By Doug Porter
How and where we get information informing our outlook on the world has become an issue in the wake of the most recent presidential election. People’s lives, reputations and even democracy itself can be endangered.
A cottage industry, some of which masks bigger players with malevolent agendas, is taking advantage of opportunities afforded by social media to mold public opinion.
An analysis in BuzzFeed published shortly after the election revealed “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined” from August through Election Day.
President-elect Donald Trump and his associates have proven particularly adept at using their massive social media followings to disseminate fake news.
This unprovable assertion quickly was picked up by supporters as the truth. A Trump supporter on CNN said she had heard from “the media” that “millions of illegals” had voted in the election.
During an appearance on ABC’s This Week, Vice President-elect Mike Pence called Trump’s fact-free tweet “refreshing.”
Fake news stumbled into the realm of real news on Sunday, when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked into the Washington DC’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria and fired off rounds fom an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
Fortunately, nobody was killed or wounded. After being taken into custody, Welch told authorities he was on a mission to “self-investigate” a Wikileaks-fueled fake news story about the pizza place being at the center of a pedophilia ring involving some of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides. That story has come to be known as “pizzagate.”
There is no evidence supporting this conspiracy mongering. But that hasn’t stopped Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, from fomenting the rumors at the heart of wingnut Welch’s quest.
Note that even Comet-Pizzagate conspiracy theorists read Flynn’s tweets as supporting their cause. https://t.co/vAc4DZH4WQ
— John Aravosis (@aravosis) December 5, 2016
Flynn, who has a long pedigree of sharing conspiracy theories, never bothered to point out his tweet at the root of all this mess was actually about another sex-crimes conspiracy account involving Bill Clinton and convicted pedophile Jeffery Epstein.
The retired General’s son, who also serves as his chief of staff, went to twitter to suggest there could be something to the PizzaGate rumors, basically defending his father as if he had tweeted about Comet Ping Pong and challenging the media to disprove the baseless claims.
From the Washington Post:
The whole matter is a near-perfect microcosm of just how much fake news stories have penetrated our political process — so much so that we can’t even keep them straight. And it’s likely to lead to those who embrace conspiracy theories or simply distrust the mainstream media to believe Flynn was unfairly maligned for his tweet.
But it’s also worth noting here the Flynns have trafficked in these kinds of bogus stories many times before. And even as Flynn Sr. can’t be specifically tied to fomenting the Comet Ping Pong rumors beforehand, his decision to pass along a baseless article about the Clintons and sex crimes makes conspiracy theories like Comet Ping Pong more believable. This stuff is becoming a scourge.
In addition, Flynn’s son isn’t someone who just happens to be related to an appointee to a major post in the Trump Cabinet. He’s someone who has advised his father at the highest level — making his embrace of baseless conspiracy theories a very legitimate issue. (In other words, this isn’t akin to a president’s black-sheep brother with no real role in an administration doing something objectionable.)
People Who Live in Glass Houses…
The Washington Post is also at the center of a controversy involving individuals of dubious backgrounds seeking to manipulate concerns about fake news sites to promote a political agenda.
Unfortunately, in this instance, the paper was used by the peddlers of propaganda. And even more unfortunately, the editors at the Post have refused to acknowledge their responsibility in spreading this particular story.
Last week the paper ran a front page story purporting to be an investigation into dozens of U.S. news sites critical of U.S. foreign policy calling them, “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.”
The Russians Are Coming!
Much of the story was based on information provided by an anonymous website calling itself PropOrNot. As The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen and other reporters have subsequently revealed, numerous other media outlets were contacted by the group and declined to publicize their research.
As Green Greenwald and Bern Norton at the Intercept noted:
The group’s list of Russian disinformation outlets includes WikiLeaks and the Drudge Report, as well as Clinton-critical left-wing websites such as Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, and Naked Capitalism, as well as libertarian venues such as Antiwar.com and the Ron Paul Institute.
This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposé. It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.
Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident.
My analysis of PropOrNot’s work leads me to believe it’s ‘researchers’ are motivated by left-over Cold War militarist ideology. What they did was to disseminate a McCarthy-style black list. As is true with nearly all misinformation efforts, there were outlets on the list known to be associated with Russian propaganda efforts. Others were merely clickbait driven, rehashing any story minimally capable of supporting an alarmist headline. And then there were sites that had no business being on the list.
