Fake news and the epidemic of willful ignorance

    Taylor Swift in 2010. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

    Taylor Swift in 2010. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

    I’ll start today with a story about Taylor Swift. It’s actually a non-story, but that’s my point.

    Late in the presidential campaign, a website called Lifeevent.com posted this bombshell: “Taylor Swift SHOCKS Music Industry — ‘I Voted for Trump’.” The article quoted Swift: “We need more and more jobs. Unemployment is way up here. He has hired more employees, more people, than anyone I know in the world.” The article trended on Facebook, where happy Trumpkins shared it far and wide.

    The article was fake. Swift never said she voted for Trump. And the same quote attributed to Swift surfaced in other widely shared fake articles — where it was attributed to Denzel Washington. Who never said it either.

    The Swift incident was just one symptom of the infauxmation epidemic that swamped our body politic in the final months of the campaign. And going forward, this is yet another cultural sickness we’ll need to address as a nation.

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    Turns out, the top 20 fake news stories — heavily tilted toward Donald Trump, natch — got more “Facebook engagements” than the top 20 mainstream news stories that were written by people trained in the reportage of confirmable facts. This happened because Trump voters on Facebook gravitated to shareable fakery like “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide” and “Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.” (The latter scored particularly high in the clickbait competition.)

    And Google has also done its part. A few days ago, if you had used its search engine to update the election results, you would’ve been misinformed that Trump had won the popular vote — according to the fake site at the tippy top of the Google page.

    Indeed, one prominent writer of fake news said publicly this week that he’s amazed how easy his job was. Do not read Paul Horner’s comments with a full stomach:

    “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it. My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time …. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up.”

    So here’s the thing: I know that the 46.8 percent of voters who made Trump the popular-vote loser were angry at the status quo and desperate for something new, and I understand that anger and desperation can wreak havoc with the cognitive intellect. But there’s no excuse for willful ignorance and the mass embrace of outright fakery.

    President Obama, traveling overseas, mentioned this epidemic yesterday. I’m sure the 46.8 percent will dismiss his remarks as the quackings of a lame duck, but since his personal favorability rating is currently 62 percent — 20 points higher than his successor — he has ample standing to state the obvious:

    “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not — and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones — if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems. If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect … Then democracy will break down.”

    There’s no easy solution to the dumbing down of America; perhaps the mainstream media can make a dent if it floods the digital realm with a lot more factual content. Fighting fakery on its own turf, as it were. According to Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, “more reporting — and economics that support reporting in, on, and for audiences on the big platforms — is part of the answer.”

    Meanwhile, Facebook and Google pledge to help by policing their ad platforms — because that’s where fakery merchants like Paul Horner have gotten their traction, thanks to the sites’ revenue-sharing deals. Mark Zuckerberg now says, “We don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook,” but Horner thinks he has a workaround: “I know ways of getting hooked up under different names and sites. So probably if they cracked down, I would try different things. I have at least 10 sites right now. If they crack down on a couple, I’ll just use others…Plus, Facebook and [Google] AdSense make a lot of money from [this advertising] for them to just get rid of it.”

    On the other hand, Horner says that if Facebook and Google crack down for real and forever, “that would suck. I don’t know what I would do.”

    He could try an honest living. That would be a start.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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