Matt Taibbi / The Rolling Stone & Ben Norton, Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept & Lee Fang / The Intercept – 2016-11-30 00:29:56
“It can be tricky to keep informed these days. The real ‘fake news’ is the mainstream media. I read Antiwar.com often and consider it an important source of news and commentary.”
— Ron Paul, Former Member of US Congress
“The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist.”
— Ben Norton, Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept
The Washington Post ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting
The capital’s paper of record crashes legacy media on an iceberg
Matt Taibbi / The Rolling Stone
(November 28, 2016) — Last week, a technology reporter for the Washington Post named Craig Timberg ran an incredible story. It has no analog that I can think of in modern times. Headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” the piece promotes the work of a shadowy group that smears some 200 alternative news outlets as either knowing or unwitting agents of a foreign power, including popular sites like Truthdig and Naked Capitalism.
The thrust of Timberg’s astonishingly lazy report is that a Russian intelligence operation of some kind was behind the publication of a “hurricane” of false news reports during the election season, in particular stories harmful to Hillary Clinton. The piece referenced those 200 websites as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.”
The piece relied on what it claimed were “two teams of independent researchers,” but the citing of a report by the longtime anticommunist Foreign Policy Research Institute was really window dressing.
The meat of the story relied on a report by unnamed analysts from a single mysterious “organization” called PropOrNot — we don’t know if it’s one person or, as it claims, over 30 — a “group” that seems to have been in existence for just a few months.
It was PropOrNot’s report that identified what it calls “the list” of 200 offending sites. Outlets as diverse as AntiWar.com, LewRockwell.com and the Ron Paul Institute were described as either knowingly directed by Russian intelligence, or “useful idiots” who unwittingly did the bidding of foreign masters.
Forget that the Post offered no information about the “PropOrNot” group beyond that they were “a collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.”
Forget also that the group offered zero concrete evidence of coordination with Russian intelligence agencies, even offering this remarkable disclaimer about its analytic methods:
“Please note that our criteria are behavioral. . . . For purposes of this definition it does not matter . . . whether they even knew they were echoing Russian propaganda at any particular point: If they meet these criteria, they are at the very least acting as bona-fide ‘useful idiots’ of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny.”
What this apparently means is that if you published material that meets their definition of being “useful” to the Russian state, you could be put on the “list,” and “warrant further scrutiny.”
Forget even that in its Twitter responses to criticism of its report, PropOrNot sounded not like a group of sophisticated military analysts, but like one teenager:
“Awww, wook at all the angwy Putinists, trying to change the subject — they’re so vewwy angwy!!” it wrote on Saturday.
“Fascists. Straight up muthafuckin’ fascists. That’s what we’re up against,” it wrote last Tuesday, two days before Timberg’s report.
Any halfway decent editor would have been scared to death by any of these factors. Moreover the vast majority of reporters would have needed to see something a lot more concrete than a half-assed theoretical paper from such a dicey source before denouncing 200 news organizations as traitors.
But if that same source also demanded anonymity on the preposterous grounds that it feared being “targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers”? Any sane reporter would have booted them out the door. You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike.
Yet the Post thought otherwise, and its report was uncritically picked up by other outlets like USA Today and the Daily Beast. The “Russians did it” story was greedily devoured by a growing segment of blue-state America that is beginning to fall victim to the same conspiracist tendencies that became epidemic on the political right in the last few years.
The right-wing fascination with conspiracy has culminated in a situation where someone like Alex Jones of Infowars (who believes juice boxes make frogs gay) is considered a news source. Jones is believed even by our new president-elect, who just repeated one of his outrageous reports, to the effect that three million undocumented immigrants voted in the November 8th election.
That Jones report was based on a tweet by someone named Greg Phillips of an organization called VoteStand.
When asked to comment on his methodology, Phillips replied in the first person plural, sounding like a lone spree killer claiming to be a national terror network. “No. We will release it in open form to the American people,” he said. “We won’t allow the media to spin this first. Sorry.”
This was remarkably similar to the response of PropOrNot when asked by The Intercept to comment about its “list” report. The only difference was, Phillips didn’t use emoticons:
“We’re getting a lot of requests for comment and can get back to you today =)” PropOrNot told The Intercept. “We’re over 30 people, organized into teams, and we cannot confirm or deny anyone’s involvement.”
“They” never called The Intercept back.
Most high school papers wouldn’t touch sources like these. But in November 2016, both the president-elect of the United States and the Washington Post are equally at ease with this sort of sourcing.
