The proliferation of fake news sites online is one of the greatest threats to democracy we have ever faced. While this might sound like hyperbole, it is worth remembering that the US has just elected a reality television star with a history of sexually assaulting women as president.
This was in part a result of fake news sites promoting verifiably false stories about Hillary Clinton, and also a product of a large disinformation campaign that created the impression both candidates were "just as bad" as each other. They were not, and now we are seeing exactly how damaging the promotion of this false equivalence meme really was.
It is important to define exactly what constitutes a fake news site. While much attention has been paid to the eastern European run spam sites flooding Facebook with ludicrous conspiracy theories, the vast network of conservative sites that engage in spreading various forms of disinformation also fit the definition and should be treated with equal disdain.
The Blaze, Breitbart.com, Young Conservatives, CNS News and a host of other well funded rightwing sites have built sizable communities around their reporting that would be thrown out by any halfway decent editor. Sloppy editing, total lack of source checking and deeply misleading headlines go completely unchecked in the internet age, and they have an ability to reach millions and millions of people. This has created a terrifying fracturing of the media into fiefdoms with their own distinct realities. Just today, Vice News published the results of a recent MIT study looking at how supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump interacted with social media and the mainstream media:
MIT’s analysis — which used the social media company’s complete data set — shows that on Twitter, Trump supporters formed a particularly insular group when talking about politics during the general election. They had few connections to Clinton supporters or the mainstream media. By contrast, Clinton supporters were more splintered and verified journalists often overlapped within their mutual follower networks...
“All of this paints a bleak picture of online political discourse,” said John West, a data journalist at the MIT Media Lab who worked on the study. “It is one balkanized by ideology and issue-interest, with little potential for information flow between the online cocoons — or between the loud and important cluster of exclusive Trump followers and the institutionalized media users that are supposed to be political discourse’s immune system.”
The abandonment of institutionalized media should not be surprising -- for decades CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have refused to invest in real journalism and have instead plowed their money into talking heads, fancy graphics and incessant coverage of the horse race. The mainstream media did a truly appalling job of discussing actual issues in 2016, and helped turn the presidential race into a popularity contest. After they collectively realized how bad Trump was and began to do their jobs properly, the damage had been done. "The greatest failure of all the institutions that failed to keep a mountebank like the president-elect out of office," wrote Charles Pierce of GQ Magazine, "was a persistent inability to recognize how sui generis he, and his campaign, and its appeal, really were, and how dangerous that was....The press appeared to recognize it only as a shiny object and not as a genuine threat to democratic institutions, including itself."
In the void created by the institutional media, online outlets have flourished and found ways of monetizing their content. Their independence means there are no longer any objective standards when it comes to reporting the news, and the crazier the stories, the more money they stand to make. Conspiracy loon Alex Jones's site 'InfoWars' is likely more profitable than The New York Times, and by default this makes him legitimate (if only in his circle). Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes figured out long ago that with enough money, bleached blond hair and production quality news could be whatever the hell you wanted it to be, and now this principle is being used on steroids by charlatans looking to get rich from the formula. It is a truly sad state of affairs that is now spiraling completely out of control. The sites responsible for pushing Donald Trump all the way to the White House are now, as Trevor Noah pointed out recently, the mainstream media. The danger of this phenomenon cannot be overstated -- we are in a moment of genuine crisis and responsible citizens must push back in every way possible.
To do this most effectively, responsible media outlets need to be funded properly. This means paying for the content you trust and ensuring they do not succumb to an industry that favors clickbait, sensationalism and fact free speculation. As we have stated before, the Banter will be dedicated to fighting the onslaught of fake news and right wing disinformation. We will be relentless in providing our readers with original, fact checked writing, but we need your help to become completely independent. Heading into 2017, we do not want to be reliant on ad revenue and aim to be completely self reliant as quickly as possible. And if not this site, go and spend your money on other sites that pay their staff, fact check their stories, and don't engage in clickbait. They need your help too.
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