Fact: Fake news helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
Yes, stories about child sex rings run out of pizza shops and allegations that Hillary Clinton had journalists killed pushed so many people that were on the fence over it that we now have a budding despot in charge of the most powerful war machine in the world. Otherwise rational people saw that the doctor who treated Clinton’s blood clot was killed and they switched sides. Smart, forward-thinking people read an article about alleged government-approved child marriages in Germany and voted for Trump so that such a thing wouldn’t happen in their backyard.
That doesn’t sound right.
Fake news is a very easy emotional scapegoat. It’s easier to believe that neighbours and friends were turned away from the most progressive party platform in American history by malicious lies rather than the hatred that was already inside them. That the whole debacle was on the shoulders of a third party, and not the people who didn’t do enough to turn the election in their favour. Fake news didn’t change anybody’s mind – it played on their preconceived notions.
Fake news has existed in various forms for nearly a hundred years. So called ‘yellow journalism’, one of its earliest antecedents, relied on misleading shock headlines, fabricated interviews and support for the underdog against an overbearing social system to sell papers. Sound familiar? Fake news also draws on features of clickbait – eye-grabbing images or GIFS – in combination with patently false headlines like ‘Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide’. Fake news rose to new prominence in 2016 with concerns that it had affected the American election process and inspired reckless acts on the part of people who believed it.
But nobody who wasn’t going to vote for Trump would be pulled in by reports that Pope Francis had endorsed him, or that philanthropist George Soros was funding groups hellbent on the destruction of the United States. It’s easy to see how yellow journalism deceived readers; it was the 1900s, and the paper that practiced yellow journalism might be the only game in town. But on the internet – home to websites like snopes and factcheck.org – a willingness to believe fake news constitutes the wilful ignorance of facts in favour of personal bias. And some people who consume fake news don’t put any stock in it, choosing instead to view the stuff as right-wing fluff entertainment.
And let’s not forget that Clinton voters fell into a similar emotional trap. While there are more fake news stories for Republicans – 38% of posts on hyper-partisan right-wing Facebook pages were false, compared to 17% on the left – Democrats were just as happy to
have their own biases confirmed on the late night circuit. Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump on SNL and the various tirades that are becoming increasingly more common on shows like John Oliver hit the same emotional sweet-spot that fake news did for the right. Trump supporters weren’t watching this and thinking that they should change their vote.
The problem wasn’t fake news. It was that both sides were living in an echo chamber, made out of Google search algorithms and personal opinion.
While fake news was no doubt wrapped up in this, we’ve already established that it’s more a right- than left-wing phenomenon. Clinton voters very much believed that they would win because all the indications they recieved said they would, and were unwilling to confront the river of hate and populist sentiment pouring out of red states. They didn’t do boots on the ground work to change opinions, choosing to believe that they had already won – that a blundering, sexist scumbag couldn’t muster the support he eventually did.
The solution, then, is to break out of the echo chamber. Go and find opinions that are unpalatable to your political leanings. Have a conversation with somebody who believes something different to you, and don’t succumb to a paroxysm of hate when they don’t immediately come around. It’s easy to think that we shouldn’t have to do this – that, in the 21st century, nobody should have to teach a racist that all people are equal, or a sexist that women are just as capable as men. And truthfully, we shouldn’t. It shouldn’t still be a problem. But it is. And it’s up to us to fix it.