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The Media’s Fake News Hysteria is Edging Us Toward Censorship

Let us take a moment to define Fake News before we jump into another rabbit hole.

Illustration by Juliette Kang, 2018.

While it is without question that manipulative, fabricated news stories permeate the internet, the Fake News panic that followed the 2016 presidential election is serving two purposes: The vindication of mainstream media's own false stories and a McCarthyite attack on alternative news sources. We are witnessing the eve of censorship.

Fake News. Let’s face it: the phrase has got a ring to it. It’s easy to throw around in conversation, and if you use it cleverly with your friends, you can even get a laugh. Try it!

But it’s not so funny when Donald Trump uses it to discount credible reports about allegations of sexual assault, tax evasion, using the N-word, corruption, physical endowment, money laundering, and basic facts about history and current events, right? Nor is it funny when the white nationalist president implies that the 13 pipe bombs sent to Trump critics and Democratic leaders is a result of the “Anger” sowed by the mainstream media’s “Fake News.”

It’s not so funny because Trump is a powerful political entity, capable of expanding mass destruction abroad (already happening), ripping families apart at the U.S. – Mexico border who ironically wanted a less violent life [PDF], and signing a tax bill that only deepens income and wealth inequality, among other egregious policies that turn back the international clock of human rights.

Trump calling genuine news reports “Fake News!” is dangerous because it stifles dissent. It encourages Americans to distrust news organizations and threatens our ability to hold the powerful accountable. A catchy phrase now being used by repressive leaders around the world, “Fake News” crushes even the most substantiated criticisms of government officials.

The Intercept’s co-founder Glenn Greenwald puts it brilliantly:

The most important fact to realize about this new term: Those who most loudly denounce Fake News are typically those most aggressively disseminating it.

There’s just one thing: He’s not talking about Trump. Keeping in mind who actually has the monopolist hold on news consumption, Greenwald is talking about the liberal mainstream media.

What is Fake News?

The first thing to understand about Fake News is that it has no clear definition. And that’s dangerous. The same way Americans blindly accepted “terrorism” as something we can go to war against without explicitly defining the term, thus entrenching us in seemingly endless military conflicts, the war on Fake News by the media, and more recently, in collaboration with tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google, poses the threat of another undesirable rabbit hole. The rabbit hole this time, however, isn’t war. It’s censorship.

Most people might define Fake News as deliberately fabricated media, intending to manipulate the public for a political agenda, or simply to troll online and foment public chaos. This phenomenon has existed since the beginning of journalism, and with the rise of the internet and social media platforms, the speed and scope at which fake news is disseminated has expanded exponentially. But if you watch MSNBC and CNN, or read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other centrist media outlets, Fake News by default draws Russia to mind. This is where the Fake News definition gets blurry.

Following the 2016 election, three blacklists circulated the internet via mainstream media outlets, naming so-called Fake News sites that publish Russian propaganda seeking to influence American voters. An anonymously run website “PropOrNot” authored the most cited of the blacklists.

The first news outlet to source this mysterious group, dubbed “experts,” was The Washington Post, followed by the AP, USA Today, PBS, NPR, The Daily Beast, Slate, Gizmodo, and The Verge. Author of the WaPo article Craig Timberg reported on PropOrNot’s list of over 200 websites that “[peddled] Russian propaganda during the election season,” sites with stories that were viewed over 213 million times. That figure is yet to have been proven.

Among the listed were prominent independent leftist news sites such as Naked Capitalism, Consortium News, Truthdig, Truthout, Black Agenda Report, as well as the libertarian sites Antiwar.com, the Ron Paul Institute, and the 21-year-old website Drudge Report. While PropOrNot does list truly devious sites, claiming the news outlets above are Fake News Putin puppets is a ridiculous assertion.

In response to pushback by some of the listed sites, WaPo wrote an editor’s note, claiming they do not “vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings,” despite the group’s expertise serving as the entire basis of the piece. Regardless, the report quickly became the Post’s most-read article on the website and was boosted by countless journalists across social media, including NYT’s Deputy Washington Editor Jonathan Weisman and co-host of Pod Save America Dan Pfeiffer.