Even worse, the Post apparently never contacted any of the outlets on the “list” before they ran their story. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism says she was never contacted. Chris Hedges of Truthdig, who was part of a group that won the Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times once upon a time, said the same. “We were named,” he tells me. “I was not contacted.”
Hedges says the Post piece was an “updated form of Red-Baiting.”
“This attack signals an open war on the independent press,” he says. “Those who do not spew the official line will be increasingly demonized in corporate echo chambers such as the Post or CNN as useful idiots or fifth columnists.”
All of this is an outgrowth of this horrible election season we just lived through.
A lot of reporters over the summer were so scared by the prospect of a Trump presidency that they talked — in some cases publicly — about abandoning traditional ideas about journalistic “distance” from politicians, in favor of open advocacy for the Clinton campaign. “Trump is testing the norms of objectivity in journalism,” is how The Times put it.
These journalists seemed totally indifferent to the Pandora’s box they were opening. They didn’t understand that most politicians have no use for critical media. Many of them don’t see alternative points of view as healthy or even legitimate. If you polled a hundred politicians about the profession, 99 would say that all reporters are obstructionist scum whose removal from the planet would be a boon to society.
The only time politicians like the media is when we’re helping them get elected or push through certain policies, like for instance helping spread dubious stories about Iraq’s WMD capability. Otherwise, they despise us. So news outlets that get into bed with politicians are usually making a devil’s bargain they don’t fully understand.
They may think they’re being patriotic (as many did during the Iraq/WMD episode), but in the end what will happen is that they will adopt the point of view of their political sponsors. They will soon enough denounce other reporters and begin to see themselves as part of the power structure, as opposed to a check on it.
This is the ultimate in stupidity and self-annihilating behavior. The power of the press comes from its independence from politicians. Jump into bed with them and you not only won’t ever be able to get out, but you’ll win nothing but a loss of real influence and the undying loathing of audiences.
Helping Beltway politicos mass-label a huge portion of dissenting media as “useful idiots” for foreign enemies in this sense is an extraordinarily self-destructive act. Maybe the Post doesn’t care and thinks it’s doing the right thing. In that case, at least do the damn work.
Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group
Ben Norton, Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept
(November 26 2016) — The Washington Post on Thursday night promoted the claims of a new, shadowy organization that smears dozens of US news sites that are critical of US foreign policy as being “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.”
The article by reporter Craig Timberg — headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” — cites a report by an anonymous website calling itself PropOrNot, which claims that millions of Americans have been deceived this year in a massive Russian “misinformation campaign.”
The group’s list of Russian disinformation outlets includes WikiLeaks and the Drudge Report, as well as Clinton-critical left-wing websites such as Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, and Naked Capitalism, as well as libertarian venues such as Antiwar.com and the Ron Paul Institute.
This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of US journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposÃ©. It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.
Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively, led by its Executive Editor Marty Baron:
Marty Baron âœ” @PostBaron
Russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news during election, say independent researchers
In casting the group behind this website as “experts,” the Post described PropOrNot simply as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” Not one individual at the organization is named. The executive director is quoted, but only on the condition of anonymity, which the Post said it was providing the group “to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”
In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities.
The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”
The credentials of this supposed group of experts are impossible to verify, as none is provided either by the Post or by the group itself. The Intercept contacted PropOrNot and asked numerous questions about its team, but received only this reply:
“We’re getting a lot of requests for comment and can get back to you today =) [smiley face emoticon].” The group added: “We’re over 30 people, organized into teams, and we cannot confirm or deny anyone’s involvement.”
Thus far, they have provided no additional information beyond that. As Fortune‘s Matthew Ingram wrote in criticizing the Post article, PropOrNot’s Twitter account “has only existed since August of this year. And an article announcing the launch of the group on its website is dated last month.” WHOIS information for the domain name is not available, as the website uses private registration.
More troubling still, PropOrNot listed numerous organizations on its website as “allied” with it, yet many of these claimed “allies” told The Intercept, and complained on social media, they have nothing to do with the group and had never even heard of it before the Post published its story.
At some point last night, after multiple groups listed as “allies” objected, the group quietly changed the title of its “allied” list to “Related Projects.” When The Intercept asked PropOrNot about this clear inconsistency via email, the group responded concisely: “We have no institutional affiliations with any organization.”
