Before the presidential election, when Hillary Clinton looked to be cruising to a victory, a cottage industry of fake and misleading news reports found an eager audience on many conservative Americans’ social media feeds.
Now, nearly three months after President Trump’s stunning victory, same kind of alarmist, click-bait headlines, along with their false news reports, are becoming increasingly prevalent on liberal Americans’ feeds.
There was the fake photo of Mr. Trump, purportedly showing him standing with his parents, both dressed in the white robes and symbols of the Ku Klux Klan. There was the misleading story of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who was said to have founded a group in high school called the “Fascism Forever Club.” There was the viral photo of a boy handcuffed at Dulles airport near Washington after the president’s immigration ban last week – it was a fake, taken in 2015.
The term “fake news” has become one of the most charged political terms in the emerging rough-and-ready digital era of the Trump presidency. He uses the term almost daily, charging mainstream news outlets such as CNN and The New York Times with trafficking in “fiction” and even outright lies. At the same time, he spreads falsehoods, like his claim Tuesday that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” In fact, the murder rate is near historic lows.
The confusion and misinformation creates an environment where it is increasingly normal to accept facts only if they conform to one's own worldview. But something else is at work, as well, many observers say. The penchant to believe fake news is often rooted in a deep-seated feeling of alarm and powerlessness.
“Of course, when you feel disempowered, you want to strike back with everything you got, and you feel like the whole world is against you,” says Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, a fact-checking website that has debunked many of the false stories circulating around the internet.
“People who think they’ve been pushed out of the political world as it is right now are going to be susceptible to misinformation – they’re going to focus on whatever makes them feel better,” she says.
Right now, that’s liberals. Ms. Binkowski says she has seen an uptick in liberals sharing misleading stories on their news feeds. Others agree.
“Certainly, you can see more examples in the kind of stuff that people of the left are now fascinated by,” says Judith Donath, a faculty fellow at The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. “Liberals were not being terribly alarmist before the election, but now there’s this nonstop sense of emergency.... You don’t really want to stop and smell the flowers, because you think that if I miss something, disaster might happen.”
A convergence of crises
Before the election, fake news stories abounded on conservative feeds, according to a number of studies. Headlines claiming that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump or that President Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools were shared hundreds of thousands of times. The most notorious fake news story – the fabricated story that Mrs. Clinton was tied to a child sex ring at a Washington pizza parlor – led an armed man to investigate and fire a shot during business hours.
The trend represents a perfect storm of several crises converging, many scholars say.
“There’s the platform crisis of social media as a news distributor, there is the industrial crisis of mainstream journalistic venues closing and downscaling, and there is the larger cultural crises of the epistemological devaluation of verifiable truth,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor at American University’s School of Communication in Washington. “Then there’s also the political crisis with opportunistic public officials and voters both privileging politically convenient stories over truthful ones.”
Fake news has generally trended conservative. In the last three months before the election, 17 of the top 20 most-shared fake news stories favored Trump, according to a study by Buzzfeed last November. And over the same period, fake news stories favoring Trump got 30 million shares – quadruple the number of shares for fake news posts favoring Clinton, according to a study released last month by economists Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University and Hunt Allcott of New York University.
The recent spike in fake news stories on the left can be attributed to the enormous increase in the number of liberals now seeking information from all sources, says Professor Donath, also the former director of the Sociable Media Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. That trend has also bolstered mainstream newspapers including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, which have each seen their circulations surge after the election.
“So if you have a huge multiplier in the news people are consuming, while keeping the same percentage of these outlets that really aren’t trustworthy, you’d of course have more of the fake stuff,” says Donath.
And new fake stories keep circulating. An article from AlternativeMediaSyndicate.com last week claimed that police officers had burned the camps of indigenous activists fighting the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. The story, which included an image of burning tipis from a 2007 HBO film, was shared nearly 300,000 times on Facebook.
Other fake stories on liberal feeds included a LearnProgress.org piece that reported falsely that first lady Melania Trump was selling jewelry on the White House website. And a number of stories stemmed from an unverified Twitter account, @RoguePOTUSStaff, which purports to offer secret information from “rogue” White House staffers. The account is followed by more than 650,000 people.
Trump's own take on fake news
For his part, Trump has appropriated the term “fake news” but changed its meaning.
On Monday, the president tweeted, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”
His statement Tuesday appears to confuse the rise in the murder rate with the murder rate. While the 2015 murder rate was 4.9 per 100,000 people – less than half of what it was in 1991 – it is up from 4.4 per 100,000 in 2014. That was the largest one-year jump in 50 years.
On Feb. 2, Trump went so far as to post a fake news story to his official Facebook page. The story claimed that Kuwait issued “its own Trump-esque visa ban for five Muslim-majority countries.” “Smart!” Trump tagged his post. And as of noon Tuesday, the still-live post had been “liked” over 250,000 times, and shared nearly 70,000 times. The alt-right websites Breitbart, Infowars, and Sputnik were also among those who cited the story.
This despite the fact that the Kuwaiti foreign ministry on Friday said that it “categorically denies these claims and affirms that these reported nationalities ... have big communities in Kuwait and enjoy full rights,” Reuters reported.
In the end, the proliferation of fake news could be a boon for traditional journalism, as the surge in circulation numbers suggest.
“It’s almost a theater of the absurd, but if you listen to what the majority of the public is saying, they prefer to have legitimized news,” says Kevin Smith, deputy director of The Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “This isn’t about, when they go low we go high ... it’s about going straight. We need to keep that impartial review of what’s going on.”
[Editor's note: The original version stated the murder rate figures for 2014 incorrectly.]