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What Fake French News Looks Like (to a British Consulting Company)

Along with reports that APT 28 targeted Emmanuel Macron that don’t prominently reveal that Macron believes he withstood the efforts to phish his campaign, the post-mortem on the first round of the French election has also focused on the fake news that supported Marine Le Pen.

As a result, this study — the headline from which claimed 25% of links shared during the French election pointed to fake news — has gotten a lot of attention.

The study, completed by a British consulting firm (though the lead on the study is a former French journalist) and released in full only in English, is as interesting for its assumptions as anything else.

Engagement studies aren’t clear what they’re showing, but this one is aware of that

Before I explain why, let me stipulate that accept the report’s conclusion that a ton of Le Pen supporters (though it doesn’t approach it from that direction) relied on fake news and/or Russian sources. The methodology appears to suffer from the same problem some of BuzzFeed’s reporting on fake news does, in that it doesn’t measure the value of shared news, but at least it admits that methodological problem (and promises to discuss it at more length in a follow-up).

Sharing is the overt act of taking an article or video or image that one sees in social media and, literally, sharing it digitally with one’s own followers or even into the public domain. Sharing therefore implies an elevated level of interest: people share articles that they feel others should see. While there are tools that help us track and quantify how many articles are shared, they cannot explain the sharer’s intention. It seems plausible, particularly in a political context, that sharing implies endorsement, yet even this is problematic as sharing can often imply shock and disagreement. In the third instalment [sic] of this study, Bakamo will explore in depth the extent to which people agree or disagree with what they share, but for this report (and the second, updated version), the simple act of sharing—whatever the intention—is nonetheless highly relevant. It provides a way of gauging activity and engagement.

[snip]

These are the “likes” or “shares” in Facebook, or “favourites” or “retweets” in Twitter. While these can be counted, we do not know whether the person has actually clicked through to read the content being shared before they like or retweet. This information is only available to the account owner. One of the questions that is often raised about social media is whether users do indeed read the article or respond simply to the headlines that appear in their newsfeed. We are unable to comment on this.

In real word terms, engagement can be two things. It can be agreement—whether reflexive or reflective—with the content shared. It can also, however, be disagreement: Facebook’s nuanced “like” system (in which anger is a valid form of engagement) or Twitter’s citations that enable a user to comment on the link while sharing it both permit these negative expressions.

The study is perhaps most interesting for what it shows about the differing sharing habits from different parts of its media economy, with no overlap between those who share what it deems “traditional” media and those who share what I’d deem conspiracist media. That finding, more than almost any other one, suggests what might be needed to engage in a dialogue across these clusters. Ultimately, what the study shows is increased media polarization not on partisan grounds, but on response to globalization.

Russian media looks very important when you only track Russian media

As I noted, one of the headlines that has been taken away from this study is that Le Pen voters shared a lot of Russian news sources — and I don’t contest that.

But there are two interesting details about how that finding came to be that important to this study.

First, the study defines everything in contradistinction from what it calls “traditional” media.

There are broad five sections of the Media Map. They are defined by their editorial distance from traditional media narratives. The less accepting a source is of traditional media narratives, the farther away it is (spatially) on the Map.

In the section defining traditional media, the study focuses on establishment and commercialism (including advertising), even while pointing to — but not proving — that all traditional media “adher[e] to journalistic standards” (which is perhaps a fairer assumption still in France than in the US or UK, but nevertheless it is an assumption).

This section of the Media Map is populated by media sources that belong to the established commercial and conventional media landscape, such as websites of national and regional newspapers, TV and radio stations, online portals adhering to journalistic standards, and news aggregators.

It does this, but insists that this structure that privileges “traditional” media without proving that it merits that privilege is not meant to “pass moral judgement or to define what is ‘good’ or ‘evil’.”

Most interesting of all, the study includes — without detail or interrogation — international media sources “exhibiting these same characteristics” in its traditional media category.

These are principally France-based sources; however, French-speaking international media sources exhibiting these same characteristics were also placed into the Traditional Media section.

But, having defined some international news sources as “traditional,” the study then uses Russian influence as a measure of whether a media cluster was non-traditional.

The analysis only identified foreign influence connected with Russia. No other foreign source of influence was detected.

It did this — measuring Russian influence as a measure of non-traditional status — even though the study showed this was true primarily on the hard right and among conspiracists.

Syria as a measure of journalistic standards

Among the other kinds of content that this study measures, it repeatedly describes how those outlets it has clustered as non-traditional (primarily those it calls reframing outlets) deal with Syria.

