The political polarization in our country was fueled in large part by the advent of networks like Fox News and other right wing media sites – which had the effect of convincing a lot of people that our media could be split into “liberal news” and “conservative news.” As Julian Sanchez pointed out a few years ago, that led to what he called epistemic closure.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)
To that mix, we’ve now seen the addition of a third category that has been fueled by the existence of social media…fake news. Right now one of the only people who is talking about that is Brian Stelter. He highlighted the issue this weekend.
Have you noticed any of these fake news stories on your Facebook feed? I sure have. I follow one Trump supporter who regularly posts them. But recently someone who has always seemed to be pretty reasonable posted a story that sounded a bit fishy to me. So I checked it out. It had to do with Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, collecting a lifetime pension of $160,000 from the U.S. government for taking care of the first daughters while the family was in the White House. Turns out, the story was a complete fake and comes from a fake news site called the Boston Tribune. Take a look at what pops up when you google “Marian Robinson $160,000 pension.” By now the top response is the Snopes article debunking the story. But from there you see the intricate web of sites that feed on this kind of nonsense.
Stelter doesn’t point to any fake news sites that promote lies benefiting liberals. Perhaps they exist – but I have yet to see one. Sometimes the stories they promote don’t have an obvious conservative bias, like the one where “a fake news site exacerbated Hurricane Matthew fears by claiming that looters were involved in a massive deadly shootout in Daytona Beach.”
So the question becomes, who is behind these fake news sites and what are they trying to accomplish? Interestingly enough, it was similar fake news stories about a chemical spill in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana and an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta that caught the eye of Adrian Chen.
Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes. In April, I went to St. Petersburg to learn more about the agency and its brand of information warfare, which it has aggressively deployed against political opponents at home, Russia’s perceived enemies abroad and, more recently, me.
If you haven’t already read his report titled “The Agency,” you should certainly do so. I doubt he would suggest that all of these fake news accounts we’re seeing pop up on social media are being coordinated by Russia. But understanding their goal in this kind of propaganda gives us an idea of the motives. It’s all about disruption. Neil MacFarquhar, who has reported on how these techniques have been used for the same purposes in other countries, describes it like this:
Although the topics may vary, the goal is the same, Mr. Lindberg and others suggested. “What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”
Beyond that, the danger of this kind of thing is reminiscent of this quote from Voltaire:
In other words, it’s time to start fact-checking your friends on Facebook.