A short history of fake news: Conservatives believed all sorts of crap long before Facebook

The American right's tendency to mistrust the mainstream media and believe nonsense goes back to the Cold War era

Published November 25, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Ever since election night, there’s been a lot of discussion about the numerous possible factors that led to Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton. Some explanations have been more plausible than others. One of the less plausible factors is the idea that Americans got tricked into voting for Trump by the “fake news” websites that have been spreading like bacteria in a petri dish.

The numbers simply don’t back up the theory. A widely cited BuzzFeed analysis of stories created by fraudulent news sites drew attention to the issue, but never established how widespread the phenomenon was because it studied just 40 articles out of the millions posted on Facebook each week. A more comprehensive study of news consumption (albeit conducted in 2013) that looked at 2.3 billion anonymized page views found that 75 percent of the news stories that people read online were accessed not by social media but by their directly visiting their favorite publications’ websites. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, fake news stories comprised “a very small volume” of the content posted by his site’s users. There’s no reason to doubt this.

All that said, an earlier report from BuzzFeed does highlight some information that rings true. According to the site’s Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander, at least 100 pro-Trump fake news websites are run out of a single town in Macedonia.

Contacted by the reporters, one of the site operators, who was  16 years old, said that he simply couldn’t get traction with websites promoting Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” the Macedonian teen told BuzzFeed.

The youthful scammer’s testimony actually jibes with American history.

It’s certainly true that many left-wingers have bought into conspiracy theories (Bush caused 9/11!) but the reality is that fake news has always been much more of an issue for conservatives. This is largely because many on the right believe that you can’t trust what you hear in the establishment media, as Donald Trump has repeatedly told his supporters.

The recent focus on fake news websites has led to some political observers focusing exclusively on viral fake sites. But false stories can readily be found on many long-standing conservative websites like WorldNetDaily, which has promoted the "birther" hypothesis that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, along with theories that soybeans in baby formula are making children gay, that the Obama administration is overseeing the construction of concentration camps for Americans and that a demon greeted President Obama on his visit to Kenya. (This is where, of course, many on the right believe he was born.)

And that’s just one website. There’s also Alex Jones' site InfoWars, which has been spewing conspiracy theories and hawking snake oil for decades as well.

Right-wingers' distrust of the mainstream press, coupled with conservative willingness to believe the unbelievable, is a venerable impulse. Historian Rick Perlstein wrote in 2012 about scammy email solicitations that have been commonplace among conservatives for decades. Perlstein’s piece includes excerpts from several solicitations, including promises of curing arthritis in two days or beating cholesterol without dieting or drugs and some sort of miraculous medical-financial breakthrough that was called “an oilfield in the placenta.”

Such emails, which resemble the illiterate spam comments that litter any reasonably popular website, simply aren’t sent to email subscribers of mainstream or progressive publications because they probably wouldn’t work. But they clearly do work on at least some conservatives, as Perlstein has documented:

And yet this stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the internecine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history — if not, indeed, more so. The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place — and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

Those tactics gelled in the seventies — though they were rooted, like all things right-wing and infrastructural, in the movement that led to Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination in 1964. In 1961 Richard Viguerie, a kid from Houston whose heroes, he once told me, were “the two Macs”— Joe McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur — took a job as executive director for the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The organization was itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review. And fittingly enough, the middle-aged man who ran the operation, Marvin Liebman, was something of a P.T. Barnum figure, famous on the right for selling the claim that he had amassed no less than a million signatures on petitions opposing the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the United Nations. (He said they were in a warehouse in New Jersey. No one ever saw the warehouse.) The first thing Liebman told Viguerie was that YAF had two thousand paid members but that in public, he should always claim there were twenty-five thousand. (Viguerie told me this personally. I found no evidence he saw anything to be ashamed of.) And the first thing that Liebman showed Viguerie was the automated “Robotype” machine he used to send out automated fundraising pitches. Viguerie’s eyes widened; he had found his life’s calling.

Following the Goldwater defeat, Viguerie went into business for himself. He famously visited the Clerk of the House of Representatives, where the identities of those who donated fifty dollars or more to a presidential campaign then by law reposed. First alone, and then with a small army of “Kelly Girls” (as he put it to me in 1996), he started copying down the names and addresses in longhand until some nervous bureaucrat told him to cease and desist.

By then, though, it was too late: Viguerie had captured some 12,500 addresses of the most ardent right-wingers in the nation. “And that list,” he wrote in his 2004 book, "America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Over America," “was my treasure trove, as good as the gold bricks deposited at Fort Knox, as I started The Viguerie Company and began raising money for conservative clients.”

Fort Knox: an interesting image. Isn’t that what proverbial con men are always claiming to sell?

The lists got bigger, the technology better (“Where are my names?” he nervously asked, studying the surface of the first computer tape containing his trove): twenty-five million names by 1980, destination for some one hundred million mail pieces a year, dispatched by some three hundred employees in boiler rooms running twenty-four hours a day. The Viguerie Company’s marketing genius was that as it continued metastasizing, it remained, in financial terms, a hermetic positive feedback loop. It brought the message of the New Right to the masses, but it kept nearly all the revenue streams locked down in Viguerie’s proprietary control. Here was a key to the hustle: typically, only 10 to 15 percent of the haul went to the intended beneficiaries. The rest went back to Viguerie’s company. In one too-perfect example, Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia — who paid $889,255 for the service.

Incidentally, Viguerie was also one of the very first old-school conservatives to break off from the doomed Sen. Ted Cruz presidential campaign and endorse Donald Trump. He may have terrible ideas for running the country, but the man knows a business opportunity when he sees one.

Conspiracy theories have long been popular in book form among conservatives as well. Since the 1950s literally scores of books have been published that promoting the theory that former president Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist or revealing the liberal plan to force all children to become gay and they managed to sell millions of copies over the years.

Most famous of these were probably John A. Stormer's "None Dare Call It Treason" and Gary Allen and Larry Abraham's "None Dare Call It Conspiracy," which spread the John Birch Society's paranoid message about a worldwide conspiratorial elite of bankers, socialists and Jews. (One could hear strong echoes of the Birch message in Donald Trump's campaign.)

“These books circulated far more widely than traditional conservative media — there were millions of copies,” said historian Nicole Hemmer, author of the new book "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics."

Like the fake news sites of today, the conspiracy-theory literature that was so popular in the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hemmer said, adopted many of the trappings of more credible publications.

“People saw things as having validity if they had footnotes," she told Salon, noting "there was a validity in things that were presented as news that’s different from other sources of opinion or entertainment.”  

Added Hemmer: “That blending, or trading off of authority to cover things that aren’t really true, is something these books have in common with the fake news websites.”

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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Alt-right Conservative Conservative Media Conservatives Donald Trump Fake News John Birch Society