It asserts that those who treat Bashar al-Assad as a “protagonist” in the Syrian civil war as being influenced by Russian sources.

A dominant theme reflected by sources where Russian influence is detected is the war in Syria, the various actors involved, and the refugee crisis. In these articles, Bachar Assad becomes the protagonist, a perspective opposite to that which is reported by traditional media. Articles touching on refugees and migrants tend to reinforce anti-Islam and anti-migrant positions.

The anti-imperialists focus on Trump’s ineffectual missile strike on Syria which — the study concludes — must derive from Russian influence.

Trump’s “téléréalité” attack on Syria is a more recent example of content in this cluster. This is not surprising, however, as Russian influence is detectable on a number of sites in this cluster.

It defines conspiracists as such because they say the US supports terrorist groups (and also because they portray Assad as trustworthy).

Syria is an important theme in this cluster. Per these sources, and contrary to reports in traditional media, the Western powers are supporting the terrorist, while Bashar Assad is trustworthy and tolerant leader, as witness reports prove.

The pro-Islam non-traditional (!!) cluster is defined not because of its distance from “traditional” news (which the study finds it generally is not) but in part because its outlets suggest the US has been supporting Assad.

American imperialism is another dominant theme in this cluster, driven by the belief that the US has been secretly supporting the Assad regime.

You can see, now, the problem here. It is a demonstrable fact that America’s covert funding did, for some time, support rebel groups that worked alongside Al Qaeda affiliates (and predictably and with the involvement of America’s Sunni allies saw supplies funneled to al Qaeda or ISIS as a result). It is also the case that both historically (when the US was rendering Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured) and as an interim measure to forestall the complete collapse of Syria under Obama, the US’ opposition to Assad has been half-hearted, which may not be support but certainly stopped short of condemnation for his atrocities.

And while we’re not supposed to talk about these things — and don’t, in part, because they are an openly acknowledged aspect of our covert operations — they are a better representation of the complex clusterfuck of American intervention in Syria than one might get — say — from the French edition of the BBC. They are, of course, similar to the American “traditional” news insistence that Obama has done “nothing” in Syria, long after Chuck Hagel confirmed our “covert” operations there. Both because the reality is too complex to discuss easily, and because there is a “tradition” of not reporting on even the most obvious covert actions if done by the US, Syria is a subject on which almost no one is providing an adequately complex picture of what is going on.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the measure of truth on Syria has become the simplified narrative you’re supposed to believe, not what the complexity of the facts show. And that’s before you get to where we are now, pretending to be allied with both Turkey and the Kurds they’re shooting at.

The shock at the breakdown of the left-right distinction

What’s most fascinating about the study, however, is the seeming distress with which it observes that “reframing” media — outlets it claims is reinterpreting the real news — doesn’t break down into a neat left-right axis.

Media sources in the Reframe section share the motivation to counter the Traditional Media narrative. The media sources see themselves as part of a struggle to “reinform” readers of the real contexts and meanings hidden from them when they are informed by Traditional Media sources. This section breaks with the traditions of journalism, expresses radical opinions, and refers to both traditional and alternative sources to craft a disruptive narrative. While there is still a left-right distinction in this section, a new narrative frame emerges where content is positioned as being for or against globalisation and not in left-right terms. Indeed, the further away media sources are from the Traditional section, the less a conventional left-right attribution is possible.

[snip]

The other narrative frame detectable through content analysis is the more recent development referred to in this study as the global versus local narrative frame. Content published in this narrative frame is positioned as being for or against globalisation and not in left-right terms. Indeed, the further away media sources are from the Traditional section, the less a conventional left-right attribution is possible. While there are media sources in the Reframe section on both on the hard right and hard left sides, they converge in the global versus local narrative frame. They take concepts from both left and right, but reframe them in a global-local context. One can find left or right leanings of media sources located in the middle of Reframe section, but this mainly relates to attitudes about Islam and migrants. Otherwise, left and right leaning media sources in the Reframe section share one common enemy: globalisation and the liberal economics that is associated with it.

Now, I think some of the study’s clustering is artificial to create this split (for example, in the way it treats environmentalism as an extend rather than reframe cluster).

But even more, I find the confusion fascinating. Particularly in the absence of — as it did for Syria coverage — any indication of what is considered the “true” or “false” news about globalization. Opposition to globalization, as such, is the marker, not a measure of whether an outlet is reporting in factual manner on the status and impact and success at delivering the goals of globalization.

And if the patterns of sharing in the study are in fact accurate, what the study actually shows is that the ideologies of globalization and nationalism have become completely incoherent to each other. And purveyors of globalization as the “traditional” view do not, here, consider the status of globalization (on either side) as a matter of truth or falseness, as a measure whether the media outlet taking a side in favor of or against globalization adheres to the truth.

