A Short Study In Fake News

‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016.

If that (now) dubious honour doesn’t go to ‘Fake-news’ in 2017 – hyphenated for eligibility purposes only – then nobility and integrity must be counted as things of the past at the Oxford. No one phrase has embedded itself in political discussion quite like it this year.

Fake News – now capitalised for effect – is now commonly recognised as “anything that Donald Trump doesn’t agree with”. But there was a time, quite recently, when Fake News actually meant something more than that.

Fake News, at the outset, was a news story that looked like it could be true, but wasn’t. It bore some resemblance to ‘a’ truth if you squinted hard enough while reading it, but it smelt a little bit funny and eventually, was proven to be untrue.

It’s the typical strawman diversion of the past, but taken to Troll Level 10.

How was it done?

Example 1 – Play with inconsistencies

The Sandy Hook school shooting.

The Fake News spin says (among many things) that Adam Lanza could not have used an AR-15 Bushmaster rifle in the incident because initial reports claim that that particular weapon was found in his car.

Yes, initial reports may have claimed that. But those initial reports were later corrected. The police themselves issued a correcting statement as reported by NBC in Connecticut:

Police released a news release on Tuesday, saying they provided details in news conferences but wanted to eliminate any confusion or misinformation.

Police said they found a Bushmaster .223 caliber model XM15-E2S rifle with high capacity 30 round clips, a Glock 10-mm handgun and a Sig-Sauer P226 9mm handgun inside the school.

Police also searched Lanza’s car, which was in [the] parking lot, and found an Izhmash Canta-12 12-gauge shotgun.

Initial reporting around a tragedy like Sandy Hook is always sketchy at best. The news cycle is a savage, hungry beast, and sadly, even among established and credible outlets, the primary competitive motivator is to be First, not to be the most accurate. Details are sometimes reported before they’re confirmed and have to be corrected later. It’s sad, but true.

Such reportage has consequences.

Conspiracy theorists have built websites and made movies about how there are inconsistencies in reportage around what happened at Sandy Hook. They claim these inconsistencies are proof that the attack never happened. The ‘best’ of these conspiracy theorists actually make a living off this stuff.

There are a dozen or more claimed inconsistencies like the one quoted above. All of those holes in the reporting have since been cleared up but the corrections go unnoticed and those holes in the narrative give Sandy Hook sceptics the ammunition they need (pardon the pun) to run their mouths off and spout their conspiracies.

Why do they do it?

They’ve usually got a vested interest in doing so. They might be gun nuts looking to promote/protect the second amendment. They might be anti-government extreme right-wingers looking to throw mud at government involvement in anything. They might simply be looking to get the attention of weak minded individuals so they can sell them stuff (hello, Alex Jones).

The bottom line – Fake News is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. It’s a scenario where you get to take a true story and inject just enough doubt – credible or otherwise – so you can twist it to your own ends.

Example 2 – Shake and Twist. Believe Me.

“Donna Brazile Admits to Sharing Debate Questions With Clinton Camp, Blames Russia”

That’s the top headline at Fake News specialists, Breitbart News, as I write this article. Here’s the screenshot to prove it.

Again, you take an element of truth and spin it the way you want it to go.

The source article referred to in the Breitbart story is an Op Ed written by Brazile for Time Magazine (note: Fake News purveyors rarely do any actual journalism. They mostly spin articles produced by actual news and opinion outlets (which they typically later brand as mainstream, out of touch, or most amusingly, fake))

Breitbart’s headline makes it sound as if Brazile is admitting passing possible town hall topics on to the Clinton camp for the first time. She’s not. She did that when she stepped down from CNN. Breitbart’s headline makes is sound like she’s blaming the Russians for her own wrongdoing. She’s not.

If you actually read the Time story, you’ll read Brazile breaking down the Russian hack and the effect it had on the DNC. Her wrongdoing, which she freely admits to and regrets, is part of what was exposed by the Russian DNC hack but the Time story is about much more than that.

That’s Fake News as done by the specialists. Shake, twist, and count on people to accept what you say without checking further.

Breitbart’s inclusion of a link to the source makes everything seem more credible, but in truth they’re counting on readers to accept that level of seeming credibility and not bother to click on that link and weigh the story for themselves.

Example 3 – Duck, roll, shimmy, blame everyone else just like Bart Simpson used to do.

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Yes, it’s our favourite Fake News disseminator, Donald ‘Joffrey’ Trump. This is an example of Fake News being constructed right before our eyes.

The Real News story is that Donald Trump used Twitter to claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, ordered some wire-tapping on Trump Tower a month before the election in 2016.

