Misinformer Of The Year: The Ecosystem Of Fake News And The "Alt-Right"

Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

An anti-intellectual alliance of misogynists and white nationalists is using cult tactics to harass and abuse Americans. They systematically attempt to discredit reputable sources. They replace logic with paranoia. They horrifically harass perceived political opponents. And this campaign, which has dangerous historical precedents, has been empowered by a fake news ecosystem and a tech industry that profits off the phenomenon.

I. Fake News

While reporting real news requires a newsroom and some sort of process that can be critiqued and examined, “fake news” is built to obfuscate and hide sources. Its creators are varied, from a random American making $10,000 a month from his fabricated Facebook posts to a group of teenagers in Macedonia running more than a hundred pro-Trump websites. The business model is simple: identify the news that people want to read, and give it to them, regardless of the truth and with no effort whatsoever put into actual reporting.

There is no question that fake news got lots of attention in 2016, in part because the president-elect himself -- and several people close to him -- pushed fabricated information. That’s deeply concerning, because data shows that not only do Americans believe lies they see on Facebook, but also that Americans across party lines say fake news is a real problem.

No one is more responsible for the rise of fake news than Facebook. It was Facebook’s platform that allowed fake news to spread far and wide. In fairness, the basic nature of the social media giant ensures that users will share lies to some extent. But the structures that Facebook built also made it easy to game. All content looks the same on Facebook, and the name of the source shows up in a small and almost unreadable font. The pages look nearly identical, regardless of their purpose or who is operating them. Of course, these factors have been in place since Facebook’s inception, but in 2016, other factors changed as well.

In its own way, fake news is more sophisticated than real news. Sure, real news actually examines complexities that exist in the real world while fake news just makes stuff up. But fake news can be targeted to appeal to exactly what people want to see. On Facebook in particular, content can be fine-tuned to target exactly what people are likely to click on. Many private companies do this: It is called advertising. Whereas real news outlets generally post a piece once and people either read it or not, fake news can be tweaked again and again until it finally breaks through and becomes viral. And fake news outlets sometimes do have the data to go viral: Breitbart.com and Trump political benefactor the Mercer family has a company, Cambridge Analytica, that conveniently owns a lot of data on private citizens. And sitting on the board of Cambridge Analytica is Trump’s chief adviser, and the former CEO of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon.

Facebook’s algorithm has always been extremely prone to confirmation bias, but changes in recent years seem to have allowed fake news to rise much more easily (as the algorithm is proprietary, no one outside Facebook can know for certain). In the past, at the very least, there were human editors who could manually prevent outright lies from making it onto the site’s list of trending topics. But when Facebook fired them after conservatives complained this summer, fake news really took off.

As John Herrman explained in The New York Times:

This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

While web publishers have struggled to figure out how to take advantage of Facebook’s audience, these pages have thrived. Unburdened of any allegiance to old forms of news media and the practice, or performance, of any sort of ideological balance, native Facebook page publishers have a freedom that more traditional publishers don’t: to engage with Facebook purely on its terms. These are professional Facebook users straining to build media companies, in other words, not the other way around.

Google is also responsible for this burgeoning fake news empire. Google’s third-party advertising platform, AdSense, is driving mass profitability on many of these websites. When pressure started to rise about fake news, Google said it would be taking action to remove these actors from its advertising network, eliminating their ability to generate revenue. Our review showed that the company still has much work to do.

II. The “Alt-Right”

While some fake news is created simply for profit (think of the Macedonian teens who just see their sites as an easy way to make money), the misogynist and white nationalist “alt-right” embraces it for a more dangerous purpose: to encourage fake news readers into harassing individuals and discouraging people from taking part in public life. The fake news ecosystem is broader than just lies; many of these lies are purposeful.

The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory proved this link. A fake news story emerged from the depths of the internet claiming that a D.C. pizzeria with ties to certain political figures was running an underground child sex-trafficking ring. It was patently untrue. And yet mainstream reports on the story, even great in-depth reporting from truly credible sources, treated the fake news as separate from the harassment that pizzerias across the country endured from believers of the bogus claims as they spread to include other restaurants.

Harassment is a deeply entrenched aspect of the “alt-right” community. It came to prominence with Gamergate, and then there was a wretched, bigoted campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. “Alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos has now taken his harassment tactics with him on a college tour. Another example is the recent smear campaign against satirist Vic Berger by “alt-right” figure Mike Cernovich. Cernovich is no stranger to such tactics, having bragged previously about his ability to game Google to get other outlets to pick up on his smears, spreading the lies to more false headlines and more viewers. Comedian and producer Tim Heidecker has also spoken out about abuse he has received, including death-threats, as a result of "alt-right" criticism.