I’ve written a fair amount of the failure of American ideology — and of the confusion among priests of that ideology as it no longer exacts unquestioning sway.

This study on fake news in France completed by a British consulting company in English is very much a symptom of that process.

But the Cold War is outdated!

Which brings me to the funniest part of the paper. As noted above, the paper claims that anti-imperialists are influenced by Russian sources, which it explains for criticism of Trump’s Patriot missile strike on Syria. But it’s actually talking about what it calls a rump Communist Cold War ideology.

This cluster contains the remains of the traditional Communist groupings. They publish articles on the imperialist system. They concentrate on foreign politics and ex-Third World countries. They frame their worldview through a Cold War logic: they see the West (mainly the US) versus the East, embodied by Russia. Russia is idolised, hence these sites have a visible anti-American and antiZionist stance. The antiquated nature of a Cold War frame given the geo-political transformations of the last 25 years means these sources are often forced to borrow ideas from the extreme right.

Whatever the merit in its analysis here, consider what it means for a study the assumptions of which treat Russian influence as a special kind of international influence, even while conducting no reflection on whether the globalization/nationalization polarization it finds so striking can be measured in terms of fact claims.

The new Cold War seems unaware that the old Cold War isn’t so out of fashion after all.

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.

BuzzFeed Now Looking to Institutional Dems to Police a Phantom Surge of Lefty Fake News

One of my many concerns about the fake fake news scare is that it provides a way to discredit alternative voices, as the PropOrNot effort tried to discredit a number of superb outlets that don’t happen to share PropOrNot’s Neocon approach to Syria. BuzzFeed, in its seemingly unquenchable desire to generate buzz by inflating the threat of fake news, takes that a step further by turning to institutional Democratic outlets — outlets whose credibility got damaged by Hillary’s catastrophic loss — to police an alleged surge of fake news on the left.

First, consider its evidence for a surge in Democrats embracing fake news.

There are new cases daily. Suspicions about his 2020 reelection filing. Theories about the “regime’s” plan for a “coup d’état against the United States” (complete with Day After Tomorrow imagery of New York City buried in snow). Stories based on an unverified Twitter account offering supposed “secrets” from “rogue” White House staffers (followed by more than 650,000 people). Even theories about the Twitter account (“Russian disinformation”).

Since the election, the debunking website Snopes has monitored a growing list of fake news articles aimed at liberals, shooting down stories about a new law to charge protesters with terrorism, a plan to turn the USS Enterprise into a floating casino, and a claim that Vice President Mike Pence put himself through gay conversion therapy.

[snip]

Panicky liberal memes have cascaded across the internet in recent weeks, like an Instagram post regarding Steve Bannon’s powers on the National Security Council shared by a celebrity stylist and actress. Some trolls have even found success making fake news specifically aimed at tricking conservatives.

Let’s take the purported “fake news” story BuzzFeed bases its argument on, one by one:

  • debunking of a Twitter thread (not a finished news piece) of the conclusions about a discovery that Trump, very unusually for a President, filed for reelection immediately after inauguration. There’s no debunking that Trump filed his candidacy, nor that it is unusual, nor, even, that Trump is fundraising off it. That’s not fake news. It’s an attempt to figure out why Trump is doing something unusual, with a fact-checking process happening in the Twitter discussion.
  • An admittedly overblown Medium post about some of the shady things Trump has done, as well as the much rumored claim that the reported sale of 19% of Rosneft confirms the Trump dossier claim that Carter Page would get part of Rosneft if he could arrange the lifting of US sanctions on Russia. The story’s treatment — and especially it’s use of the word “coup” — is silly, but the underlying question of whether Trump will instruct agencies to ignore the law, as already happened in limited form at Dulles over the first weekend of the Muslim ban, as well as the question of how Trump intends to target people of color, is a real one.
  • A story basically talking about the formation of the RoguePotusStaff Twitter account that notes prominently that “there’s no way to verify the authenticity of the newly minted Twitter channel.” BuzzFeed provided no evidence this was being preferentially shared by people on the left.
  • A Twitter thread speculating, based off linguistic analysis, that the RoguePotusStaff account might be Russian disinformation. Again, BuzzFeed made no claims about who was responding to this thread.
  • A debunking of a claim posted in November on a conservative fake news site claiming that protestors would get charged with terrorism.
  • A “debunking” of a satirical story from November posted in the Duffel Blog claiming Trump was going to repurpose an aircraft carrier.
  • A debunking of a fake news story from November claim that Mike Pence had put himself through gay conversion therapy that notes Pence did, indeed, push gay conversation therapy.
  • A liberal trolling effort aimed at conservatives, which started in December, claimed that Trump had removed symbols of Islam from the White House.
  • An instagram post that (BuzzFeed snottily notes) got shared by an actress and a stylist reporting the true fact that Bannon had been added to the National Security Council and noting the arguably true fact that the NSC reviews the kill list including the possibility of targeting Americans (technically, the targeted killing review team installed by Obama is not coincident with the NSC, but it does overlap significantly, and Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted by that process).