I agree with the conclusions drawn by The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen
The story of PropOrNot should serve as a cautionary tale to those who fixate on malignant digital influences as a primary explanation for Trump’s stunning election. The story combines two of the most popular technological villains of post-election analysis—fake news and Russian subterfuge—into a single tantalizing package. Like the most effective Russian propaganda, the report weaved together truth and misinformation.
Bogus news stories, which overwhelmingly favored Trump, did flood social media throughout the campaign, and the hack of the Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail seems likely to have been the work of Russian intelligence services. But, as harmful as these phenomena might be, the prospect of legitimate dissenting voices being labelled fake news or Russian propaganda by mysterious groups of ex-government employees, with the help of a national newspaper, is even scarier. Vasily Gatov told me, “To blame internal social effects on external perpetrators is very Putinistic.”
San Diego’s ‘News’ Management
Although not in the realm of the conspiracy mongering and fake research mentioned above, it’s worth taking a moment today to pass on an observation about controlling the flow of information in America’s Finest City.
Sometimes the best way to influence people is to simply hide bad real news.
The Union-Tribune’s Michael Smolens points out City Hall / Mayor Faulconer’s use of this tactic (a time-honored tradition among politicians of every stripe) with regard to the release of the long-awaited report by San Diego State University researchers concerning racial profiling by the city’s police department officers.
One of the real accomplishments of the Faulconer administration has been its outreach to the media. I get two, sometimes three, press releases about the most mundane daily activities of the Mayor.
In Smolen’s account, an announcement about planting trees to spruce up neighborhoods and help combat climate change was the media event used for comparison.
News organizations and others were alerted well in advance with press releases. Coverage was encouraged and received as the mayor, in white dress shirt and green tie, shoveled some dirt for a new tree. Another release was sent out recapping the moment.
About a week earlier, late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the mayor released the long-awaited report that sought to get at whether racial profiling played a role in police traffic stops. The report concludes that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be questioned and searched when pulled over than whites.
No advance releases, no subsequent releases, no news conference, no mayor. The report was given to one news organization — the Union-Tribune — and the 4 p.m. unveiling gave little time for public review or reaction to the news. It came at a time when most folks were moving on — physically or mentally or both — to Thanksgiving festivities.
What the report did (and didn’t) say will be covered in a subsequent column. Suffice it to say there was plenty to question, as City Councilman Todd Gloria pointed out in response to optimistic statements made by police chief Shelly Zimmerman at a hearing of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee last week.
From the Union-Tribune:
Councilman Todd Gloria said the city has made it harder to achieve such lofty goals by delaying the report many months and by finally releasing it the day before Thanksgiving, when many people clamoring for the findings would be unavailable to comment.
“The process that led us to this day undermines everything we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.
Gloria also criticized the report for a lack of clarity in the conclusions it draws and many pieces of missing data, contending it wasn’t worth the $62,500 that the city paid for it.
Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who is African American, said there is enough evidence of race-based disparity in the report to know that it undermines relationships between the police and the community.
City spokesman Matt Awbrey took to twitter to defend the timing of the release, saying there was a promised deadline (Nov 24), a preliminary version of the report had already been discussed at a council hearing earlier and the potential for blowback if it was perceived the government was sitting on the information.
He didn’t, however, explain why the normal two to three press releases and the royal trumpeters were not used to herald the announcement of the report.
On This Day: 1911 – Unionists John T. and James B. McNamara were sentenced to 15 years and life, respectively, after confessing to dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during a drive to unionize the metal trades in the city. They placed the bomb in an alley next to the building, set to detonate when they thought the building would be empty; it went off early, and an unanticipated gas explosion and fire did the real damage, killing twenty people. The newspaper was strongly conservative and anti-union. 1932 – German physicist Albert Einstein was granted a visa making it possible for him to travel to the U.S. 1978 – The American space probe Pioneer Venus I, orbiting Venus, began beaming back its first information and picture of the planet.
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to “The Starting Line” and get an email every time a new article in this series is posted!
I read the Daily Fishwrap(s) so you don’t have to… Catch “the Starting Line” Monday thru Friday right here at San Diego Free Press (dot) org. Send your hate mail and ideas to DougPorter@SanDiegoFreePress.Org Check us out on Facebook and Twitter.