In his article, the Post‘s Timberg did not include a link to PropOrNot’s website. If readers had the opportunity to visit the site, it would have become instantly apparent that this group of ostensible experts far more resembles amateur peddlers of primitive, shallow propagandistic cliches than serious, substantive analysis and expertise; that it has a blatant, demonstrable bias in promoting NATO’s narrative about the world; and that it is engaging in extremely dubious McCarthyite tactics about a wide range of critics and dissenters.
To see how frivolous and even childish this group of anonymous cowards is — which the Post venerated into serious experts in order to peddle their story — just sample a couple of the recent tweets from this group:
PropOrNot ID Service @propornot
Awww, wook at all the angwy Putinists, trying to change the subject — they’re so vewwy angwy!! It’s cute We don’t censor; just highlight.
PropOrNot ID Service @propornot
Fascists. Straight up muthafuckin’ fascists. That’s what we’re up against. Unwittingly or not, they work for Russia.
As for their refusal to identify themselves even as they smear hundreds of American journalists as loyal to the Kremlin or “useful idiots” for it, this is their mature response:
PropOrNot ID Service â€ª@propornot
We’ll consider revealing our names when Russia reveals the names of those running its propaganda operations in the West
The Washington Post should be very proud: It staked a major part of its news story on the unverified, untestable assertions of this laughable organization.
One of the core functions of PropOrNot appears to be its compilation of a lengthy blacklist of news and political websites that it smears as peddlers of “Russian propaganda.” Included on this blacklist of supposed propaganda outlets are prominent independent left-wing news sites such as Truthout, Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, and Truthdig.
Also included are popular libertarian hubs such as Zero Hedge, Antiwar.com, and the Ron Paul Institute, along with the hugely influential right-wing website the Drudge Report and the publishing site WikiLeaks. Far-right, virulently anti-Muslim blogs such as Bare Naked Islam are likewise dubbed Kremlin mouthpieces.
Basically, everyone who isn’t comfortably within the centrist Hillary Clinton/Jeb Bush spectrum is guilty. On its Twitter account, the group announced a new “plugin” that automatically alerts the user that a visited website has been designated by the group to be a Russian propaganda outlet.
PropOrNot ID Service â€ª@propornot
We just published a BETA (very beta) version of our Chrome plugin, which highlights domains we’ve IDed: http://bit.ly/2fumsNx
1:43 AM — 25 Nov 2016
TO HYPE ITS STORY, the Post article uncritically highlights PropOrNot’s flamboyant claim that stories planted or promoted by Russia’s “disinformation campaign” were viewed more than 213 million times. Yet no methodology is provided for any of this: how a website is determined to merit blacklist designation or how this reach was calculated.
As Ingram wrote: “How is that audience measured? We don’t know. Stories promoted by this network were shared 213 million times, it says. How do we know this? That’s unclear.”
Presumably, this massive number was created by including on its lists highly popular sites such as WikiLeaks, as well the Drudge Report, the third-most popular political news website on the internet. Yet this frightening, Cold War-esque “213 million” number for Russian “planted” news story views was uncritically echoed by numerous high-profile media figures, such as New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman and professor Jared Yates Sexton — although the number is misleading at best.
Some of the websites on PropOrNot’s blacklist do indeed publish Russian propaganda — namely Sputnik News and Russia Today, which are funded by the Russian government. But many of the aforementioned blacklisted sites are independent, completely legitimate news sources that often receive funding through donations or foundations and have been reporting and analyzing news for many years.
The group commits outright defamation by slandering obviously legitimate news sites as propaganda tools of the Kremlin.
One of the most egregious examples is the group’s inclusion of Naked Capitalism, the widely respected left-wing site run by Wall Street critic Yves Smith. That site was named by Time magazine as one of the best 25 Best Financial Blogs in 2011 and by Wired magazine as a crucial site to follow for finance, and Smith has been featured as a guest on programs such as PBS’s Bill Moyers Show.
Yet this cowardly group of anonymous smear artists, promoted by the Washington Post, has now placed them on a blacklist of Russian disinformation.
The group eschews alternative media outlets like these and instead recommends that readers rely solely on establishment-friendly publications like NPR, the BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and VICE. That is because a big part of the group’s definition for “Russian propaganda outlet” is criticizing US foreign policy.
PropOrNot does not articulate its criteria in detail, merely describing its metrics as “behavioral” and “motivation-agnostic.” That is to say, even if a news source is not technically a Russian propaganda outlet and is not even trying to help the Kremlin, it is still guilty of being a “useful idiot” if it publishes material that might in some way be convenient or helpful for the Russian government.