The New York Times’ John Herrman took special note of commenters on pro-Trump Facebook pages:

Nearly every page operator I spoke to was astonished by the tone their commenters took, comparing them to things like torch-wielding mobs and sharks in a feeding frenzy. No doubt because of the [Make America Great] page’s name, some Trump supporters even mistake [operator Adam] Nicoloff’s page for an official organ of the campaign. Nicoloff says that he receives dozens of messages a day from Trump supporters, expecting or hoping to reach the man himself. Many, he says, are simply asking for money.

It is not clear to what extent this vitriol on Facebook overlaps with the “alt-right” proper (to whatever extent there even is an “alt-right” proper). But Facebook crowd-sourced virulence is at least overtly reminiscent of what is seen from the “alt-right.”

A particular hub for the “alt-right” is Reddit’s “r/The_Donald” subreddit. As Bryan Menegus explained for Gizmodo:

Reddit’s The_Donald subreddit was founded a year ago as the premier online meeting place for Trump supporters. It has since sought to—in CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman’s words—“dominate the conversation” on the site. Its members spread coded hate speech, openly antagonize other Redditors, and break the site’s most basic rules with impunity while moderators feel the brunt of the abuse, and Reddit leadership fail to adequately address the problem.

This is abuse, and it is abuse for a particular political purpose. Whether it is under the guise of news or commentary, the fabricated stories bouncing around r/The_Donald, often cloaked in shockingly venomous rhetoric, do not adhere to and cannot be judged by traditional journalistic standards. This type of fake news needs to be understood in tandem with its context and purpose. Some of it is just for profit. But other pieces are intended to serve as weaponized propaganda meant to inspire harassment or even worse.

The “alt-right” movement has been equated to white supremacy and neo-Nazis. That is broadly accurate, but the reality is a bit more complicated. More often than not, the gateway drug for this movement is sexism -- "extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire,” as Aja Romano put it for Vox. White nationalism and neo-Nazism often come later.

This framework also explains why the “alt-right” tilts at so many cultural windmills. Whether with boycotts against Star Wars this year, or boycotts against Star Wars last year, or boycotts against Ghostbusters or Hamilton or other notable events that women and people of color are involved in, the intent of the “alt-right” is not necessarily to be successful in the short run: The protests are intended as a statement of white patriarchy. Anyone talking about the boycott is surreptitiously sharing the message of white, male-centric cultural identity.

Jason Wilson perfectly characterized the misogyny and bigotry of the "alt-right" when describing Yiannopoulos and his tactics:

Yiannopoulos and the alt right certainly shared a couple of traits. First, there was a willingness to dispense with the American right’s trusty dog whistle and offer frank views on race (all the while disparaging those conservatives who were more attuned to euphemism and conciliation as ‘cucks’). Second, they shared a desire to restore white masculinity to its position as the central, reigning political identity.

In Eugene, [OH], Yiannopoulos endorsed Trump’s call to end Muslim immigration on the grounds that fundamentalists ‘want to kill people like me’ – a preview of the full-throated Islamophobic appeal that he and others made to the LGBT community after the Pulse nightclub shooting the next month.

But the meat of his address was a repetition of a claim he has made repeatedly in his writings and on social media: that white men, especially the working class, are being oppressed with an elitist doctrine of political correctness.

Referring to lesbians as ‘horrendous, quivering masses of horror’ and feminism as ‘cancer’, Yiannopoulos generally castigated the ‘awful, awful, terrible, diseased and damaged people lecturing and hectoring the working class’ – those he sees as the enforcers of ‘the oppressive hegemony of social justice’. The only solution, he said, is a Trump administration.

Members of the "alt-right" don't just preach this hatred. They mobilize it. Jesse Singal examined the many similarities the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem shares with cults, and the role misogyny plays in attracting new members:

But it’s the alt-right concept of so-called red-pilling where this subculture appears more similar to “traditional” cults and extremist groups. Adapted from The Matrix, “taking the red pill” or “getting red-pilled” simply means seeing the world as it really is. In the online subcultures that gave rise to the alt-right, its most famous meaning is in reference to feminism: After you take the red pill, the scales fall from your eyes and you can see that feminism is really just an attempt to emasculate and bully men, to allow social-justice warriors to run rampant over masculine (and traditional) values and ideals in favor of a shrill and judgmental far-left radicalism. Recently, the definition has expanded a bit — these days, in an alt-right context “getting red-pilled” probably means something more like “understanding that progressivism is a lie and part of a large-scale effort to hurt you and people like you.” But the basic point is the same: This is the moment at which you start to see things as they really are.