Most of these things are not news! Most are not pretending to be news! The only single thing included among BuzzFeed’s “proof” that lefties are resorting to fake news that would support that claim is the Mike Pence story. And to get there, BuzzFeed has to pretend that the Duffel Blog is not explicitly satire, that multiple cases of conservative fake news are lefty fake news, that well-considered discussions on Twitter are fake news, and that we all have to stop following RoguePotusStaff because we don’t know whether its writers are really Rogue POTUS staffers or not.

It’s a shoddy series of claims that BuzzFeed should be embarrassed about making. Effectively, it is calling discussion and satire — including correction — fake news.

To BuzzFeed’s credit, after months of mis-stating what a poll it did revealed — BuzzFeed had been claiming that 75% of people believe fake news, but in reality the poll showed that 75% of those who recall fake news believe it — BuzzFeed finally got that, at least, correct. Bravo BuzzFeed!

But other than that, they’ve got almost nothing here.

Believe it or not, that’s not the most offensive part of this story. Having invented a lefty fake news problem out of satire and Twitter discussions, BuzzFeed then decided it’s important what official Democratic sources thing about it. While one Bernie source said it was best to ignore these things (another said it was a real problem), BuzzFeed framed other responses in terms of left protests of elected officials.

Democratic operatives and staffers at left-leaning media outlets predict that viral anti-Trump conspiracy theories will ultimately distract from real reporting about the administration, undermining legitimate causes for outrage on the left over what the administration is actually doing.

Still, for now, it’s a conversation that exists almost entirely outside the political class itself. Elected officials are not hawking phony stories as true, like Trump’s calls to investigate widespread voter fraud during the election. But that remove poses its own problems for leaders with no obvious way to dismantle widely shared false stories.

“It exists on the left and that’s a problem because it misinforms people,” said Judd Legum, editor in chief of progressive news site ThinkProgress. “That’s harmful in other ways because the time you’re spending talking about that, you could spend talking about other stuff.”

“It contributes to a broader environment of distrust, and it sort of accelerates the post-factual nature of our times,” said Teddy Goff, co-founder of Precision Strategies and a former senior aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “Fake news is pretty damaging no matter who it benefits politically. No one on the left should think we ought to be replicating the fake news tactics on the right.”

[snip]

The online energy also raises questions about the party’s relationship with its base. In recent weeks, progressives have pressured lawmakers to adopt a tougher stance toward Trump and join ranks with the millions of protesters who marched over inauguration weekend.

The two top-ranking Democrats in Washington, Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, have both signaled an openness to working on legislation with Trump. Last week, protests formed outside Schumer’s home in Brooklyn. And among progressive activists online, Pelosi was met with vehement push-back after saying the party has a “responsibility to the American people to find our common ground.”

“Elected Democrats are stuck struggling to keep ahead of the anger that the base is feeling right now,” said [Jim] Manley, the former Reid adviser. “It’s very palpable.”

First, BuzzFeed is wrong in saying elected officials are not hawking phony stories as true. One reason the claim that Wikileaks doctored Democratic emails got so much traction is because Dems repeatedly made that claim (and as I’ve noted, Hillary quickly escalated the Alfa News story that most media outlets rejected as problematic).

Worse, BuzzFeed deems Democratic operatives and staffers as somehow chosen to decide what are “legitimate causes for outrage on the left over what the administration is actually doing.” It further suggests there’s a connection between people protesting elected leaders and fake news.

Finally, BuzzFeed shows absolutely no self-awareness about the people it seeks about and the stories they’ve pitched. Consider: Manley is in the very immediate vicinity of the people who got the WaPo to push the claim that CIA had decided Russia hacked the DNC in order to get Trump elected, a conclusion that — we’ve subsequently learned — is the single one any agency in the IC (in this case, the NSA) expressed less confidence in. Moreover, we know that Harry Reid spent months trying to get the FBI to reveal details included in the Trump dossier that no one has been able to confirm. And when the dossier was released, Judd Legum magnified it himself, in much the same way the Medium post did the Rosneft claim.

