U decide—NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ! https://t.co/O0bVJT3QDr,” tweeted Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn 6 days before the presidential election last November. The URL leads to the site True Pundit (truepundit.com), a hyperpartisan conservative outlet that often publishes stories that are patently false. In this case, True Pundit claimed that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring that was operating out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. On Twitter, this meme is tagged #Pizzagate.
Flynn has been installed as Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser. “His role as national security adviser calls for mediating the conflicting views of cabinet secretaries and agencies, and sifting fact from speculation and rumor to help the new president decide how the United States should react to international crises,” writes Matthew Rosenberg in The New York Times .
(“Trump Adviser Has Pushed Clinton Conspiracy Theories,” Dec. 5, 2016; nytimes.com/2016/12/05/us/politics/-michael-flynn-trump-fake-news-clinton.htmll). Unfortunately, Flynn has a reputation for fervently believing conspiracy theories and dismissing any contradictory information. “These claims [about Flynn’s beliefs] were frequent enough that his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency gave them a name, ‘Flynn facts,’ which means a Flynn belief that is the opposite of a fact,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine (“The Scariest Thing About Trump So Far Is Michael Flynn and His Team of Nutters,” Daily Intelligencer, Dec. 16, 2016; nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/12/scariest-thing-about-trump-michael-flynns-team-of-nutters.html).
Flynn is now ensconced as one of the highest-level governmental purveyors of baseless, ridiculous conspiracy theories. (Although his boss has been known to spread whoppers himself; see “Birtherism.”) Still, Flynn is not alone. The volume of fake news disgorged onto the 2016 presidential election was of historic proportion and may have had some influence on the outcome.
Craig Silverman, media editor at BuzzFeed (buzzfeed.com), has done extensive research and coverage of the fake news phenomenon. He says that the explosion of propaganda was made possible by two giant internet companies: Google, with its AdSense program, and Facebook. His analysis shows that in the final three critical months before the U.S. presidential election, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets” (“This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News on Facebook,” BuzzFeed Nov. 16 , 2016; buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook).
The Role of Facebook
In an interview on NPR, Silverman tells Fresh Air host Dave Davies, “These fake stories resonated with people. They saw them and they shared them or they commented on them and they liked them, and that created tremendous velocity on Facebook” (“Fake News Expert on How False Stories Spread and Why People Believe Them,” Dec. 14, 2016; npr.org/2016/12/14/505547295/fake-news-expert-on-how-false-stories-spread-and-why-people-believe-them).
“Overwhelmingly, when you looked at the stories that performed really well on Facebook, they were pro-Trump or they were anti-Clinton,” Silverman continues. And because anti-Trump sites garnered few clicks, he believes, “What happened is that a lot of people creat ing fake news looked at this and said, well, let’s go all-in on Trump.” The vast reach of Facebook, Silverman notes, is unprecedented in human history. “There are almost 2 billion people logging in every month around the world. We’ve never had a communications system where people are connected in this way that has reached that amount of scale.”
Silverman was struck by the remarkable number of misleading news sites that popped up in the 6 months before the election. On the open web, these extreme propaganda pages would remain obscure. But when they got shared on Facebook, they went viral, capturing more clicks than major media stories about either the Trump or Clinton campaigns.
At first, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did not take the misleading news phenomenon on his site seriously. Early in November 2016, Zuckerberg wrote, “News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its im portance” (facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103253901916271). In the NPR interview Silverman goes on to say that Zuckerberg, at least at the time, considered Facebook to be a platform rather than a source of news. “I also think that [he was] completely dismissing the growing evidence that we have that fake news got huge, huge engagement on his platform.”
Later, Zuckerberg would respond to the pressure to put some controls on the deluge of misleading news on Facebook, writing, “We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties” (facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103269806149061). The compromise was to hire human fact-checkers, led by the Poynter Institute (poynter.org), a nonprofit journalism school, to flag (but not remove) provably false news links on Facebook. Also, Facebook pledged to make it easier for users to report bogus news posts. “Some of these ideas will work well, and some will not,” Zuckerman acknowledges in the post. He does add, “We are committed to getting this right.”