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The Domination of Fake News

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This story about how the invented propaganda Facebook spreads for profit works is chilling:

She had usually voted for Republicans, just like her parents, but it was only on Facebook that Chapian had become a committed conservative. She was wary of Obama in the months after his election, believing him to be both arrogant and inexperienced, and on Facebook she sought out a litany of information that seemed to confirm her worst fears, unaware that some of that information was false. It wasn’t just that Obama was liberal, she read; he was actually a socialist. It wasn’t just that his political qualifications were thin; it was that he had fabricated those qualifications, including parts of his college transcripts and maybe even his birth certificate.

For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once, on Facebook, and if she believed the mainstream media was becoming insufficient or biased, it was her responsibility to seek out alternatives. She signed up for a dozen conservative newsletters and began to watch Alex Jones on Infowars. One far right Facebook group eventually led her to the next with targeted advertising, and soon Chapian was following more than 2,500 conservative pages, an ideological echo chamber that often trafficked in skepticism. Climate change was a hoax. The mainstream media was censored or scripted. Political Washington was under control of a “deep state.”

Chapian didn’t believe everything she read online, but she was also distrustful of mainstream fact-checkers and reported news. It sometimes felt to her like real facts had become indiscernible — that the truth was often somewhere in between. What she trusted most was her own ability to think critically and discern the truth, and increasingly her instincts aligned with the online community where she spent most of her time. It had been months since she’d gone to a movie. It had been almost a year since she’d made the hour-long trip to Las Vegas. Her number of likes and shares on Facebook increased each year until she was sometimes awakening to check her news feed in the middle of the night, liking and commenting on dozens of posts each day. She felt as if she was being let in on a series of dark revelations about the United States, and it was her responsibility to see and to share them.

“I’m not a conspiracy-theory-type person, but . . .” she wrote, before sharing a link to an unsourced story suggesting that Democratic donor George Soros had been a committed Nazi, or that a Parkland shooting survivor was actually a paid actor.

Now another post arrived in her news feed, from a page called America’s Last Line of Defense, which Chapian had been following for more than a year. It showed a picture of Trump standing at a White House ceremony. Circled in the background were two women, one black and one white.

“President Trump extended an olive branch and invited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton,” the post read. “They thanked him by giving him ‘the finger’ during the national anthem.”

Chapian looked at the photo and nothing about it surprised her. Of course Trump had invited Clinton and Obama to the White House in a generous act of patriotism. Of course the Democrats — or “Demonrats,” as Chapian sometimes called them — had acted badly and disrespected America. It was the exact same narrative she saw playing out on her screen hundreds of times each day, and this time she decided to click ‘like’ and leave a comment.

“Well, they never did have any class,” she wrote.

Also relevant is this observation by Claire McCaskill:

In every case, the results came about for the same reasons: Working-class white voters abandoned their ancestral party. For the Democrats, the power of incumbency and a fund-raising advantage meant little against the strength of this underlying cultural change.

In states like hers, Ms. McCaskill said the president’s inflammatory appeals to division and fear were ubiquitous, in large part because of Fox News. She recounted walking into restaurants in every corner of Missouri and invariably seeing the channel airing footage of the Central American caravans Mr. Trump demonized.

“It’s time we all quit dancing around what is now a state-owned news channel,” she said.

Mindful of her party’s delicate position, Ms. McCaskill said she was also concerned about the implications of a divided capital.

Admittedly, in the specific case of the caravan voters would have found coverage similarly dominated if they relied on mainstream sources — heckuva job! But the general point is important. The idea there’s some Democratic “message” or specific policy proposal that can reach voters who get their news diet exclusively from sources like this is fantastical. And given the extent to which white rural voters are overrepresented in American political institutions, it’s a serious problem.

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