Oh, and as a reminder: BuzzFeed was the entity that decided it was a good idea to publish an unverified intelligence dossier in the first place!

I mean, if the institutional Dems that BuzzFeed has deemed the arbiters of what is “legitimate” to talk about think the unproven Russian dossier counts, then BuzzFeed has even less in its claim about fake news.

Nevertheless, it thought it was a good idea to assign two journalists to make thinly substantiated claims about a lefty news problem that it then used to police whether lefty protestors are doing the right thing.

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.

On “Fake News”

I’ve been getting into multiple Twitter fights about the term “fake news” of late, a topic about which I feel strongly but which I don’t have time to reargue over and over. So here are the reasons I find the term “fake news” to be counterproductive, even aside from the way Washington Post magnified it with the PropOrNot campaign amidst a series of badly reported articles on Russia that failed WaPo’s own standards of “fake news.”

Most people who use the term “fake news” seem to be fetishizing something they call “news.” By that, they usually mean the pursuit of “the truth” within an editor-and-reporter system of “professional” news reporting. Even in 2017, they treat that term “news” as if it escapes all biases, with some still endorsing the idea that “objectivity” is the best route to “truth,” even in spite of the way “objectivity” has increasingly imposed a kind of both-sides false equivalence that the right has used to move the Overton window in recent years.

I’ve got news (heh) for you America. What we call “news” is one temporally and geographically contingent genre of what gets packaged as “news.” Much of the world doesn’t produce the kind of news we do, and for good parts of our own history, we didn’t either. Objectivity was invented as a marketing ploy. It is true that during a period of elite consensus, news that we treated as objective succeeded in creating a unifying national narrative of what most white people believed to be true, and that narrative was tremendously valuable to ensure the working of our democracy. But even there, “objectivity” had a way of enforcing centrism. It excluded most women and people of color and often excluded working class people. It excluded the “truth” of what the US did overseas. It thrived in a world of limited broadcast news outlets. In that sense, the golden age of objective news depended on a great deal of limits to the marketplace of ideas, largely chosen by the gatekeeping function of white male elitism.

And, probably starting at the moment Walter Cronkite figured out the Vietnam War was a big myth, that elite narrative started developing cracks.

But several things have disrupted what we fetishize as news since them. Importantly, news outlets started demanding major profits, which changed both the emphasis on reporting and the measure of success. Cable news, starting especially with Fox but definitely extending to MSNBC, aspired to achieve buzz, and even explicitly political outcomes, bringing US news much closer to what a lot of advanced democracies have — politicized news.

And all that’s before 2002, what I regard as a key year in this history. Not only was traditional news struggling in the face of heightened profit expectations even as the Internet undercut the press’ traditional revenue model. But at a time of crisis in the financial model of the “news,” the press catastrophically blew the Iraq War, and did so at a time when people like me were able to write “news” outside of the strictures of the reporter-and-editor arrangement.

I actually think, in an earlier era, the government would have been able to get away with its Iraq War lies, because there wouldn’t be outlets documenting the errors, and there wouldn’t have been ready alternatives to a model that proved susceptible to manipulation. There might eventually have been a Cronkite moment in the Iraq War, too, but it would have been about the conduct of the war, not also about the gaming of the “news” process to create the war. But because there was competition, we saw the Iraq War as a journalistic failure when we didn’t see earlier journalistic complicity in American foreign policy as such.

Since then, of course, the underlying market has continued to change. Optimistically, new outlets have arisen. Some of them — perhaps most notably HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Gawker before Peter Thiel killed it — have catered to the financial opportunities of the Internet, paying for real journalism in part with clickbait stories that draw traffic (which is just a different kind of subsidy than the family-owned project that traditional newspapers often relied on, and these outlets also rely on other subsidies). I’m pretty excited by some of the journalism BuzzFeed is doing right now, but it’s worth reflecting their very name nods to clickbait.

More importantly, the “center” of our national — indeed, global — discourse shifted from elite reporter-and-editor newspapers to social media, and various companies — almost entirely American — came to occupy dominant positions in that economy. That comes with the good and the bad. It permits the formulation of broader networks; it permits crisis on the other side of the globe to become news over here, in some but not all spaces, it permits women and people of color to engage on an equal footing with people previously deemed the elite (though very urgent digital divide issues still leave billions outside this discussion). It allows our spooks to access information that Russia needs to hack to get with a few clicks of a button. It also means the former elite narrative has to compete with other bubbles, most of which are not healthy and many of which are downright destructive. It fosters abuse.

