There is an enormous amount of crazy-sounding news right now.
President Donald Trump really did set off a diplomatic crisis with Australia, possibly out of personal exhaustion. The White House really did fail to mention Jews in their statement commemorating the Holocaust—and then, bizarrely, refuse to even recognize the error in the following days. And the president somehow incited a feud with Arnold Schwarzenegger during the National Prayer Breakfast.
If progressives are looking to be shocked, terrified, or incensed, they have plenty of options. Yet in the past two weeks, many have turned to a different avenue: They have shared “fake news,” online stories that look like real journalism but are full of fables and falsehoods.
It’s a funny reversal of the situation from November. In the weeks after the election, the press chastised conservative Facebook users for sharing stories that had nothing to do with reality. Hundreds of thousands of people shared stories asserting incorrectly that President Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance in public schools, that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, and that Trump had dispatched his personal plane to save 200 starving marines.
The phenomenon seemed to confirm theorists’ worst fears about the internet. Given the choice, democratic citizens will not seek out news that challenges their beliefs; instead, they will opt for content that confirms their suspicions. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that the top 20 fake-news stories “outperformed” the top 20 real-news stories on Facebook in the three months before the election, meaning they generated more shares, comments, and reactions.* A follow-up survey suggested that most Americans believed fake news after seeing it on Facebook. When held to the laissez faire editorial standards of Facebook, the market of ideas fails.
Now the left has its own panoply of wishful thinking. Twitter accounts purportedly operated by disgruntled government employees—@AltNatParSer, @RogueNASA, and the extra dubious @RoguePOTUSStaff—have swelled in number to become a shadow bureaucracy. Conspiratorially minded Medium posts insist to anyone who will read them that the real story of the Trump administration is even more layered and nefarious than it seems. And satirical news of poor quality has gotten passed around as a weird story more than once. (Queen Elizabeth II didn’t actually say she could kill Donald Trump with a sword.)
Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Brooke Binkowski is the managing editor of Snopes, the English-speaking internet’s most important rumor-debunking site. It is her job to sit around and look at some of the most popular falsehoods on the web all day. Earlier this week, I asked her if she had seen a spike in the amount and popularity of fake news aimed at liberals.
She immediately replied: “Of course yes!”
“There’s a lot of confusion, and people are profiting from the confusion on all sides of the continuum,” she told me. She said she had seen a concerted spike in fake news aimed at liberals since the inauguration.
She emphasized that there’s no equivalence between the falsehoods coming from the American left and the right in the past two weeks. Individual Democrats on Facebook may cling to pleasant stories and wishful thinking, but the Republican White House press secretary spouts off lies beneath the presidential seal. On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to the president, referenced a terrorist attack that never happened.
But a preponderance of fake information ultimately harms the political cause that absorbs it. It’s also bad strategy: Michael Walzer writes that the left’s task at this moment in history is “to help hold the center.” A polluted information environment does little to preserve the consensus reality that permits democracy to work.
My conversation with Binkowski, edited for clarity and readability, follows below.
Robinson Meyer: First things first. Have you been seeing more fake news or hoaxes aimed at the left lately?
Brooke Binkowski: Yes, there has been more coming from the left. A lot of dubious news, a lot of wishful thinking-type stuff. It’s not as filthy as the stuff I saw that was purportedly coming from the right—I don’t think a lot of it was actually coming from the right, I think it was coming from outside sources, like Macedonian teenagers, for example—but there has been more from the left.
It’s more wish-fulfillment stuff. “Trump About to be Arrested!” Well, yeah, when’s that gonna happen? And we know it’s coming from the left because I know it’s coming from known players. Bill Palmer used to run the Daily News Bin, and it was basically a pro-Hillary Clinton “news site.” It was out there to counter misinformation. Which, okay, fair enough. But then he started to reinvent it as a news site, more and more, and he changed the name to the Palmer Report. The stuff that he puts out there, it’s nominally true. When you click on it, it’s some innocuous story [with an outlandish headline]. That is very harmful, I think.
The right-wing stuff often has this element of racial fear, even if it is subtle. One of the best examples I can think of was from this otherwise innocuous hoax news website. They make themselves look like a legitimate local news site, although they don’t specify where, of course, and then they steal mugshots from one of those sites that host mugshots, and then they write a story around them that has nothing to do with reality. I saw a steady drumbeat of that over the past year or so, preying on racial fears.