In other words, the website conflates criticism of Western governments and their actions and policies with Russian propaganda. News sites that do not uncritically echo a pro-NATO perspective are accused of being mouthpieces for the Kremlin, even if only unwitting ones.
While blacklisting left-wing and libertarian journalists, PropOrNot also denies being McCarthyite. Yet it simultaneously calls for the US government to use the FBI and DOJ to carry out “formal investigations” of these accused websites, “because the kind of folks who make propaganda for brutal authoritarian oligarchies are often involved in a wide range of bad business.”
The shadowy group even goes so far as to claim that people involved in the blacklisted websites may “have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws.”
In sum: They’re not McCarthyite; perish the thought. They just want multiple US media outlets investigated by the FBI for espionage on behalf of Russia.
WHO EXACTLY IS BEHIND PropOrNot, where it gets its funding, and whether or not it is tied to any governments is a complete mystery. The Intercept also sent inquiries to the Post‘s Craig Timberg asking these questions, and asking whether he thinks it is fair to label left-wing news sites like Truthout “Russian propaganda outlets.” Timberg replied: “I’m sorry, I can’t comment about stories I’ve written for the Post.”
As is so often the case, journalists — who constantly demand transparency from everyone else — refuse to provide even the most basic levels for themselves. When subjected to scrutiny, they reflexively adopt the language of the most secrecy-happy national security agencies: We do not comment on what we do.
Timberg’s piece on the supposed ubiquity of Russian propaganda is misleading in several other ways. The other primary “expert” upon which the article relies is Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a pro-Western think tank whose board of advisers includes neoconservative figures like infamous orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis and pro-imperialist Robert D. Kaplan, the latter of whom served on the US government’s Defense Policy Board.
What the Post does not mention in its report is that Watts, one of the specialists it relies on for its claims, previously worked as an FBI special agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the executive officer of the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. As Fortune‘s Ingram wrote of the group, it is “a conservative think tank funded and staffed by proponents of the Cold War between the US and Russia.”
PropOrNot is by no means a neutral observer. It actively calls on Congress and the White House to work “with our European allies to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT financial transaction system, effective immediately and lasting for at least one year, as an appropriate response to Russian manipulation of the election.”
In other words, this blacklisting group of anonymous cowards — putative experts in the pages of the Washington Post — is actively pushing for Western governments to take punitive measures against the Russian government and is speaking and smearing from an extreme ideological framework that the Post concealed from its readers.
EVEN MORE DISTURBING than the Post‘s shoddy journalism in this instance is the broader trend in which any wild conspiracy theory or McCarthyite attack is now permitted in US discourse as long as it involves Russia and Putin — just as was true in the 1950s when stories of how the Russians were poisoning the US water supply or infiltrating American institutions were commonplace.
Any anti-Russia story was — and is — instantly vested with credibility, while anyone questioning its veracity or evidentiary basis is subject to attacks on their loyalties or, at best, vilified as “useful idiots.”
Two of the most discredited reports from the election season illustrate the point: a Slate article claiming that a private server had been located linking the Trump Organization and a Russian bank (which, like the current Post story, had been shopped around and rejected by multiple media outlets) and a completely deranged rant by Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald claiming that Putin had ordered emails in the WikiLeaks release to be doctored — both of which were uncritically shared and tweeted by hundreds of journalists to tens of thousands of people, if not more.
The Post itself — now posing as a warrior against “fake news” — published an article in September that treated with great seriousness the claim that Hillary Clinton collapsed on 9/11 Day because she was poisoned by Putin. And that’s to say nothing of the paper’s disgraceful history of convincing Americans that Saddam was building non-existent nuclear weapons and had cultivated a vibrant alliance with al Qaeda. As is so often the case, those who mostly loudly warn of “fake news” from others are themselves the most aggressive disseminators of it.
Indeed, what happened here is the essence of fake news. The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth that reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War.
So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.
So the story spread in a flash, like wildfire. Tens of thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions, consumed it, believing that it was true because of how many journalists and experts told them it was.
Virtually none of the people who told them this spent a minute of time or ounce of energy determining if it was true. It pleased them to believe it was, knowing it advanced their interests, and so they endorsed it. That is the essence of how fake news functions, and it is the ultimate irony that this Post story ended up illustrating and spreading far more fake news than it exposed.
