get Hillary elected by sharing links about her or against Trump, or bashing Hillary and saying Bernie Sanders should have been the nominee.

I really, really tried to stay out of that fight.

Change Against the Establishment

Though in my editorial opinion — based on a mountain of actual data — Sanders had a better chance to beat Trump. The one thing the mainstream media got right in this election cycle was that the mood of the country was trending against the New York and Washington “elite.” So the anti-establishment Democrat, polling above 50 percent of the popular vote with high positives, rather than low negatives, might well have faired better on election day against the anti-establishment Republican.

Clearly suburban America was not going for more of the “establishment” this time around. They wanted change, even if that meant burning down the house.

As you know, I’m also critical of partisan, liberal and conservative blogs, which were the phenomenon that caused the mainstream media the most hand-ringing and grief before Facebook came along.

Unlike many “liberal journalists” in America today, I really, really do not aspire just to be read by liberals and Democrats. People can read The Nation for that, or Truthout, or Truthdig or Alternet. I never liked the Daily Kos, which became the most successful liberal blog in the early days of web publishing, before the Huffington Post came along. I never read any of the conservative, Republican blogs either. Still don’t.

The Wires

I still scan the wires, like every journalist or journalism student I’ve ever known. You can do that too right here on this site every day, on the left. I do see other news links on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes check things out from there. I think one of the national newspapers is important to check. I choose the Washington Post, since it has performed constantly better on national news than the New York Times for the past decade. I used to read news features in the Wall Street Journal from time to time, but they had the first pay wall online so it’s been a long time. The editorial page moved so far to the right after Rupert Murdoch bought it that I figured it was irrelevant anyway. I never really much liked Gannet’s products, although USA Today did put together a respectable environment section for a while there. I am forced to check the Montgomery Advertiser from time to time for what’s going on in Montgomery.

Now all the newspapers online have both conservative and liberal blogs. I think it was a sad day for newspapers when management decided to give up their name brands built up over a century to get into the blogging business. That has proved to be a big mistake. They should have taken on the bloggers and proved they could produce better news that more people would share on Facebook. That was just one of the many mistakes made by print news management since the 1990s.

Mainstream Fake News

Then, look at this bit of fake news published on a major, mainstream media news website: Justice is served by the appointment of Jeff Sessions.

Look who wrote it. Ed Rogers is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog, a political consultant and a veteran of the White House and several national campaigns. He is the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in 1991.

Is this the Washington Post’s idea of “real news?” Of course their defense is they are just publishing views on both sides in their editorial opinion section, which makes them more credible somehow than a news site that would never publish talking points made up of total horse shit by a political consultant — trying to kiss up to Sessions now that he will be Attorney General of the United States.

Look at this paragraph.

It is also safe to assume that Sessions will be in the first chair when it comes to advising Trump on judicial appointments, and you can be sure that he will recommend real judicial scholars — proven conservative judges and lawyers who have practical experience and a common-sense approach to interpreting the law as it is written and as it was intended. Laws will be enforced — not created — in a Sessions Justice Department.

Propaganda as Fake News

Really? So the fake implication here is that only liberal justices appointed by Democratic presidents are “activist” judges, and conservatives do not make law from the bench. It is an old canard bandied about by Republicans since Reagan. But you only have to look at the record of arch conservative Republican Justice Antonin Scalia to see that is blatantly false political propaganda. In other words, fake news.

I have made a number of concerted attempts to get average working Americans, even in Alabama, to pay attention to something other than Rush Limbaugh on talk radio and Fox News. For several years I covered labor news and worked my tail off trying to get union members to pay attention. But it became obvious that most of them had voted Republican since Reagan and were so racist they could not stomach having a black president in the White House. Much less a woman.

In the era of Fox News, that’s where they all get their news and information. Facebook for them just became a place to voice their conservative and sometimes racist views for their friends and family to see, and a place to try to bully anyone who disagrees with them into compliance — or face ostracism or even lose their jobs.

And the simpleminded fact is, most of them do not read news anyway. Some may have read “family newspapers” like the Newhouse owned Birmingham News back in the day, which by the way endorsed every Republican for president and governor in my lifetime, until the Newhouse blog al dot com called Trump too dangerous and endorsed Hillary Clinton.

It had no effect on working class voters. They didn’t read the big media company editorials. They voted for Trump anyway.

Sponsored Content

The newspapers ran paid, sponsored advertising content to look like news too. Many little old ladies could not tell the difference. Ask my mom. I’ve seen her fall for it more than once. So please save us the self-righteousness from newspapers about “fake news.” We understand you are not happy with the state of affairs and wish you could go back to your 20 percent profit margin in the 20th century. Maybe you should have seen the web coming and done something about competing sooner.

Then this must be pointed out. Every mainstream media company and most of the fake news sites on Facebook all, EVERYONE, right now as we speak, have an ad section at the bottom of every page of their site with photo links to public relations and advertising content that appears to be news.

I just happened to notice it on a link I shared on Facebook Saturday. Scroll down and look at the bottom of the WKRG News 5 website in Mobile, Alabama, or any mainstream media site. This is paid for sponsored content, uh, fake news. Headlines like: 31 Co-Stars Who Hate Each Other. Sensational, tabloid news based on rumor and gossip, irrelevant to any discussion of “public affairs,” which is the reason the press in the U.S. has special rights under the First Amendment.

Get Real

So can we just get real about this fake news story about fake news?

Let’s look at the Buzzfeed coverage, since this is one everybody is linking to and talking about.

