The Birth of a Narrative

'Fake news' didn't become a problem until Nov. 11

• December 18, 2016 5:00 am


President Barack Obama used his final press conference as president to slam partisan news sites as "domestic propagandists" that allowed fake news to flourish and bring about Hillary Clinton's shocking election loss to Donald Trump.

"If fake news that's being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it's not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect," he said echoing his warning in the closing days of the campaign that the internet had become a "dust cloud of nonsense." The press conference came a day after Facebook announced it would team with fact checking sites to police its news feeds.

Several journalists and media thinkers picked up on the trend of fake news in the month leading up to the election. Laura Davis of the Annenberg Media Center told a University of Southern California panel on Oct. 11 that a "filter bubble" was responsible for the proliferation of fake news. "I think it's having an actual effect on democracy, because people are not believing sources like they might have in the past," she said. The Washington Post agreed that "Facebook is a ripe environment for hoaxes and conspiracies" in a report published the following day.

"Users tend to cluster into like-minded bubbles, and they receive highly personalized news in News Feed and through services such as Trending," the Post reported.

Media organizations published about 200 individual stories, analyses, and op-eds mentioning "fake news" and the campaign between Oct. 1 and Election Day, according to a Washington Free Beacon review of Lexis Nexis data. Many of those stories homed in on how the bubble mindset encouraged by ideological herd thinking led Trump supporters to fall for convenient narratives.

In the month following Donald Trump's victory news organizations published 3,600 pieces about the "scourge" and "plague" of fake news and the role it played in tilting the scales against Hillary Clinton. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was castigated for saying it is "extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election."

Some news organizations downplayed fake news' influence throughout October. A Washington Post media reporter was more concerned about anti-Semitism among alt-right trolls than the fake memes and false stories they shared with one another on Facebook.

"Political hacks at cable networks, after all, aren't exactly a new thing; nor are fake news stories or overworked fact-checkers," he wrote. " The horrific and voluminous anti-Semitic attacks against journalists writing about Trump, however, are new and very frightening."

On Oct. 19 the Washington Post resurrected a fact-checking column titled "What Was Fake on the Internet This Week," a listicle which ran from May 2014 to December 2015 and previously focused on corporate internet hoaxes and viral jokes. "What Was Fake on the Internet This Election" ran three times a week during the closing stretch of the campaign. There appeared little to worry about, however, as fake news only seemed to trick the likes of Fox News' Sean Hannity. The memes and messages under its microscope ranged from "obvious" hoaxes and trolls to typical election jokes.

"The full text of this [fake] email is an obvious troll, to the point that many who are seeing it in pro-Donald Trump Twitter and Facebook posts are openly expressing skepticism about it," one column noted of a photoshopped Cheryl Mills email.

"These sorts of hoaxes happen pretty much every election, so few should be surprised that they’re starting to circulate again now," it said of a vote by Tweet message.

"The idea that the meme actually fooled a ton of people appears to be bunk as well," the Post concluded of the DraftOurDaughters hashtag.

On Oct. 30, Trump called Twitter, Google, and Facebook "dishonest media!" in a Tweet. The post led several members of the media to scoff. "Trump's tweet quickly garnered a slew of responses from users who were too happy to point out that the targets of the presidential hopeful's ire are not, in fact, ‘media' companies (something Facebook stressed as recently as five days ago)," Mashable said in a report, highlighting responses from two journalists.

It took a few days after the election for the media to grasp just how sinister and influential fake news was during the 2016 campaign and that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are media companies. "Fake news" appeared in 17 news pieces and analyses published on Nov. 9 and 48 pieces on Nov, 10, according to Lexis Nexis. On Nov. 11, the media published nearly 150 news items and the number ballooned to 274 stories on Nov. 15, one full week after Trump's victory.

On Nov. 15, three Washington Post writers reported on Zuckerberg's contention that social media hoaxes did not cause Hillary Clinton to lose the Rust Belt.

"Such reassurances have buckled under mounting criticism," the Post reported after Facebook and Google vowed to strip ad resources from fake news sites. "The move has raised new questions about long-standing claims by Facebook, Google and other online platforms that they have little responsibility to exert editorial control over the news they deliver to billions of people, even when it includes outright lies, falsehoods or propaganda that could tilt elections."

The clarion call from journalists that Facebook crack down on fake news won support internationally. On Nov. 21 the Global Times, China's state-run communist newspaper, hailed "Western Media's Crusade Against Facebook."

"During the run-up to the election, mainstream US media offered overwhelming support to Clinton, creating the impression that the former secretary of state was sure to win. Clinton's loss runs counter to public opinion embodied by the mainstream media, therefore they believe Facebook is to blame," the paper said in an editorial.

The state-run paper, which Facebook regards as a legitimate news site, compared the media's reaction to fake news to "China's crackdown on online rumors a few years ago [which] was harshly condemned by the West."

"[Western] Media platforms have the right to publish any information in the political field and cracking down on online rumors would confine freedom of speech…Why don't they uphold those propositions any more?" the Global Times asked. "Things changed really quickly."

Published under: Media