Some Fake News Publishers Just Happen to Be Donald Trump’s Cronies
Lee Fang / The Intercept
(November 26 2016) — The extraordinary phenomenon of fake news spread by Facebook and other social media during the 2016 presidential election has been largely portrayed as a lucky break for Donald Trump.
By that reckoning, entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers, opportunists in Tbilisi and California millennials have exploited social media algorithms in order to make money — only incidentally leading to the viral proliferation of mostly anti-Clinton and anti-Obama hoaxes and conspiracy theories that thrilled many Trump supporters.
The Washington Post published a shoddy report on Thursday alleging that Russian state-sponsored propagandists were seeking to promote Trump through fabricated stories for their own reasons, independent of the candidate himself.
But a closer look reveals that some of the biggest fake news providers were run by experienced political operators well within the orbit of Donald Trump’s political advisers and consultants.
Laura Ingraham, a close Trump ally currently under consideration to be Trump’s White House press secretary, owns an online publisher called Ingraham Media Group that runs a number of sites, including LifeZette, a news site that frequently posts articles of dubious veracity.
One video produced by LifeZette this summer, ominously titled “Clinton Body Count,” promoted a conspiracy theory that the Clinton family had some role in the plane crash death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., as well as the deaths of various friends and Democrats.
The video, published on Facebook from LifeZette‘s verified news account, garnered over 400,000 shares and 14 million views.
Another LifeZette video, picking up false claims from other sites, claimed that voting machines “might be compromised” because a voting machine company called Smartmatic, allegedly providing voting machines “in sixteen states,” was purchased by the liberal billionaire George Soros. Soros never purchased the company, and Smartmatic did not provide voting machines used in the general election.
One LifeZette article misleadingly claimed that the United Nations backed a “secret” Obama administration takeover of local police departments. The article referenced Justice Department orders that a select few police departments address patterns of misconduct, a practice that, in reality, long predates the Obama presidency, is hardly secret, and had no relation to the United Nations.
Another LifeZette article, which went viral in the week prior to the election, falsely claimed that Wikileaks had revealed that a senior Hillary Clinton campaign official had engaged in occult rituals. Ingraham’s site regularly receives links from the Drudge Report and other powerful drivers of Internet traffic.
But LifeZette, for all its influence, pales in comparison to the sites run by Floyd Brown, a Republican consultant close to Trump’s inner circle of advisers. Brown gained notoriety nearly three decades ago for his role in helping to produce the “Willie Horton” campaign advertisement, a spot criticized for its use of racial messaging to derail Michael Dukakis’s presidential bid.
Brown is also the political mentor of David Bossie, an operative who went to work for Trump’s presidential campaign this year after founding the Citizens United group. In an interview this year, Brown called Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway a “longtime friend.”
Brown now produces a flow of reliably pro-Trump Internet content through a company he co-owns with his family called Liftable Media Inc., which operates a number of high-impact, tabloid-style news outlets that exploded in size over the course of the election.
One of Brown’s sites, Western Journalism, is the 81st largest site in the US with 13 million monthly unique monthly visitors, according to rankings maintained by the site Alexa. Another, called Conservative Tribune, is the 50th largest site with over 19 million monthly unique visitors. Liftable Media is run on a day-to-day basis by Brown’s son, Patrick, who is the president of Liftable Media.
Brown’s sites churn out bombastic headlines with little regard to the truth. One viral piece shared by Brown’s news outlets claimed that President Obama had redesigned the White House logo to change the American flag to a white flag, “a common symbol for surrender, which has many people wondering if Obama was trying to secretly signal to America’s enemies that he was surrendering.”
The Facebook post touted the article with the line, “We all know Obama hates the United States, but what he just did to the White House logo is beyond the pale.”
As the fact-checking website Snopes was quick to note, it was no signal of surrender and the bleached white version of the White House logo, complete with a white flag, was not even an Obama creation. The white logo dates back to as early as 2003, under the Bush administration, which used it for official documents.
The Conservative Tribune and Western Journalism provide a steady stream of similarly deceptive, eye-catching headlines.
“BREAKING: Muslims Ordered to Vote Hillary,” is the headline for one election post that grossly mischaracterized a mundane article about a Pakistani American activist going to door to door to help Clinton’s campaign. “Obama Urges Illegal Immigrants to Vote Without Fear of Getting Caught,” blared Western Journalism, claiming that President Obama had suggested in an interview on issues facing Latino millennial voters that noncitizens could vote and “will never get caught if they do.”
