Fake news: Much more than Facebook scams and Russian trolls

Russian Facebook ads are a small part of a very big problem: Conservatives are eager to believe nonsense

By Matthew Sheffield
Published September 27, 2017 7:30AM (EDT)

As someone who has worked at the intersection of politics, technology and media for 20 years, I’ve lost track of how many dumb business or political strategies I’ve seen receive undue attention -- and undue funding -- simply because they were wrapped in a high-tech argument most people couldn’t understand.

But even those who work in the industries also have believed in delusions about the power of technology to solve everyone’s problems, both individually and collectively. I still have bookmarks to ridiculous articles claiming that the iPad tablet was going to “save magazines” from the trends that have all but destroyed the newspaper business, and breathless essays crediting Barack Obama’s technology team with his 2008 victories, instead of his outsider image and the extreme unpopularity of his predecessor.

In the early years after blogging was invented, people actually called for the president to start posting on the internet. Such behavior, the alleged experts of the time told us, would lead to a better politics of greater transparency and more civic engagement.

Does anyone think that's we’ve gotten by having a Twitter-addict-in-chief? In a way, we do have more insight into President Donald Trump’s thinking, given his propensity to rage online about what’s ailing him at odd hours of the night. Voter turnout in special elections held this year has also been way up, and the two major parties’ campaign organizations are raising record amounts of money. (That is, except for the Democratic National Committee.) We might have a more transparent president and a more engaged citizenry, but we don't have a better politics.

Arthur C. Clarke’s famous phrase that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” certainly applies to tech’s impact on politics and society. While technology can greatly improve how or what we do as humans, it cannot yet change human nature. Social media has made people more able to maintain relationships, but it hasn’t led to better relationships. In a study released in July, 42 percent of British teenagers reported being bullied on Instagram, 37 percent on Facebook and 31 percent on Snapchat.

The recent focus on blaming Facebook and other large companies for the proliferation of fake news is no exception. Facebook itself has fanned the flames after the social network admitted that it had allowed accounts linked to a Russian troll company to purchase roughly $100,000 of advertising about political issues during last year’s presidential campaign

While a new law proposed by Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar to force popular websites to disclose information on the purchasers of election-related ads is a good first step, it would not have necessarily prevented the sale of the ads Facebook said were purchased by Russian-linked accounts since most advertising suppliers allow for automated sales (called "programmatic advertising" in the industry) through multiple companies, any one of whom could claim to be the American purchaser of an ad.

A source familiar with the proposed legislation tells Salon that the Warner-Klobuchar bill utilizes a broad definition of what types of messages would be subject to disclosure rules. That's a positive step for transparency but even if the initial purchasers of the advertising could be tracked down and disclosed, according to Facebook, the vast majority of the spots were not directly about the presidential election. Instead, the ads focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” according to Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos.

Even if the ads had directly mentioned Clinton or Trump, however, the $100,000 total spent is a drop in the bucket compared to the $26.9 billion that Facebook made selling ads in 2016.

The Federal Election Commission’s proposed regulation banning programmatic advertising is certainly a good idea. But it will not solve the larger problem that huge numbers of Americans want to believe things that simply aren’t true. It’s easy to blame social media for the spread of conspiracy theories and outright fabricated news stories, but the truth is, people generally seem to prefer reading news on their favorite websites more than they do on Facebook.

While it’s true that some liberal celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow believe in the exact same herbal pseudo-science peddled by InfoWars huckster Alex Jones, the problem of fake news is simply greater on the political right than it is on the left. Social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram certainly make it easier and cheaper to spread ludicrous beliefs, but these ideas existed long beforehand.

The critical difference between now and 15 years ago is not the existence of social media platforms but rather that more and more people have decided to build businesses on selling nonsensical stuff to people who want to believe it.

Some years ago, I met the operator of a now-defunct fake news empire at a Breitbart News party. He told me that he didn’t care if the sites he operated fact-checked their stories. “Who cares if it’s true?” he said. “I’m just interested in making money. If people stop trusting one of my sites, I just start another one.” There are a lot more people like him out there today.

It’s important to realize, however, that the massive number of conspiracy-peddling, far-right websites that have proliferated in recent years belong to a long tradition of conservative fake news. (I wrote about this in more detail last November.)

The proliferation of fake news sites has spawned a smaller number of “fact check” sites trying to debunk them. While these publications aren’t perfect, they can be helpful to some truth-seekers. On the other hand, the people who are most likely to believe fake news, conservatives, appear even more likely to distrust those who set out to debunk it.

In a study released earlier this month by Yale University, researchers found that websites tagging stories as “disputed by third-party fact-checkers” had almost no effect at all, as Politico summarized:

Overall, the existence of “disputed” tags made participants just 3.7 percentage points more likely to correctly judge headlines as false, the study said.

The researchers also found that, for some groups — particularly, Trump supporters and adults under 26 — flagging bogus stories could actually end up increasing the likelihood that users will believe fake news.

That’s because the sheer volume of misinformation that floods the social media network makes it impossible for the fact-checking groups Facebook has partnered with — like Politifact, FactCheck.org and Snopes.com — to address every story. The existence of flags on some — but not all — false stories made Trump supporters and young people more likely to believe any story that was not flagged, according to the study published Monday by psychologists David Rand and Gordon Pennycook.

It’s possible that technology can educate some people about what’s real and what’s fake, but the underlying issue is that conservative elites have willingly encouraged their voters to disengage from objective reality and turn politics into a doomed, emotional struggle against a world that's drastically different than the one of the 1950s. Technology can't solve what are fundamentally ideological problems.

Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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