Here are the tweets, straight from his personal Twitter account:

Those tweets represent one hell of a public accusation. Such action by a sitting president would be a federal crime so it’s not something you should go bandying about, willy nilly.

That’s the Real News story here.

The Fake News story is the narrative that’s now being used by the Trump administration to explain these tweets.

In an interview with Tucker Carlson through the week, Trump cited an article in the New York Times – yes, they are credible when it suits his needs and ‘failing’ the rest of the time. The article in question was on the front page on January 20 – Inauguration Day – and had a headline in the print edition that said Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides. The headline was changed for the online edition.

That’s source 1, as quoted by Trump and others.

Source 2 was a brief interview given by a former judge, now talking-head on Fox News, Andrew Napolitano. Here it is.

The problem with Source 1 is that the story doesn’t support the charge. The headline might suit Trump’s narrative if you have a vivid imagination and you squint hard enough when reading it. But the story doesn’t support his assertions. At all.

The story does cover the use of surveillance to investigate associates of the now-president. But where Trump alleges that Trump Tower was definitely wiretapped with orders coming direct from President Obama, the story says nothing of the sort. In fact, the story says nothing about Trump Tower being under specific surveillance, let alone any orders for such surveillance coming from the White House.

Such things matter when you’re publicly accusing a former president of a specific federal crime.

The problem with Source 2 – When President Trump was pressed on the wiretap issue by a German reporter in his press conference with Angela Merkel, he told the reporter that he should “go talk to Fox”, presumably because that’s the other source where Trump’s theory-presented-as-fact came from.

As it turns out, however, the ‘judge’ on Fox had no evidence to support this theory-presented-as-fact and Fox has since disavowed his statement, live on air. The key quote is at 1:20 in the video below.

Source 2 has bigger problems associated with it, too, namely the accusation that President Obama strong-armed an ally (the Brits) to conduct this surveillance on his behalf. Britain’s GCHQ has since commented and the agency was unequivocal in its denial.

And as if sources 1 and 2 being discredited aren’t enough, a statement from the chair and vice-chair of the government’s own Senate Intelligence Committee said:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016

Speaker Paul Ryan has also said no such wiretap existed.

The real news: President Trump accuses former president of federal crime without evidence.

The fake news (now being spread by the guy in the Oval Office): Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.

Words matter.

The president’s words matter a lot.

I want to finish by making a really important distinction:

Fake News and incorrect reporting are two very different things.

As you’ve seen here, Fake News is the deliberate twisting of a story beyond its factual base to serve one’s own ends. It’s misinformation with just enough credibility to sway non-thinking readers to believe it.

Incorrect reporting, on the other hand, is a reporter making a mistake. You can tell when incorrect reporting happens because credible organisations will retract or correct the report.

Example ….

There was an incorrect news report in January claiming that Donald Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office. The news report came from a reporter for Time Magazine. The reporter realised his mistake shortly after it happened and corrected the record via emails, tweets and in-person. Time Magazine even printed an editorial about how it all happened.

That’s a reporter making a mistake and then correcting the record. It is not Fake News.

As shown in the Sandy Hook example at the beginning of this article, the pressure on news organisations to be first is now a financial imperative. It shouldn’t be that way with news, but it is. Such is life in a capitalist society.

That pressure to be first means that mistakes are made. Those mistakes can be siezed upon by these peddlers of Fake News to build inconsistent stories, or stories that are later twisted to suit a particular motive.

Reputable news organisations will work to correct any inconsistencies and note those corrections as footnotes to their articles.

We rely on an independent media now, more than ever. Some understanding and maybe even a little forgiveness is going to be required, as is a lot of financial support. I’ve said it more than once in the last year, but please go out and buy a subscription to your preferred reputable news outlet. I don’t care if it’s left or right leaning in its editorial slant, as long as it gives you fair, fact-based coverage.

Support your local media.

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  1. Yes it unbelievable to follow…
    And he talked about draining the swam,with all the mud coming from the White House now he´s creating his own. Cant really see all of The Republican party following strait in to every quagmire he´s creating in the next years.
    Well I guess the hope is he will drown in his dribble sooner than later.

  2. I wish all news reporting agencies were better at fact checking before presenting information. I would rather read a well documented article than read the first one presented.

  3. Where are your examples in the other direction? The Huffington Post or MSNBC fake news? It’s there.

  4. good effort but sweet jesus all too heavy for me or maybe there are more important things right now. i am really concerned for where we are headed cause i’d like our kids to be safe….

  5. Update since this was written- Evidence that Obama administration did surveillance on Trump Tower before and after the election. Fake News contradiction from the media.