But the really important thing is that the elite reporter-and-editor oligopoly was replaced with a marketplace driven by a perverse marriage of our human psychology and data manipulation (and often, secret algorithms). Even assuming net neutrality, most existing discourse exists in that marketplace. That reality has negative effects on everything, from financially strapped reporter-and-editor outlets increasingly chasing clicks to Macedonian teenagers inventing stories to make money to attention spans that no longer get trained for long reads and critical thinking.

The other thing to remember about this historical narrative is that there have always been stories pretending to present the real world that were not in fact the real world. Always. Always always always. Indeed, there are academic arguments that our concept of “fiction” actually arises out of a necessary legal classification for what gets published in the newspaper. “Facts” were insults of the king you could go to prison for. “Fiction” was stories about kings that weren’t true and therefore wouldn’t get you prison time (obviously, really authoritarian regimes don’t honor this distinction, which is an important lesson in their contingency). I have been told that fact/fiction moment didn’t happen in all countries, and it happened at different times in different countries (roughly tied, in my opinion, to the moment when the government had to sustain legitimacy via the press).

But even after that fact/fiction moment, you would always see factual stories intermingling with stuff so sensational that we would never regard it as true. But such sensational not-true stories definitely helped to sell newspapers. Most people don’t know this because we generally learn a story via which our fetishized objective news is the end result of a process of earlier news, but news outlets — at least in the absence of heavy state censorship — have always been very heterogeneous.

As many of you know, a big part of my dissertation covered actual fiction in newspapers. The Count of Monte-Cristo, for example, was published in France’s then equivalent of the WSJ. It wasn’t the only story about an all powerful figure with ties to Napoleon Bonaparte that delivered justice that appeared in newspapers of the day. Every newspaper offered competing versions, and those sold newspapers at a moment of increasing industrialization of the press in France. But even at a time when the “news” section of the newspaper presented largely curations of parliamentary debates, everything else ran the gamut from “fiction,” to sensational stuff (often reporting on technology or colonies), to columns to advertisements pretending to be news.

After 1848 and 1851, the literary establishment put out alarmed calls to discipline the literary sphere, which led to changes that made such narratives less accessible to the kind of people who might overthrow a king. That was the “fictional narrative” panic of the time, one justified by events of 1848.

Anyway, if you don’t believe me that there has always been fake news, just go to a checkout line and read the National Enquirer, which sometimes does cover people like Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel. “But people know that’s fake news!” people say. Not all, and not all care. It turns out, some people like to consume fictional narratives (I have actually yet to see analysis of how many people don’t realize or care that today’s Internet fake news is not true). In fact, everyone likes to consume fictional narratives — it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human — but some of us believe there are norms about whether fictional narratives should be allowed to influence how we engage in politics.

Not that that has ever stopped people from letting religion — a largely fictional narrative — dictate political decisions.

So to sum up this part of my argument: First, the history of journalism is about the history of certain market conditions, conditions which always get at least influenced by the state, but which in so-called capitalist countries also tend to produce bottle necks of power. In the 50s, it was the elite. Now it’s Silicon Valley. And that’s true not just here! The bottle-neck of power for much of the world is Silicon Valley. To understand what dictates the kinds of stories you get from a particular media environment, you need to understand where the bottle-necks are. Today’s bottle-neck has created both what people like to call “fake news” and a whole bunch of other toxins.

But also, there has never been a time in media where not-true stories didn’t comingle with true stories, and at many times in history the lines between them were not clear to many consumers. Plus, not-true stories, of a variety of types, can often have a more powerful influence than true ones (think about how much our national security state likes series like 24). Humans are wired for narrative, not for true or false narrative.

Which brings us to what some people are calling “fake news” — as if both “fake” and “news” aren’t just contingent terms across the span of media — and insisting it has never existed before. These people suggest the advent of deliberately false narratives, produced both by partisans, entrepreneurs gaming ad networks, as well as state actors trying to influence our politics, narratives that feed on human proclivity for sensationalism (though stories from this year showed Trump supporters had more of this than Hillary supporters) served via the Internet, are a new and unique threat, and possibly the biggest threat in our media environment right now.

Let me make clear: I do think it’s a threat, especially in an era where local trusted news is largely defunct. I think it is especially concerning because powers of the far right are using it to great effect. But I think pretending this is a unique moment in history — aside from the characteristics of the marketplace — obscures the areas (aside from funding basic education and otherwise fostering critical thinking) that can most effectively combat it. I especially encourage doing what we can to disrupt the bottle-neck — one that happens to be in Silicon Valley — that plays on human nature. Google, Facebook, and Germany have all taken initial steps which may limit the toxins that get spread via a very American bottle-neck.

