Why fake news holds such allure

Many readers of fake news say it is their most reliable source – even when they know it's fake. It points to the accelerating trend of readers looking for news that only confirms their own views.  

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington was the site of a shooting incident sparked by a fake news report that it was fronting a child sex ring run by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Rodney Sparks, a truck driver from Indiana, says the “fake news” debate today reminds him a lot of a book report he did back in high school.

His teacher assigned a book report on World War II, so he decided to interview his grandmother who was alive during the war and living as a “farmer’s wife” in Indiana. She was married on the actual day of Pearl Harbor.

“But when I turned it in, I got an ‘F’!” says Mr. Sparks. “The teacher said ‘Well, this is not what’s in the books,’ and my grandmother said, ‘Who cares? I was there.’ They got me an F for content that wasn’t all ‘factual.’ ”

Liberty Writers News, Alex Jones’s Info Wars, and Ending the Fed are among a group of websites that rose in popularity among Donald Trump’s supporters during the 2016 presidential election. But these same sites have been called out as fake news, spreading lies and conspiracy theories – such as Pope Francis’ endorsement of Trump, Hillary Clinton’s supply of weapons to the Islamic State, and various murder-suicides of Mrs. Clinton’s staffers – without any of journalism's traditional fact-checking.

In Monitor interviews, fake news readers defend these outlets as alternative media that mirror their own rejection of the Republican and Democratic political establishments, as well as a mass media that underestimated and shamed their faith in Mr. Trump. Put simply, neither Fox News nor the conservative National Review go remotely far enough for these readers. Fake news sites are essentially the only outlets these readers say can trust.

Some fans insist on the sites’ integrity, but others say the facts don’t really matter: like Sparks’s book report, lived perception displaces accuracy.

In that way, fake news is the ultimatum of a political news culture that has increasingly focused on confirming readers’ own worldview instead of challenging them, experts say. 

“This is exactly what psychology literature on the topic would say. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we expose ourselves to select information so we feel good about ourselves,” says Clare Wadel, research director at First Draft, a nonprofit that advocates for truth in the digital sphere. “When people on Facebook write ‘My sources say…’ it proves they are not looking for objective truth in the middle. Sources that are ‘mine’ will give me information to reaffirm what I already think.”

The perfect launch pad 

Critics blame the bait-and-click revenue system of today’s news for pushing the line between real and fake news. They also point to Facebook for allowing these stories to trend on news feeds around the world, misinforming voters at a crucial time, though both Facebook and Google now say they are taking steps to address the issue.

“The problem is that we are too credulous of news that reinforces our predispositions and too critical of sites that contradict them,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

The combination of technology and partisanship created the perfect storm for these sites to take off, he explains. “Facebook created the platform and the election created the topic that would deliver the hits and shares.”

Trump has encouraged the dismissal of traditional journalism, berating news outlets and journalists that are critical of him, from The New York Times to Fox’s Megyn Kelly. 

In his latest Twitter salvo, he took on NBC News for its reporting on the Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that Russia-linked hackers sought to influence the presidential election in Trump’s favor.

When partisan slant isn't enough 

In recent years, research has shown that many Americans live in partisan bubbles, opting for news outlets that reaffirm their viewpoints. But as the trend has accelerated, it has become more extreme. Outlets that have a clear partisan leaning, such as Fox News or MSNBC, are no longer enough for many.

“Fox News Worse Than Liberal Media to Donald Trump,” one Breitbart article was titled last January.

“When I saw Trump calling out the media, he was fighting both the Republicans and the Democrats,” says Amy Davis, a hairdresser and mother of three from Orlando, Fla. “It’s not just the Democrats; it’s both of them.”

Bill Saks, a cabinetmaker from Riverdale, N.J., says he believes that the Republican and Democratic Parties own the mass media, and that both parties had something to lose with a Trump presidency. Fox News and the National Review forecast a Trump loss, whereas InfoWars and the Drudge Report predicted a Trump landslide months before the election.

“Was it a fake story when The New York Times said Hillary Clinton was going to win in a landslide? When they said Trump cannot win because he has alienated too many people?” asks Mr. Saks. “The fake story was ‘Hillary Clinton is destined to win the presidency.’ ”

But fake news can have an effect beyond misinformation. Edgar Maddison Welch was arrested after firing multiple shots inside a Washington pizzeria last week. He believed a fake news report, circulated on Info Wars, that Democratic officials were using the pizzeria as a front for a child-sex ring.

Trusting fake news

Many fake news sites provide “disclaimers” and are surprisingly brazen. Under the large, all-caps headline of “NEWS YOU CAN TRUST,” World News Daily Report absolves itself of all responsibility “for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content.”

Justin Alvarado, an emergency room technician and veteran from Los Angeles, says he reads WNDR because it “has a good perspective on things,” and he shares articles from the site’s Facebook page to help “educate” his liberal friends. As he hears the disclaimer, Mr. Alvarado says he is not really all that surprised that the site’s news is fake. But he is also not surprised that people believe it.

“No one would publish news and say ‘Hey this is fake news,’ ” he says. “Just like CNN or Fox wouldn’t say ‘Hey our news is super biased, believe us.’ ” 

Empire News clarifies that their articles are for “entertainment purposes only,” and National Report calls itself a “political satire web publication.” But regardless of how clearly the sites identify their fiction, readers say they have proven accurate and feel true.

“I listen to Alex Jones, and sometimes I think he is out there,” adds Sparks. “But it’s kind of like when we were kids and it was crazy they had flip phones in the [‘Star Trek’] movies…. He’s a little far fetched, but so were the flip phones.”

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