The article left out the part of the Obama interview in which he said noncitizens “can’t legally vote, but they’re counting on you to make sure that you have the courage to make your voice heard.”
The hits go on, with posts on a regular basis making claims ranging from the assertion that Clinton went on a “drug holiday” before the Las Vegas presidential debate to rumors that Obama’s birth certificate is under serious scrutiny.
Thanks to views sourced largely to referrals from Facebook, Brown’s websites now outrank web traffic going to news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and NPR, according to data compiled by Alexa. Both Western Journalism and Conservative Tribune are certified by Facebook as bonafide news providers.
Trump’s relationship with one particularly influential online news site with a history of fabricated stories couldn’t be much closer. Steve Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, took a leave of absence from the organization to become the chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign and has been tapped to serve as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House. Trump himself regularly promoted Breitbart stories, including a tweet used to justify his campaign to prove Obama was not born in the US.
Breitbart News blends commentary and journalism with inflammatory headlines, in many cases producing fake stories sourced from online hoaxes. The site once attempted to pass off a picture of people in Cleveland celebrating the Cavaliers as a massive Trump rally. The site furiously defended Trump’s false claim that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey were “cheering” the 9/11 attacks, a claim that multiple fact-checking organizations have thoroughly debunked.
Other conservative content farms, including WorldNetDaily, maintained ties to the Trump election effort. Campaign finance records show that Great America PAC, a Trump-backing Super PAC, paid WND, known as the largest purveyor of Obama birth certificate conspiracy theories, for “online voter contact.”
The surge of fake news has been much commented on in the mainstream media — and its effect on Trump’s election victory has been widely debated — with little mention of the purveyors close to the Trump campaign.
A Buzzfeed News article that came out shortly before the election famously traced more than 100 pro-Trump websites to young entrepreneurs in a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who discovered that the best way to generate clicks — at a fraction of a penny per click in ad revenue — is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook.
After the election, New Yorker editor David Remnick described President Obama as “talking obsessively” about that article, and quoted him bemoaning its significance. “[T]he capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal, ” Obama said, “that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
The Washington Post interviewed Paul Horner, the “impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” who sounded somewhat aghast when he said, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.”
Another Washington Post story described two Southern California slackers turning their website of made-up pro-Trump clickbait in a virtual goldmine. The New York Times profiled a fake news operation run by three brothers in Tbilisi, Georgia, who experimented with a variety of content, sometimes lifted from other sites, at other times made up from whole cloth, finding that pro-Trump material was the most popular, and therefore the most profitable.
Finally, a Washington Post story this week alleged a Russian government role in spreading fake news to help Trump. But its sources were not remotely credible. For instance, it cited a list that characterized as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda” a number of well-established and well-respected websites including Truthdig, a site published by award-winning journalist and long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, Naked Capitalism, and Truth Out.
The growth of fake news isn’t confined to Trump or to conservative sites. A number of left-wing political sites have trafficked in demonstrably false stories, including deceptive pieces stoking fear about vaccines. Earlier this year, when critics called for Clinton to release the transcripts of her three paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, as well as to other interest groups, Daily News Bin, a new liberal website specializing in viral hits, published a piece titled, “Video surfaces of Hillary Clinton’s paid speech to Goldman Sachs, and it’s completely harmless.” The video embedded in the piece, however, was not one of Clinton’s paid speeches; it was a public event sponsored by Goldman Sachs. The article was shared over 120,000 times.
“We live in a time when people don’t care about facts,” said Judy Muller, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California.
During the last three months of the campaign, Buzzfeed News found that the top 20 best-performing hoax stories related to the election had more Facebook engagement than the 20 best-performing stories from major news outlets.
Facebook has responded to the recent outcry over fake news websites with promises to crack down on obvious phony sites. Many critics are still worried that Facebook is not doing enough to counter outright lies promoted by the platform; meanwhile, others are concerned that such efforts risk suppressing critical information.
Muller said that if Ingraham is nominated by Trump to be his spokesperson to the press, she will have to distance herself from her growing Facebook content empire.
But the demand for fake news is unlikely to subside.
A recent study by Stanford University researchers found that students have difficulty discerning between fake content, corporate sponsored advertorial content posing as journalism, and legitimate news.
“People only care about opinions that support their own biases,” said Muller. “So they’re not reading other people’s facts, they’re not checking the facts, and they don’t want to know — and that’s the scariest development to me.”
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