I’m actually more worried about the manipulation of which stories get fed by big data. Trump claims to have used it to drive down turnout; and the first he worked with is part of a larger information management company. The far right is probably achieving more with these tailored messages than Vladimir Putin is with his paid trolls.

The thing is: the antidote to both of these problems is to fix the bottle-neck.

But I also think that the most damaging non-true news story of the year was Bret Baier’s claim that Hillary was going to be indicted, as even after it was retracted it magnified the damage of Jim Comey’s interventions. I always raise that in Twitter debates, and people tell me oh that’s just bad journalism not fake news. It was a deliberate manipulation of the news delivery system (presumably by FBI Agents) in the same way the manipulation of Facebooks algorithms feeds so-called fake news. But it had more impact because more people saw it and people may retain news delivered as news more. It remains a cinch to manipulate the reporter-and-editor news process (particularly in an era driven by clicks and sensationalism and scoops), and that is at least as major a threat to democracy as non-elites consuming made up stories about the Pope.

I’ll add that there are special categories of non-factual news that deserve notice. Much stock market reporting, especially in the age of financialization, is just made up hocus pocus designed to keep the schlubs whom the elite profit off of in the market. And much reporting on our secret foreign policy deliberately reports stuff the reporter knows not to be true. David Sanger’s recent amnesia of his own reporting on StuxNet is a hilarious example of this, as is all the Syria reporting that pretends we haven’t intervened there. Frankly, even aside from the more famous failures, a lot of Russian coverage obscures reality, which discredits reports on what is a serious issue. I raise these special categories because they are the kind of non-true news that elites endorse, and as such don’t raise the alarm that Macedonian teenagers making a buck do.

The latest panic about “fake news” — Trump’s labeling of CNN and Buzzfeed as such for disseminating the dossier that media outlets chose not to disseminate during the election — suffers from some of the same characteristics, largely because parts of it remain shrouded in clandestine networks (and because the provenance remains unclear). If American power relies (as it increasingly does) on secrets and even outright lies, who’s to blame the proles for inventing their own narratives, just like the elite do?

Two final points.

First, underlying most of this argument is an argument about what happens when you subject the telling of true stories to certain conditions of capitalism. There is often a tension in this process, as capitalism may make “news” (and therefore full participation in democracy) available to more people, but to popularize that news, businesses do things that taint the elite’s idealized notion of what true story telling in a democracy should be. Furthermore, at no moment in history I’m aware of has there been a true “open” market for news. It is always limited by the scarcity of outlets and bandwidth, by laws, by media ownership patterns, and by the historically contingent bottle-necks that dictate what kind of news may be delivered most profitably. One reason I loathe the term “fake news” is because its users think the answer lies in non-elite consumers or in producers and not in the marketplace itself, a marketplace created in and largely still benefitting the US. If “fake news” is a problem, then it’s a condemnation of the marketplace of ideas largely created by the US and elites in the US need to attend to that.

Finally, one reason there is such a panic about “fake news” is because the western ideology of neoliberalism has failed. It has led to increased authoritarianism, decreased quality of life in developed countries (but not parts of Africa and other developing nations), and it has led to serial destabilizing wars along with the refugee crises that further destabilize Europe. It has failed in the same way that communism failed before it, but the elites backing it haven’t figured this out yet. I’ll write more on this (Ian Welsh has been doing good work here). All details of the media environment aside, this has disrupted the value-laden system in which “truth” exists, creating a great deal of panic and confusion among the elite that expects itself to lead the way out of this morass. Part of what we’re seeing in “fake news” panic stems from that, as well as a continued disinterest in accountability for the underlying policies — the Iraq War and the Wall Street crash and aftermath especially — enabled by failures in our elite media environment. But our media environment is likely to be contested until such time as a viable ideology forms to replace failed neoliberalism. Sadly, that ideology will be Trumpism unless the elite starts making the world a better place for average folks. Instead, the elite is policing discourse-making by claiming other things — the bad true and false narratives it, itself, doesn’t propagate — as illegitimate.

“Fake news” is a problem. But it is a minor problem compared to our other discursive problems.

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.

The Bible Still Outperforms Facebook in Delivering Fake News

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We’ve reached the stage where articles about fake news themselves engage in fake news tactics.

