Did you hear Mexico planned to close its border with the U.S. if Donald Trump was elected president? Did you see that Obama was planning to move to Canada? Or the stories about Hillary Clinton’s failing health, or about buses bringing paid protesters to anti-Trump rallies? How about the child-sex ring Clinton associates ran out of a D.C. pizza place?
Welcome to the world of “fake news” that distorted, and maybe undermined, the 2016 presidential campaign.
The story about Mexico closing the border came to us courtesy of Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who runs several fake news websites out of his apartment in Tblisi in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He posted it on Facebook and Google, generating enough clicks to his pro-Trump site to bring in a monthly haul of about $6,000.
Of course it wasn’t true, not that truth matters to Latsabidze. “For me, this is all about income, nothing more,” he told The New York Times.
The young Georgian made money off the Obama-moving-to-Canada story as well, which he stole from John Egan, a Canadian who told the Times it was meant as satire. Egan’s website, The Burrard Street Journal, displays a mix of real news and fake news, so it’s hard to say.
Both Egan and Latsabidze say they tried aiming some of their stories and sites at Clinton supporters, but they didn’t take the clickbait. Invent a story that makes Obama or the Clintons look bad, though, and the Trump backers eat it up.
People have spread rumors and lies about candidates for as long as we’ve had campaigns, but doing it for profit from another continent feels new. Buzzfeed traced 140 websites devoted to American politics — mostly aimed at Trump supporters — to a single small city in Macedonia, where teenagers peddle fake news to make real money. They dress up their sites to look legitimate — one I saw had a “abcnews.co” web address — sometimes hanging logos from well-known news organizations on their fake stories.
Fake news is a complicated ecosystem. The fake news is created by satirists, small-time hucksters in Eastern Europe, and ordinary folks who post “facts” without checking them out. It is amplified by Russian propaganda operatives, often through automated “bots” that sprinkle lies across social media networks. Website operators, motivated by both politics and profits, spread even the most outrageous untruths. Readers spread them further, for fun or partisanship, making them seem more credible in the process.
Next thing you know, they are popping up in mainstream publications, campaign speeches — or tweets sent by Donald J. Trump himself.
Let us note in passing how disturbing it is that Trump voters are so much more prone to believing fake news than Clinton supporters. It’s also disturbing that Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s nominee for national security adviser, has distributed fake news as if it were real. And that Trump’s top political adviser, Stephen Bannon, ran a conspiracy-mongering website, Breitbart.com, that promoted fake news, including the ridiculous “pizzagate” conspiracy story.
Worst of all, we just elected a president who has been peddling fake news since he first questioned Obama’s birthplace and who continues tweeting lies long after they’ve been debunked by the legitimate press. “What do I know about it?” Trump said on “Meet The Press.” “All I know is what’s on the Internet.”
The rise of fake news is linked to the fall of what is derisively called the mainstream media. Fake news is what we get when technology allows anyone to be a publisher, when we deny the legitimacy of professional journalists, and ignore the practices developed over centuries to ensure that what was printed in the newspaper was more credible than what you heard from some story you heard from a friend of a friend.
Those practices include bylines, showing who is responsible for the story’s accuracy; and editors whose job it is to make sure the reporters get the story right. Traditional media have publishers who hire reporters and share responsibility for their work; organizations with real addresses, that can be sued for libel or suffer economically if they lose credibility with paying customers.
Journalists have standards of professionalism that value fealty to facts and obligations to readers. They have codes of ethics designed to keep news coverage from being purchased by selfish interests.
Of course, reporters can fall short of those professional standards and violate their codes of ethics. But because they sign their work, they can be held accountable for it, and fired. Besides, there’s a world of difference between not meeting professional standards or breaking codes of ethics, and not having any standards or ethics to begin with.
Those who delight in the fall of “mainstream media” need to understand that the opposite of mainstream media isn’t a cable network that leans Republican; it’s the guy in Tbilisi making stuff up and collecting a few cents every time someone takes the bait.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.