Fake Stories, Real Concern

Eoin McSweeney speaks to Dr Graham Finlay about the growing issue of fake news in the US and how it may have dire consequences closer to home. 

You’ve probably never heard of Veles, a small town situated in the central part of the Republic of Macedonia. It is quiet, suitable for camping and hiking and it was never considered a place of renown outside of Macedonia. That is, until 2016, when a group of young teenagers from the town may have influenced the biggest and most important US election in history through hundreds of websites producing fake news articles.

These websites adopt American-sounding domain names to appear credible before using sensational headlines such as “CLINTON RECEIVED DEBATE QUESTIONS WEEK BEFORE DEBATE ACCORDING TO SOURCES.” This headline was published in September by Baltimoregazette.com, a website based on a daily newspaper which stopped publishing in 1875. It is typical of a fake news story in that it uses an attention grabbing headline which actually has very little concrete information, for example, who are these sources?

The young Macedonians who contribute to the creation of these websites do not care about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and are not politically minded. What speaks to them is the money that they can generate through the click-by-click policy of Facebook Ads and YouTube. These news stories can generate hundreds of thousands of shares, reactions and comments and according to BuzzFeed, the top 20 performing false election stories of 2016 were actually more popular than the top 20 from the 19 best performing major news websites.

Nothing New

Fake news and its influence on the world is not a new phenomenon ushered in by the social media era. I spoke to Dr Graham Finlay, a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations in University College Dublin, and he explained that fake news has ravaged society for centuries.  

“Exaggeration and fake news has been in American politics and I’m sure in many countries’ politics for a very long time and people used to make up all sorts of scurrilous things – even in elections going back to Adams and Jefferson. Of course, some of them turned out to be true. It was widely alleged that Jefferson had children with one of his slaves and that was in fact true. It was also claimed that JeffersonAndrew Jackson’s wife was a bigamist which again turned out to be true. So that’s one kind of news and also the kind of savage satire or mocking of people has been fair game for a long time.”

Fake news is wholly or at least largely completely made up or exaggerated. Prior to the invention of the internet and more recently social media, fake news could be found in printed media. Yellow journalism was widespread in the 1890’s and presented little or no legitimately researched news stories with eye-catching headlines. Facebook and twitter now contribute to the mass spread of fake news that we see today, enlarging the pool of readers from thousands to millions.

Some of the fake election stories were so ridiculous it is be baffling to think that some could believe them. The ‘Pizzagate Scandal’ is one such story, where allegedly democrats were engaging in child sex trafficking offences and satanic rituals. This was based on the coded interpretation of the leaked John Podesta emails, the chairman of the Clinton Campaign. It is believed that paedophile rings use code words such hotdog, sauce and map instead of boy, semen, orgy, etc., and recipes contained in the John Podesta emails were circulated by fake news agencies. This culminated with a man from North Carolina entering a Comet Pizza in Washington with a gun to investigate the child sex ring claims.

This is a good example of just how far these fake news stories can go and Dr Finlay was quick to point out the damaging effect such stories can have. “I think the Pizzagate story is a particularly pernicious one because it involved all the tools and logic of conspiracy theorists. So secret detecting, secret codes, assuming that someone is behind everything and actually believing that the DNC could be involved in just about everything, even the abduction of Madeline McCann on the basis of the most fabricated and crazy logic that characterised that scandal. Any conspiracy could be based on those emails if you decide that ‘sauce’ stands for orgy.”

Dr Finlay believes that these stories usually grow legs because of past events that may give credence to the possibility of their truth. For example, there have been child molesters on the Hill in Washington including former Republican speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. He was just recently sentenced to fifteen months in prison for the molestation of at least four boys as young as fourteen while he worked as a high school wrestling coach. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump used to socialise with Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire and convicted sex offender, so at times there is a slight rooting in reality for some of these stories.

The US Election

It is difficult to think that this flood of fake news didn’t affect the 2016 election. However it is thought that many of those who believed the articles circling the internet were already in an echo chamber and fully behind Trump. It is unlikely that there were many undecided voters who were swayed by the stories. Their anti-Hillary attitude was expressed in these stories and their circulation rather than increased by it. On the other hand, it can also be said that the general opinion among Trump supporters that Clinton is a crook or that there was ‘something going on’ with her campaign was heavily influenced by falsities spread on the internet. For example, it is true that The Clinton Foundation has raised millions from foreign powers and business people, and that was always going to be a liability for the Clinton campaign. However it is a stretch to give credit to the conspiracy theory that she is at the heart of a global corporate scandal.