For starters, everyone who is interested in this controversy should understand that Buzzfeed started out as a liberal web wire service of sorts for bloggers of the Democratic Party persuasion, aggregating content and obtaining traffic and making money by getting readers to share its stories on social networking platforms, uh, like Facebook. But as its traffic grew and it found big money sponsors to advertise, it morphed into a so-called “non-partisan” news site, which is now one of the leading critics of Facebook.

They even ran a few of my stories on the wire back in the day, but when I complained they were using my copyrighted content and not paying, they quit. I guess the idea of paying reporters for stories was not in their definition of “real news.” Some professional standards, eh?

Give us a freaking break. What makes Buzzfeed any more real or less fake than any of the so-called fake news sites it criticizes? Look at their site? It is mostly made up of fake news, “sponsored content.”

Look at this: 19 Charts For Anyone Hosting Thanksgiving This Year.

Really?

Man, that’s some kind of important news. Did y’all pay the reporter who wrote it? Or aggregate it from a sponsored content provider? We know the answer.

Real Fake News?

At least in this so-called content analysis, the authors did find some real fake news sites to criticize, unlike most of the coverage. It links to a site called “Freedom Daily” that ran a story under the headline: “Two White Men Doused With Gasoline, Set On FIRE By Blacks – Media CENSORED (VIDEO).”

Now we are getting somewhere. There are fake news websites all over the web doing this kind of stuff, set up by programmers and partisans, and perhaps they should be censored by the Facebook algorithm. But how can you trust a computer program to know the difference between one web news site and another? That’s when you need a human brain to be involved, presumably one with some education and experience. In other words, a professional.

As one of my educated writer friends wrote on Facebook, Saturday, the real concern is this kind of fake news: “Fake news is created to confuse people about the facts and mislead them into following conspiracy theories that cannot be verified. In other words, it’s nothing more than hearsay or gossip made to appear as ‘real’ news. Such an illusion was told by Rudy Guiliani who claimed Hillary Clinton helped Russian oligarchs buy 25% of America’s uranium ore. The lie was widely reported but debunked by The Washington Post, yet the damage had already been done by Fox News and radical radio show hosts who repeated it as if it were true.”

Fair enough. Still not sure Facebook’s algorithm can tell the difference.

Corporate News

The problem I see coming is that small, independent web publishers like myself will be the ones to suffer from all this mainstream media criticism of “fake news.”

Or, we could be the beneficiaries of it I suppose over time, but not because of any Facebook algorithm. People will have to see the difference and follow us.

If Facebook even attempts to throttle news sites that are not owned by large corporations with offices in New York where ink and paper, printing presses and delivery trucks, are still deployed, they will inevitably hurt our chances of bringing by dog real news to people on the web. They are already hurting us, not helping us, although if we work hard enough, we can use their platform to get our message out too.

By the way, my anonymous critics continue to insist they are the “real journalists,” but anyone who knows anything about journalism ethics knows real journalists write under their real names. They do not post anonymous comments or create fake, anonymous Facebook profiles or Twitter pages. I’ve tried to report that stuff to Facebook, but just get a boiler plate response saying it is “within their community guidelines.” Maybe Facebook could work on that. If a real journalist with a 12 page resume sends them a complaint about a fake profile, maybe they should take that seriously.

Still, we are the ones who will be caught between a rock and a hard place. The fake anonymous news movement will never be held accountable, certainly not by Facebook programmers, or the mainstream media. They are in it for the money, not to find the truth. Only members of the public can hold them accountable by not clicking on, reading or sharing this stuff.

As slippery a concept as “truth” happens to be, we find the search for it to be the main, real mission of American journalism, operating under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This should be considered an “ideal standard,” as opposed to a “minimal expectation.” It is something we at least strive for, if inevitably, we sometimes fall short.

As long as journalism is not considered a bona fide profession under the law in the United States, pretty much anyone can call themselves a journalist and get away with it. But by any professional standard, I certainly meet the tests of education and experience.

Not that I think it should be required, necessarily. Being a writer is not the same as being a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer working on a nuclear power plant.

People can look at things and decide for themselves, if given the chance. If people want to discount all of this and read partisan blogs or share links to fake news sites instead, that is their right under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Dog help them when they realize they helped elect the likes of Trump.

Give Web News A Chance

But Judas Priest, people. Can we please give independent news publishing on the web a chance? We do not yet have the budget to even come close to achieving perfection. But at least we wake up every day and go to work and try. I don’t think any computer program will ever do the same.

Do you really want to get your news from something called Google? It seems to be named after some gurgling sound made by the baby daughter of the search engine’s inventor, or something. Besides, search engines are a lousy tool for finding out breaking news. It takes too long for the search algorithm to pick up the latest news stories.

Fake news or fake leader, Donald Trump may sink us, or we may somehow live to fight another day.

As both Trump and Bernie Sanders say, the mainstream, elite press and media system in the U.S. has failed us, again and again.

With the freedom we have on the web, give us a try. We will try not to let you down.

So to answer the question in the headline: Yes, fake news of all kinds helped Donald Trump get elected president of the United States.

© 2016 – 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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  2 comments for “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Did ‘Fake News’ Elect Trump?

  1. dunder
    November 20, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    If fake news had been removed from public view during preparation for the Bush-Cheney crew’s invasion of Iraq, much of the New York Times’ reporting would have disappeared…that newspaper (along with most other respectable major media outlets) spewed a brew of false stories about Iraq’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction that stoked war fever among readers…without this panicky agitation fabricated by the standard big media the war could not have been launched…yet these establishment outlets are never mentioned now as candidates for deletion from Facebook, Google and such despite being the most prominent recent example of the damage done by circulating fake news.

  2. November 28, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    I tried to warn the New York Times by sending the editors the think tank study outlining the war strategy well in advance of 9/11. The listened to Judi Miller instead.

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