Just like that Fake News transcended its definition of purposefully manipulative lies and morphed into a nebulous notion of “Russian propaganda.” Worse yet, mainstream media outlets championed false and damaging claims by an anonymous group that followed the example of Senator Joseph McCarthy, as Glenn Greenwald points out, in calling for the FBI to investigate the listed sites for espionage. Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, and Black Agenda Report are not Russian spies, nor propaganda outlets, but platforms for alternative viewpoints that often criticize American policy.

The problem is that fake news and propaganda are not the same thing. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of propaganda:

The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.

So, propaganda is “biased” or “misleading,” but not outright fake. Yet PropOrNot lists sites that “reliably echo Russian propaganda” and utilize “fake news” to manipulate the American public. And WaPo headlined its article “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” The distinction is important because nefariously biased journalism is something completely different from the dissemination of fabricated information. They can serve the same purpose, but once we start labeling news that doesn’t fit our desired viewpoint as “fake,” we are getting into dangerous territory.

Fake News might become…dissent? Sounds familiar. As Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi notes, “Nearly two years into the #Russiagate scandal, accusing people of being in league with Putin has become an almost daily feature of news coverage.”

But surely the Post’s editor’s note and some journalists walking back their blind advancement of an article predicated on Fake News itself reversed the slander against alternative media sites. The war against Fake News is meant to protect the free press from devious Russian influence. It can’t possibly be suppressing it.

I wouldn’t be so sure.

The Adverse Effects of Crying Wolf

Take Google, for example.

In response to the Fake News outcry, Google implemented a new search protocol that sought to suppress “offensive” sites and promote more “authoritative content.” As a result, many independent leftist sites saw severe declines in web traffic from Google searches, according to a World Socialist Web Site report. Some examples:

Essentially, what we see here is a Google-manufactured hierarchy of truthiness. While these websites were not entirely wiped off the internet, their web presence has effectively been suppressed. You simply won’t see them as often on your Google search results. Censorship? Not quite, but the lack of transparency in Google’s search filter is cause for concern as websites that offer dissenting opinions about the American establishment are rendered less visible.

Another nail-biting example: Facebook. In addition to complaints by alternative news sites, such as the non-profit Common Dreams, over drops in web traffic since Facebook adopted algorithmic changes that boost “broadly-trusted” news outlets, the social media giant recently declared the expansion of its fight against Fake News by partnering with the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), two U.S. government founded and funded organizations.

If Facebook’s partnership with the NATO-sponsored think tank Atlantic Council wasn’t alarming enough, FAIR writer Alan MacLeod shows that this news warrants red alert among the free press.

Strike #1: Senior Republican and Democratic politicians staff the DC-based IRI and NDI. The late Sen. John McCain chaired the IRI and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright currently chairs the NDI. Government officials or affiliates will be helping Facebook decipher the real from the fake. Sounds strange, right?

IRI Board Member and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks at an IRI award ceremony in 2018 (Photo: flickr/James N. Mattis).

Strike #2: the NDI and IRI were established in 1983 as offshoots to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Cold War-focused NGO created by the U.S. government. NED is credited with pushing for regime change abroad, and the NDI and IRI have hands in undermining the 1980s Sandinista government in Nicaragua and helping to manufacture a coup against former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, respectively.

Perhaps MacLeod is not just a paranoid lefty for believing “[t]hat these two US government creations, along with a NATO offshoot like the Atlantic Council, are used by Facebook to distinguish real from fake news is effectively state censorship.” Nor is Matt Taibbi hysterical when he says, “This is how authoritarian marriages begin, and people should be very worried.”

But Facebook removed Alex Jones’ Infowars from their platform! We can all agree that Infowars inundates the internet with outright lies, conspiracy theories, and unscrupulous spins on current events. Sure, don’t shed a tear for Alex Jones. But the ominous potential of the Facebook – U.S. government partnership should prompt more than just goosebumps.