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman — who has written many of the stories on fake news in recent weeks — had Ipsos do a poll querying whether or not people believed some of the real and fake news headlines that got shared around during the election. He presented the results, in both tweets and his BuzzFeed article on the results, this way:

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But that’s not actually what the poll showed, though a number of people — even some of the people who are the most dedicated serious commentators on fake news — seemed to believe the headline without reading the article closely (that is, they treated it precisely like fake news consumers might, including sharing it before they had evaluated it critically).

Rather, the poll showed that of the people who remember a given headline, 75% believed it. But only about 20% remembered any of these headlines (which had been shared months earlier). For example, 72% of the people who remembered the claim that an FBI Agent had been found dead believed it, but only 22% actually remembered it; so just 16% of those surveyed remembered and believed it. The recall rate is worse for the stories with higher belief rates. Just 12% of respondents remembered and believed the claim that Trump sent his own plane to rescue stranded marines. Just 8% remembered and believed the story that Jim Comey had a Trump sign in his front yard, and that made up just 123 people out of a sample of 1809 surveyed.

Furthermore, with just one exception, people recalled the real news stories tested more than they did the fake and with one laudable exception (that Trump would protect LGBTQ citizens; it is “true” that he said it but likely “false” that he means it), people believed real news at rates higher than they did fake. The most people — 22% — recalled the fake story about the FBI Agent, comparable to the 23% who believed some real story about girl-on-girl pictures involving Melania. But 34% remembered Trump would “absolutely” register Muslims and 57% remembered Trump’s claim he wasn’t going to take a salary.

The exception should be an exception, because Buzzfeed shouldn’t have treated it as news anyway. Just 11% recalled Mike Morell’s endorsement, titled “I ran the CIA. Now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton,” which appeared in NYT’s opinion section. All endorsements should be considered opinion, and this one happens to be from a proven liar with a history of torture apology, so for the rare people who knew anything about Morell, I would hope his opinion would carry limited weight.

What all of this shows is that the fake news headline claims Buzzfeed made last month, that “Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” should be revised. What that clickbait story actually showed was that the top fake stories received more “engagement” — shares, reactions, and comments — on Facebook than the top real news. But the last paragraph of the article admitted that might not be the same as actual consumption or even non-Facebook moderated engagement.

It’s important to note that Facebook engagement does not necessarily translate into traffic. This analysis was focused on how the best-performing fake news about the election compared with real news from major outlets on Facebook. It’s entirely possible — and likely — that the mainstream sites received more traffic to their top-performing Facebook content than the fake news sites did. As as the Facebook spokesman noted, large news sites overall see more engagement on Facebook than fake news sites.

What this newly reported poll at least suggests (one would need to do a more scientific study to test this hypothesis) is that even the most shared fake news was not really retained, whereas more of the real news was. And that’s true even in spite of the fact that Buzzfeed/Ipsos did not test the most popular real news (in reality this, too, is an opinion piece), “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” That’s a pity, because it’d be interesting to see how many and what kind of people remembered and believed that one.

Effectively, then, Buzzfeed was testing the most popular fake news (about the Pope endorsing Trump, with 960,000 engagements) against the third ranking real news (the Melania girl-on-girl story, with 531,000 engagements) and real news still performed better overall in terms of recall. Which would seem to suggest these Facebook engagements don’t actually track how much “news” — fake or not — people will consciously retain (I admit unconscious retention is probably an issue too).

Which is how I get to my claim that the Bible outperforms Facebook for spreading false news. After all, as recently as 2014, 42% of Americans believed in creationism, while just 19% believed in evolution. That number is changing quickly (importantly, as more purportedly fake news consuming youngsters who don’t consider themselves religious get asked). Nevertheless, a significantly larger chunk of the country believes that God plunked us down fully-formed into Eden than believe that an FBI Agent involved in the Clinton case died in a murder suicide.

We should expect more people to believe what they read in the Bible, because it is a story that gets reinforced week after week by people with some authority in the community. It also gets reinforced in institutions like the Creation Museum, where I took the picture of white Adam and Eve above. For people who believe in creationism, their religion is fundamentally tied to their self-identity in a way that politics might not be. It is precisely for that reason it provides important counterpoint to these fake news stories. Especially given the way that a preference for religious stories over scientific ones poisons so much of our ability to deal with crises like climate change.

Don’t get me wrong: algorithmically-delivered sensationalism is a problem (as are polls that get shared to make claims about headlines they don’t really support). But it is one of many problems with our politics, and the evidence from this poll actually suggests it isn’t yet the most urgent one.

Update: Pope Francis, who believes the notion of evolution can coexist with that of creation, just issued a statement calling those who spread shit news sinners.

Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly “Tertio” that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.

[snip]

“I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said.

Update: Matthew Ingram covers this issue at Fortune.

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.