Eight months after a torrential campaign of disinformation, memorably christened "fake news" by BuzzFeed, helped hand Donald Trump his narrow electoral win, the state of objective truth, especially on the internet, is still up in the air. Despite all the negative press, fake news is as popular as ever, especially on the right, with bots and alt-right trolls spreading hoaxes to propel right wing values far and wide. If anything, the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.
Part of the problem is that Trump himself immediately appropriated the term "fake news," using it as a slur to demonize any and all fact-based journalism he finds displeasing, a move that further confused the public discourse over what is true and whether truth even matters. But the larger problem is simply that fake news is deeply appealing, particularly in online circles devoted to defending Trump's administration. It's hard to fight back against a phenomenon that is wildly popular.
A recent study out of the University of Hohenheim in Germany demonstrates, yet again, that the main propulsive element of a fake news story is the eagerness of audiences, particularly on the right, to believe it. Researchers created a fake right-wing blog, calling it Der Volksbeobachter, and started posting downright silly stories through Facebook profiles created to support the fake site. One story, about how political asylum seekers were receiving government funding so they could visit prostitutes for free, reached 11,000 readers through 150 reposts in a span of four days.
"Many readers reacted indignantly to the 'news' about free prostitutes for asylum seekers," the BBC reports. "Few Facebook users spotted that the place where it was allegedly happening -- Bad Eulen -- does not exist."
It's easy to scoff at people who would actually believe such a story, but is it really any more preposterous than similar stories that have gone viral in the United States, such as the claim that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizzeria?
“So much of fake news that gets shared is really a values statement," said Melissa Ryan, a digital strategist who has worked for Barack Obama and former Sen. Russ Feingold. "It almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, I think, particularly on the right.”
Ryan currently runs a newsletter devoted to tracking the alt-right, called Ctrl Alt Right Delete, and is hosting a panel at this year's Netroots Nation conference on how to combat fake news. She argued that people, especially right-wingers, share fake news because of how it makes them feel. Whether or not they actually think it's true is almost beside the point.
“The stuff that my right-wing relatives share that I see, I doubt they even click on it," she said. Instead, she said, it's a way for those on the right to express reactionary values "in a more socially acceptable fashion.”
That certainly seemed to be the case in a story I wrote about in June, involving a group of alt-right activists who rallied against anarchists they believed were seeking to tear down a statue of Sam Houston in Houston's Hermann Park. The problem was that there were no anti-statue activists, and the story appears to have been made up by a right-winger trying to rile up his own compatriots. But even after being told that the report that had them so irate was false, alt-righters rallied anyway, alternately denying that the news was fake or claiming that it didn't matter. Ultimately, it became clear that the factual truth of the story was irrelevant. The whole fake-news moment, as Ryan says, was just a vehicle for folks to express an otherwise socially unacceptable enthusiasm for 19th-century slaveholders.
Despite these obstacles, there are things that can be done to slow the spread of fake news. Facebook has done some work in this direction, creating tools to allow users to flag fake news stories and giving power to sites like Snopes and FactCheck.org to debunk them. Some fake news sites have shut down, and others are seeing a drop in revenue. Unfortunately, these measures don't do nearly enough, especially in light of people's willingness to spread stories with little regard for whether or not they are true.
Social media companies "have the data." Ryan said. "They know who these folks are. They know how to shut them down." But they don't want to take more extensive measures to do so because that "costs them engagement, and it’s going to make public to their shareholders that their numbers have largely been inflated by this activity."
Still, Ryan feels the situation isn't totally hopeless. She suggested that the damage fake news did during the U.S. presidential election helped "European consumers of news [become] much more aware of the problem than American consumers," which, in her view, helped stymie the slide to the far right that some feared would be seen in German, French, Dutch and British elections over the past year.
While Ryan agreed agreed that there is little use arguing with right-wing friends and relatives who share fake news — that's "just as likely to make them dig in their heels rather than think it’s not real," she said — she suggested it was valuable for journalists and liberal activists to keep an eye on what fake news stories are percolating in right-wing circles, if only to know what ludicrous ideas are taking hold.
Real news can go viral, too, as long as it taps into the emotional centers that drive so much fake news. As British journalist Laurie Penny argued in her recent sit-down interview with Salon, liberals need to better understand "the influence of emotion and feeling on politics."
"What I would say to people is that facts do matter, but facts aren’t going to win you an argument," Ryan said. "You really have to tie things back to a values statement and use facts to back that up."
Activists and journalists can do their part, but the problem also goes back to social media companies. Fake news is popular, which makes it profitable, and that means Facebook and Twitter have very little incentive to shut it down. Until that changes, it's hard to see the fake news problem going away anytime soon.