In the opinion of Dr Finlay, Trump certainly utilised fake news and conspiracy theories during his campaign. “The last ad he ran was about a global conspiracy attacking American regular working people and Donald Trump. It showed three Jewish people, George DTSoros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein, who are all involved in various aspects of corporate finance and financial services (for example Janet Yellen is head of the Federal Reserve). But it really smacked of the kind of age old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which believe that Jews are controlling everything. And that really was a sort of a different change in tone, to put it mildly, in a major Presidential campaign.”

He also believes that evidence wasn’t as important to Trump supporters as the overall impression that there was something crooked about the Clinton campaign. This argument can be strengthened by looking at the fact that there is a stark contrast between conservative and liberal news outlets. Conservative commentators such as Tomi Lahren or Bill O’Reilly tend to be loud and deliver short, easily understood sound bites, while liberals Paul Krugman and Trevor Noah give calmer and more measured arguments. Similarly, there is a lack of support in the US for liberal talk radio, while conservatives tune into Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh in their millions because of their outraged, almost angry style.

Worryingly, Trump has appointed Stephen Bannon as White House Chief Strategist following his role in the successful campaign. He was a founding member of Breitbart News and former executive chairman until he stepped down in 2016. The site was described by Bannon himself as “the platform for the alt-right”, while The New York Times said the organisation is a source of controversy “over material that has been called misogynist, xenophobic and racist.” Much of the news on the website is regarded as fake or largely untrue by many European countries, Germany being a strong advocate against its content. It was clear during the election that Breitbart was a tool used by Trump to garner support among conservative supporters, and it is a worrying sign that a liar like Bannon can have such a powerful position in the new administration.

“I think the blurring between the Trump campaign and Breitbart and even just calling Breitbart a news organisation is sort of odd in itself,” Dr Finlay explains, “It is a place where people go to get fired up. You’re unlikely to go on Breitbart if you’re African American or a Democrat. I think that bringing someone like Stephen Bannon into the White House is really concerning in some ways. It’s a part of Trump’s populist right wing campaign that led to the role that fake news played and will continue to play now that Trump has unlocked the secret to at least temporary political success.”

Closer to Home

Fake news seems to have permeated through US culture, and in the last few weeks we have even seen unfounded attacks on Trump, which will alienate conservative voters further. At Trump’s news conference this month defending his ties with Russia, he refused to take a question from CNN, describing the organisation as ‘fake news’. He then proceeded to take questions from Breitbart, again showing his incredible talent for turning a weakness into a strength. He has solidified the notion that the world is out to get him and his supporters and this recent controversy and his use of buzzwords will only go to further his fervent following among conservatives.

Could fake news potentially affect an election in Ireland or Europe? The recent rise of populist right wing parties in France, Germany and Austria would suggest that similar stories that were seen in the US may affect the thoughts of Europeans. Brexit was a clear example of fake news affecting democracy, because we now know that many of the promises made by the Leave side were completely Facebookfalse and newspapers such as The Sun printed false articles galore, mainly on the subject of immigration. However Dr Finlay believes that Ireland’s neighbourly culture, combined with our moderate media outlets and viewpoints, removes much of the danger associated with fake news.

“One of the things I’m particularly struck by in Ireland is the engagement with politicians in such a small society. Anyone can go see their TD or you can email them and they will respond. Similarly I think the General Election was carried out in a relatively sober manner in the sense of a high level of public discourse. Certainly the 2011 election, which followed the major financial crisis, was a pretty adult election compared to the US.”

“So I think Ireland has other problems: the media in Ireland has a pretty ideological slant. There are a lot of different outlets with a lot of on air debate on the radio and Ireland is somewhat free of the fake news phenomenon. Probably because just about everybody knows someone who knows the real story.”

Coupled with this notion of community, Ireland has much stricter defamation and libel laws than the US. Free speech under the First Amendment is a highly protected right, but in Ireland, the UK and Europe you’re much more vulnerable to lawsuits. For example, in Germany and France, denying the holocaust is a crime.

While it is unlikely that fake news stories will affect elections here, the result of the US election certainly will affect Ireland. This is why fake stories should be a real concern for us, because it has already begun to erode the concept of democracy worldwide. On Facebook, think twice before sharing a news story or telling your friends about it. Find out if it is from a credible news source, and if it isn’t, report it (one of the reasons for reporting a post under the ‘It shouldn’t be on Facebook’ heading is ‘It’s a false news story’.

Truthful media is the cornerstone of democracy and our modern society; without it we have no watchdog to protect us and less information to formulate our own opinions with. Fake news destroys this concept and this has become even more prevalent in the age of social media and the internet. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true.”