When a neologism is repeated with uniformity by corporate media, billionaires, and across party lines, we should worry. Hearing people blather about fake news was once a minor social annoyance, the type of argument that hanged limply in people’s mouths when they had nothing insightful to say. But this linguistic pathogen has spread and people are begging for a solution. The business elite and corporate media are thrilled to provide it. Of course, this is not because of their altruistic tendencies but because the fight against fake news, a vague and already tired concept, can be used to justify just about any response. To fight fake news we are allowing corporate interests to diagnosis the disease and provide the prescription.
After achieving a virtual monopoly over digital publishing Mark Zuckerberg announced he would revitalize Facebook’s newsfeed by suppressing content from publishers, limply citing concern for the country’s mental health. But is this a rare act of sympathy from a person who once had to claim he too was “human?” No, it was a calculated decision; his motivation was a stronger connection between content and profit, not a stronger connection between people.
Behind Mark Zuckerberg’s syrupy message about bringing the world together is a business decision. Sponsored and ad content will continue to rise to the top of the newsfeed, and publishers who don’t pay will be buried. Confused investors initial worry, the companies shares dropped by 4.5% after the announcement, soon dissipated when they realized Facebook’s decision meant ad revenue would increase with publishers willing to pay a premium for access. Even better, some speculated, fake news would take a fatal blow ending the current crisis.
Fake news has yet to be established as a true threat, at least to the extent that would warrant the current reaction. When quantified its reach and effect has been extremely limited, while the response meant to combat it has been sweeping. Twitter admitted that Russian bots tweeted 2.1 million times during the 2016 election, but that number only accounts for 1% of all election-related activity on the site. Even more deflating for the proponents of the ‘fake news crisis’ the misinformation appears to be concentrated amongst those who are looking for validation with the vast majority of fake news being consumed by 10% of Americans with heavily conservative viewpoints. Meanwhile, collateral damage against independent media, to use a nasty term developed by the State and echoed by the mainstream press, has been much more significant than any damage to online troll factories. Fake news has become an effective slander to stigmatize dissent. The fear of fake news is invoked to discredit narratives that challenge power and as a consequence, it has become an excuse for an increase of the power that corporations enjoy. The use of the term has proliferated not out of a desire for a more informed public but because it is good for business.
Facebook’s reimagined timeline is an attack on independent media, and we have already seen its effects. Using an arbitrary distinction between “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy” sources the social media site is now making crucial decisions about what pages will be boosted and which will be condemned. Across the independent media landscape, websites have seen their revenues drop and their reach diminish. The chorus that demanded Facebook “do something” about fake news got what they asked for, a redistribution of power to those at the top. Zuckerberg is not fighting fake news he is increasing ad revenue for Facebook’s shareholders.
Adding to the stupidity, Zuckerberg announced that the site would boost local news. As we know conglomerates, like the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcasting, own the majority of local news outfits. These corporations are overwhelmingly reactionary, rightwing, and reach far too many as it is. This isn’t a moment where independent local papers will be lionized, but an opportunity for mouthpieces of major corporations. With the damage done by Zuckerberg’s changes to the newsfeed, it will become even more difficult for small local outfits to reach viewers.
The growing hysteria around fake news has allowed Zuckerberg to paint chasing profits as an act of benevolence. But Facebook is not the only corporation to benefit greatly from the manufactured crisis of fake news.
Fake news mania has allowed corporate media to revive its faltering image without changing any of its behavior. By making it seem that there is an epidemic fraudulent corporate organizations appear to be the only sane game in town. The fake news panic is beneficial for corporate media that has worked tirelessly to support war, empire, and Wall Street. It takes quite some gall for the organizations that have shamelessly covered for the government over and over to now complain about a proliferation of false information. When the battle for influence can be won with money the truth will always lose.
As a millennial, I worry when I read that subscriptions to the NYT and the New Yorker have soared with young people in the age of Trump, who for some reason have gotten it into their head that supporting bloated New York media outfits is an act of resistance. Yes, society reproduces itself, but I figured there would be at least a short grace period before my young radical comrades became boring apologists for empire.
Political opposition has been commodified through media sloganeering, tote bags, and t-shirts. Trump has been wonderful to the mainstream media. CNN uses their ongoing feud with the president in their ad campaign “facts first”. Jeff Bezo’s paper incorporated the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness.” Even the NYT cynically rhapsodizes about their “mission.” I know we are a forgetful country but the ability of these publications to rebrand themselves continues to surprise me.
Despite the tears of CNN pundits, the ‘fake news’ era has been very good for the mainstream media. Once popularly derided corporate media has seen a growth in support. In October a Reuters-Ipsos poll found that those expressing “great” or “some” confidence in the press reached 48%, a significant rise of 9% from the year before. While, 45% still have “little” to “no” confidence even this number has fallen six points in the past year, despite no real change from the mainstream press.
Let us be clear, mass deportations, the destruction of the environment, continued illegal drone strikes, the hushed murders of transfolk, white supremacy, and the grandfather of them all capitalism, were not born the day Trump rode down his escalator. They were born in large part thanks to the lies of the complicit press, the hand holding between liberals and conservatives, from David Frum to Paul Krugman.
If anything the reactionary pages of the New York Times have become even worse in recent months. Take their profile of a neo-Nazi, their nonsensical argument that Ben Shapiro is “the cool kid’s philosopher,” or their recent gushy coverage of the crank and transphobe Jordan Peterson. About the others, we don’t need much of a reminder. The Washington Post gleefully reported PropOrNot’s libel against independent media as fact despite no evidence to support the cryptic organization’s claims. When it comes to fake news if you are not in the mainstream you are guilty until proven innocent.
The young and spry Vox has sprinted forward to decry ‘fake news’ with its older established counterparts. The publication has been pleading with Facebook, Google, and Twitter to “step up” since “our democracy is under attack.” Despite its clear allegiance to the status quo and neoliberalism, Vox has established itself in many Americans imagination as a neutral place, where reason trumps passion. This is wonderful for their corporate owners like Goldman Sachs, who enjoy glowing praise from the publication, including endorsements from the website’s co-founder Matthew Yglesias like this gem, “Why Goldman Sachs just started offering savings accounts for the masses.” Vox frequently writes in praise of their corporate owners with no disclosure, as they did for owners Snapchat, owners Comcast, and the above-cited Goldman Sachs piece. The activities of Vox are the rule rather than the exception for younger outfits that tirelessly cover for their corporate sponsors and bloated newspapers.
Fake news is a slippery term. Donald Trump popularized the term to describe facts he doesn’t like. You might think that the organizations he attacked as fake news, would avoid using it. Instead, they have re-appropriated it as a profitable tool. The battle against fake news has done little to curtail misreporting, but it has been very good for business.