This is exactly the sort of transformative experience offered by cults and extremist movements: After this, things won’t ever be the same for you. After this, you will have a role to play in an important battle that will determine the fate of the world. Your life will take on an enhanced meaning.

At its core, the “alt-right” is just a bunch of men who feel powerless and resent women because of it. That’s why Gamergate is so crucial to understanding the movement; it truly was a galvanizing political event for a fringe movement that far too many mainstream people had overlooked because they were not the ones being harassed.

III. Historical Precedent

The “alt-right” weaponizes fake news stories that others drum up to harass and abuse opponents. Its members attack women, people of color, and the poor -- and their allies and advocates -- from “Gamergate” to Leslie Jones, to “Pizzagate” and now to Vic Berger (also see Megyn Kelly below). Radio host Alex Jones ties the conspiracy theories together and gives everything a common language. Reddit allows the herd to self-organize and quickly pivot from one harassment campaign to another. The Drudge Report tries to push these things into the mainstream. And tying the whole enterprise together is Breitbart, which was up until recently run by Bannon, now President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Breitbart is now even admitting that it will take on any Republicans who try to hurt Trump, again neatly echoing oppressive regimes of the past. Meanwhile, Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the reliability of truth itself, in a hope to push as many people as possible toward this ecosystem.

It is possible that this abuse and harassment could escalate in the near future. While the digital tactics of pushing fake news and harassing people via social media are new, there is a precedent for this type of behavior: the “struggle sessions” in Mao’s China.

Max Fisher explained how struggle sessions worked in The Washington Post:

During Mao Zedong's totalitarian and often ruthless rule over China, from the early 1950s through 1976, one of the Communist Party's most unpleasant tactics for maintaining control was something called a "struggle session." On the surface, the idea was that everyone had to suss out "class enemies" and try to better their own commitment to the Communist revolution by attending regular "struggle session" meetings where they'd admit their own revolutionary failures and try to do better as individuals and communities. In practice, though, it was a form of self-reinforcing terror, a means of purging political enemies real and imagined, a tactic for working people into ideological fervor, sometimes in mass "sessions" with thousands of people.

The systematic harassment campaign that the “alt-right” has waged through the guise of journalism is remarkably similar. Like the struggle sessions, the harassment is meant to create a sense of terror among political enemies while building a feeling of community among allies. It spreads extreme fear through communities across the country, deterring any theoretical political resistance. This abuse is meant to crush meaning in society. The more you discuss whether pizzerias have established a secret child sex ring, the more real it becomes. The more outlandish the accusation, the more effective it becomes. For both the struggle sessions and the “alt-right,” truth is no defense: You will be forced to submit. As long as members use the fake news to harass, then it is worthwhile. Engagement is not the means; engagement is the end.

The next logical step would be something akin to book burning, which The Daily Beast says is “a peculiar form of censorship in that the act itself is intended to send a message. This is why book burning is a public spectacle. It is designed to express outrage and contains within it the notion that the ideas contained in the books or other works of art should be obliterated entirely.”

Among American pundits, Walter Lippman alone understood the significance of what was happening when books were burned in the 1930s in Germany:

The Nazis deliberately and systematically mean to turn the minds of the German people to war. These acts symbolize the moral and intellectual character of the Nazi regime. For these bonfires are not the work of schoolboys or mobs but of the present German Government acting through its Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.... For example ... they burn with conspicuous zeal ... Erich Maria Remarque's [anti-war book] All Quiet on the Western Front. The ominous symbolism of [this burning and] these bonfires is that there is a Government in Germany which means to teach its people that their salvation lies in violence.

The only thing standing in the way of the “alt-right” is that it is not yet big enough to take on the entirety of American culture so directly. And yet it seems entirely possible that the movement could do something like that soon, especially if it grows emboldened by having allies in the White House. After an ISIS attack under President Trump, one can imagine the “alt-right” organizing some kind of book burning. Breitbart may even promote it.

IV. Complicity Of Others

The “alt-right” is the engine driving this harassment, and fake news is the tool. But it’s clear that failure of others in the media landscape helped the perverse movement get this far.

