How the “Fake News” Panic Fed Breitbart

In just about every piece I wrote on “fake news” in the last year, I argued that the most influential piece of fake news of the campaign came not from the Russians, but instead from Fox News, in the form of Bret Baier’s early November “scoop” that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted.

I was partly wrong about that claim. But substantially correct.

That’s the conclusion drawn by a report released by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center last week. The report showed that the key dynamic behind Trump’s win came from the asymmetric polarization of our media sphere, embodied most dramatically in the way that Breitbart not only created a bubble for conservatives, but affected the overall agenda of the press, particularly with immigration (a conclusion that is all the more important given Steve Bannon’s return to Breitbart just as white supremacist protests gather in intensity).

So I was correct that the most important fake news was coming from right wing sites. I just pointed to Fox News, instead of the increasingly dominant Breitbart (notably, while Baier retracted his indictment claim, Breitbart didn’t stop magnifying it).

Here’s what the report had to say about the “fake news” that many liberals instead focused on.

Our data suggest that the “fake news” framing of what happened in the 2016 campaign, which received much post-election attention, is a distraction. Moreover, it appears to reinforce and buy into a major theme of the Trump campaign: that news cannot be trusted. The wave of attention to fake news is grounded in a real phenomenon, but at least in the 2016 election it seems to have played a relatively small role in the overall scheme of things. We do indeed find stories in our data set that come from sites, like Ending the Fed, intended as political clickbait to make a profit from Facebook, often with no real interest in the political outcome. But while individual stories may have succeeded in getting attention, these stories are usually of tertiary significance. In a scan of the 100 most shared stories in our Twitter and Facebook sets, the most widely shared fake news stories (in this sense of profit-driven Facebook clickbait) were ranked 66th and 55th by Twitter and Facebook shares, respectively, and on both Twitter and Facebook only two of the top 100 stories were from such sites. Out of two million stories, that may seem significant, but in the scheme of an election, it seems more likely to have yielded returns to its propagators than to have actually swayed opinions in significant measure. When we look at our data week by week, prominent fake news stories of this “Macedonian” type are rare and were almost never among the most significant 10 or 20 stories of the week, much less the election as a whole. Disinformation and propaganda from dedicated partisan sites on both sides of the political divide played a much greater role in the election. It was more rampant, though, on the right than on the left, as it took root in the dominant partisan media on the right, including Breitbart, Daily Caller, and Fox News. Moreover, the most successful examples of these political clickbait stories are enmeshed in a network of sites that have already created, circulated, and validated a set of narrative lines and tropes familiar within their network. The clickbait sites merely repackage and retransmit these already widely shared stories. We document this dynamic for one of the most successful such political clickbait stories, published by Ending the Fed, in the last chapter of this report, and we put it in the context of the much more important role played by Breitbart, Fox News, and the Daily Caller in reorienting the public conversation after the Democratic convention around the asserted improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation.

Our observations suggest that fixing the American public sphere may be much harder than we would like. One feature of the more widely circulated explanations of our “post-truth” moment—fake news sites seeking Facebook advertising, Russia engaging in a propaganda war, or information overload leading confused voters to fail to distinguish facts from false or misleading reporting—is that these are clearly inconsistent with democratic values, and the need for interventions to respond to them is more or less indisputable. If profit-driven fake news is the problem, solutions like urging Facebook or Google to use technical mechanisms to identify fake news sites and silence them by denying them advertising revenue or downgrading the visibility of their sites seem, on their face, not to conflict with any democratic values. Similarly, if a foreign power is seeking to influence our democratic process by propagandistic means, then having the intelligence community determine how this is being done and stop it is normatively unproblematic. If readers are simply confused, then developing tools that will feed them fact-checking metrics while they select and read stories might help. These approaches may contribute to solving the disorientation in the public sphere, but our observations suggest that they will be working on the margins of the core challenge.

As the report notes, it would be easy if our news got poisoned chiefly by Russia or Macedonian teenagers, because that would be far easier to deal with than the fact that First Amendment protected free speech instead skewed our political debate so badly as to elect Trump. But addressing Russian propaganda or Facebook algorithms will still leave the underlying structure of a dangerously powerful and unhinged right wing noise machine intact.

Which makes “fake news,” like potential poll tampering even as state after state suppresses the vote of likely Democratic voters, another area where screaming about Russian influence distracts from the more proximate threat.