In conjunction with the Atlantic Council, Facebook already removed accounts and pages associated with Iranian broadcasting channels. In 2017, Facebook met with Israeli government officials to discuss censorship of Palestinian accounts and 95% of Israel’s requests were granted. Facebook shut down the English-language page of the Venezuelan, Bolivian, Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Uruguayan-funded news outlet Telesur without warning and only brought it back in response to public outcry. First claiming it was a glitch, Facebook later provided an unspecified accusation of Telesur’s “suspicious activity.”

Facebook also temporarily shut down the Occupy London page, outright deleted the counter-protest page No Unite the Right, and suspended Venezuelananalysis’s account. Just this month, Facebook shut down hundreds of users’ accounts, many of which were American-run alternative media outlets, such as The Free Thought Project, Anti-Media, and Cop Block. Each of the targeted groups are not Fake News outlets, but platforms for dissenting opinion.

The logical question now is why is the mainstream media in such a rush to knight tech giants as the arbiters of truth, even as silencing dissent becomes the norm? Maybe we can get to bottom of this by asking what isn’t Fake News according to “those who most loudly denounce” it.

What isn’t Fake News?

Media critic Adam Johnson points out University of North Carolina Professor of Sociology Zeynep Tufekci’s intriguing answer. In 2017, she tweeted, “There is no, and never was, ‘perfect news.’ Pls stop referring to every mode of failure of news as ‘fake news’. Conflation is not analysis.”

Security researcher Marcy Wheeler responded by arguing that a WaPo report that Russians hacked a Vermont electrical grid based on anonymous leak, which was debunked entirely, is by the outlet’s own definition “fake news.” The Post corrected its claims, but like their PropOrNot article, it had already exploded across the internet.

Professor Tufekci’s response: “Dumb, opportunistic jumping at sensational story. Newsroom economics. Retracted. Still not ‘Hmm, how about Pope Endorses Trump.’” Yes, Tufekci is right in that WaPo’s dissemination of bogus news is not the same thing as Macedonian troll farms. However, that’s missing the point.

What is alarming about the exclusion of false reports by the mainstream media in the definition of Fake News is, as Adam Johnson explains, a question of proportionality: “The Post is still read by far more people than fringe websites, and its reporting is met with far more credulity. It is also assumed that mistakes by the Post are done entirely in good faith, with no consideration for political or editorial pressure to find dirt on America’s current No. 1 enemy, Russia.” Esteemed news outlets like the Post have a much larger readership than any actual Fake News sites, which means that when they report fabrications, they have a much larger impact. Additionally, the idea that mainstream journalists aren’t pushed by editorial biases, some of which can be horribly detrimental to human life, is simply untrue.

Johnson goes on, “A ‘fake news phenomenon’ that cannot, by definition, include mainstream media is a power-serving tautology that shields US corporate media from scrutiny and encourages citizens to simply trust some outlets (we’ll tell you which ones) rather than think critically.”

In other words, the “newsroom economics” that leads to the publication of completely fake reports as an excuse relieves the mainstream media outlets (the same ones boosted by tech giants) of full culpability. Because WaPo and other corporate news sites’ false reports are vindicated by the “opportunistic jumping at sensational story” narrative, they are freed from the heinous, Russia-ridden label of “Fake News.” Accusing sites and journalists of spreading misinformation becomes a protection racket for the outlets that have a far greater potential to disseminate lies to the public– and they do just that. Frequently.

And what of the alternative media sites that question corporate news outlets and the American political establishment? They get caught in the crossfire and bear the Fake News burden. A hysteria over Fake News that does not critically engage with its collateral damage, the attack on the free press and particularly dissenting viewpoints, severely threatens our democracy. The spread of intentionally fake media is a serious problem and should be addressed carefully.

Maybe we shouldn’t be jumping into Facebook, Twitter, or Google’s Superman arms without understanding the frightening repercussions.

This article was updated on 1/22/2019 at 5:20pm to correct broken hyperlinks.

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