For one, the tech industry is profiting from this activity every step of the way. Twitter’s failure to stop harassment is legendary. The Trump subreddit has grown completely out of hand. Facebook’s complicity in the spread of fake news is clear. The tech industry is so concerned with engagement that companies have been reluctant to act even when it is clear that some of that engagement is outright abuse and harassment.

While mainstream media outlets seem to realize that fake news is a problem, they largely raise concerns only to the extent that fake news is a competitor or when the abuse is big enough that they can easily see it. There is surely fake news of every political stripe, and it should all be disincentivized. But there is no built-out ecosystem to weaponize it anywhere like there is with Breitbart, Alex Jones, Reddit, and the “alt-right.” That’s what mainstream media’s scolding about fake news and “both sides” gets wrong, time and again. In their reluctance to show the unique damage that fake news has on the right, mainstream media are continuing their biggest mistake of the Bush and Obama years: ignoring the growing radicalization of the right in America.

And this ecosystem of fake news and the “alt-right” is entirely different from the previous right-wing media ecosystem. The previous model involved moving the audience from mainstream news to Fox News and then to the deeper trenches of talk radio and online email lists, where right-wing operators can often bilk their recipients financially. Now, things are different. Fox News’ brand of right-wing misinformation is pervasive, and over recent decades fewer people are watching mainstream news networks.

The independence of the fake news/“alt-right” ecosystem has interesting consequences. First, members feel empowered to attack Fox News, framing it as part of the establishment media rather than an alternative to traditional sources. Aside from “Pizzagate,” the clearest example of this ecosystem is the harassment directed at Fox anchor Megyn Kelly. The first fake news story to trend on Facebook after the company fired its editors was about Kelly, falsely claiming that Fox fired her for being “‘a closet liberal who actually wants Hillary to win,’” according to CBS. Versions of this fake story featured language like “Megyn Kelly has gotten into a lot of hot water for her many attempts to smear Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.” Another fake news story called her a “traitor” for her behavior toward Trump. As Kelly has now recently explained, she also was the recipient of torrents of online abuse from Trump supporters. The harassment may not have begun with the fake news story, but their connection seems clear. And the attacks on Fox News are not limited to Kelly -- Alex Jones attacks the network regularly.

Secondly, traditional figures like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are functionally irrelevant to the "alt-right." They may support Trump on a given day or they may not, but the “alt-right” operates independently of anything they say or do. Alex Jones or Breitbart issuing a call to action will move people, while Limbaugh and O’Reilly are now glorified book salesmen.

And yet, right-wing media are still allied with and permissive of the “alt-right,” continuing to train their focus on mainstream media. Rather than concerning themselves with the issue of fake news, right-wing media use the term to attack mainstream outlets.

In fact, right-wing media go out of their way to give space for the “alt-right” to operate. Fox News dramatically undercovered “Pizzagate” compared to other mainstream outlets. Fox News reporters (not just pundits) have dismissed the concept of “fake news” and defended the “alt-right” on air. When Facebook announced its plan to alleviate its fake news infestation, the most aghast were right-wing pundits.

It is unclear where the phenomenon is going, but one clue may be Fox’s newest host. Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ Elf on the Shelf, is a huge favorite of “alt-right” trolls. If Carlson’s show is a success, Fox News in the future could drift more toward the “alt-right” model. (Worth noting is that Rupert Murdoch is reportedly a fan of Carlson's.) And the biggest glue tying together traditional right-wing media and the fake news ecosystem are the NRA and The Drudge Report, both of which were undoubtedly further empowered this election season.

V. What’s To Come

Many of the proposed solutions to fake news ring exceptionally hollow. Noting that the fake news ecosystem pushes lies will not stop the abuse; merely calling out the lies is like pointing out that rain originates in the clouds. The objective now is to protect people from the lies.

It is long past the time for mainstream outlets to realize that the yoke of false balance empowers this ecosystem even more. The “alt-right” will turn any journalistic mistake into propaganda the very moment it occurs. A factual error will become an accidental truth. A correction will become censorship.

There’s never been such a challenging time to be an informed citizen. Independent media are struggling financially, and mainstream media are obsessed with making everything about both sides, lest they lose a small portion of their audience. Right-wing media are telling all the traditional sorts of lies. Now a fake news ecosystem is feeding into the worst instincts of humanity while punishing anyone who dares stand up against them.

And soon there will be a president who will validate those feelings.

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