Or perhaps the focus on “fake news” is even worse. As the Berkman report notes, when rational observers spend inordinate time suggesting that fake news dominated the election when in fact sensational far right news did, it only normalizes the far right (and Trump) claims that the news is fake. Not to mention the way labeling further left, but totally legitimate, outlets as fake news normalized coverage even further to the right than the asymmetric environment already was.

Fake news is a problem — as is the increasing collapse in confidence in US ideology generally. But it’s not a bigger problem than Breitbart. And as Bannon returns to his natural lair, the left needs to turn its attention to the far harder, but far more important, challenge of Breitbart.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. bks says:

    Bret Baier is a snake of the lowest order.  During the early days of the Iraq war he frequently reported finds of WMD, all of which turned out to be <i>fake news</i>

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Faux news as distraction from reality gives us the distraction-based presidency of Donald Trump.  Poetic.

    I agree with your point that the bubble around media consumed by the radical right gives it a lock on a minority of voters, the kind for whom, it seems, no self-dealing, adulterous, embezzler of a faux preacher can ever be wrong.  That limits the number of votes the right has to win from others.  With the advent of supercomputer-based electioneering, that “radically” simplifies the task of obtaining majorities in quite a few districts, states, and possibly nationally. 

    The left should indeed wake up and smell the roses or it will find itself semi-permanently in the compost pile.

    One element of the right’s popularity is the vicarious thrill many get from the overt speech and violence of groups like neo-Nazis and the Klan.  The Guardian has a piece about how the Feds took down the Klan once and could do so again.

    I think it ignores the point of your piece.  It also ignores the capture of the Feds by both neoliberals and the right.  Then there’s the Supreme Court.  All the hate groups might need do is incorporate and their speech and status might be protected in perpetuity.

  3. Rugger9 says:

    The long-term process of entrenching RWNJs on the courts and legislatures has been going on a long time.  Rove mentioned putting together a permanent Republican majority, but the policies are bad enough that most citizens do not support them.  This is why the “fake news” operation is so necessary for the GOP, because they cannot run on the merits of their agenda.

    However, the GOP is also ensuring only the “right” people vote and are pulling out all of the stops to make sure it happens.  We saw this in the 2016 election, where the dubiously disenfranchised vote count was orders of magnitude above the margin for victory in almost all of the tipping point states.  Crosscheck’s fundamental flaws will be ignored by the vote commission and if it is put in place as its current form the system will  be manipulated to make sure the “right” people remain in charge.  Gerrymandering ensures a compliant House of Representatives, due to the legislatures drawing districts.  TX and NC are back in court about their gerrymanders.

    This is the last, best opportunity to stop the election theft process, beginning with a wave election in 2018.  Obama’s victory in 2008 was big enough that even GOP cheating couldn’t stop him, and who can forget Rove losing it on Faux News when Ohio stayed blue in 2012 (since he’d arranged the “fix” with Husted), due to what appears to be Anonymous’ intervention.  Paper ballots subject to audit.  Period.  The question about whether Breitbart will go after the GOP is not the right one.  They might do some pro-forma griping, but there is no other option to get their world view into policy (remember “Dr” Gorka and Miller are still there), since there is no way the Ds will help them.  But, if in a fantasy world, Breitbart does actually hit hard on the GOP, the wave that would result will be impressive.  Note that I said this occurs in the fantasy world. We have to register and get to the polls three voters for every two they kick off of the rolls, and that has to happen now.

    OT but not surprising, it appears the lobbyist at Junior’s meeting on June 9 was a well-connected spy.  We’ll see if Mueller hauls him in. https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/8/21/1692028/-Russian-Lobbyist-at-Trump-Tower-meeting-was-actually-asset-for-Russian-spy-services

  4. Mitchell says:

    Russian hacking at most fell far short of the harm done by corporate media reportage (which is to say, really, bullshit; questionable facts, no context) and Comey’s dilemma when faced with the revolting NYC FBI office. (A crumb of sympathy for Comey — notwithstanding making the wrong decision.)

    And speaking of mainstream reportage, yeah, I have to note with the emails that responsible reporting that cared about context would have sought to ascertain the harm done by Clinton’s use of a private server. Which apparently was nil, maybe less. Now, Comey’s awful decision and, again, the media’s ratings-obsessed irresponsibility, that’s something else. (Too — yet again — Donald wasn’t elected by numbers but by the old slaveowners’ Electoral College. Can’t argue that without it, Donald would still have been elected.)

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