Meyer: You saw the number of stories like that go up over the past year?
Binkowski: Yeah. Big time. I saw that pick up a lot last year.
Meyer: Is there advice you have for readers about how to recognize fake news?
If it arouses an emotional response is you—if you see the headline and go, I can’t believe this, I’m so angry—then it’s probably something you need to check against something else. News is going to be rage-inducing, it’s going to be terrifying, it will make you happy. But if you have that visceral a response to something, then it is written specifically to arouse that response so you’ll share it. Just say no.
But I really don’t want to make this the responsibility of the person reading the news, when there are so many things that have been broken down and atomized and made into individual responsibility that should be a collective responsibility. [News] should be a public service, and that is how public services exist and maintain themselves. And it should be seen as such.
Meyer: Do you have a fairly dim view of human gullibility, because you sit around and look at this stuff all day?
Binkowski: You know, I actually don’t. Sometimes my faith in humanity is severely challenged. I actually think that people in the aggregate, even now, are smart. I think humans are smart. I really do. I realize that we’re in a generally discouraging moment in history, but I don’t think people are stupid, and I don’t think people are necessarily gullible.
Have you ever read The Gift of Fear? The gist of it is, trust your instincts because normally they’re picking up on things that you aren’t consciously noticing. It’s an interesting book, and it’s generally about crime and rape and violence.
I’ve always wondered why we slow down for car accidents. And the author of the book, [Gavin de Becker,] says, We always slow down for car accidents out of an ancient impulse, which is that humans want to learn. That’s why we developed these enormous brains. People always want to learn.
And I thought, you know what, that’s true. Even people who are sending around these stupid stories that are complete BS, they would latch onto actual news, not conspiracy theories, if there was more actual news out there. I think that people are going about the fake news issue the wrong way. Pinching off fake news isn’t the answer. The answer is flooding it with actual news. And that way, people will continue looking for information, and they will find vetted, nuanced, contextual, in-depth information.
There will always be a subset of people who reject it. I think 10 percent of the population either way. But I really do believe that humanity, although we may destroy ourselves—I really do have a lot of faith in us as a species.
Meyer: That ties to another thread in the left wishful thinking, which is the fake Twitter account from the government insiders who are rebelling against Trump. The most-followed example is @RoguePOTUSStaff.
Binkowski: Isn’t that a fun read? It’s gotta be BS, but it’s such a fun read. I’ve messaged them several times at this point, saying, “I don’t want to know who you are, but can you at least prove that what you’re saying is true somehow? We can use the encryption tool of your choice—I don’t care who you are, as long as you are who you say you are.” They’ve never replied, but they haven’t blocked me like they’ve blocked some of our writers.
Meyer: Is there any other kind of fake news that you’re regularly seeing?
Binkowski: I think we’ve temporarily lost our ability to enjoy satire in the United States. There’s a few satire stories that have made their way to us. I mean, most people usually mistake satire for real stories, but now it’s really bad. I think the left has collectively completely lost its sense of humor for now—although, I mean, the left maybe never had one in the beginning.
I just edited a story an hour ago about how Trump allegedly replaced a portrait of George Washington with a picture of a character from Ghostbusters 2. People are like, Is this true? Is this actually true!? No, it’s not. It’s supposed to be satire.
Meyer: It is funny to me that, just a few months after attributing the election result in part to conservative-leaning fake news, there has been a surge of it among the party that’s newly out of power.
Binkowski: It’s so disappointing. I know I keep saying that. But we have also always had this misinformation, we’ve always had propaganda, we’ve always had disinformation, and we’ve always had BS. This has been part of American media forever. Weekly World News, if people remember that. National Enquirer is still doing whatever it is they’re doing. I do think fake news is always going to be part of the media and information ecosystem. I just think it needs to be balanced out by actual news.
We have to bolster the immune system of journalism, because that’s going to be the only way out of this possible authoritarianism and inundation with fake news. People are so fearful, and that’s what’s driving this. People are afraid. The world is changing. It has changed. There’s all kinds of people around with different looks and different names and they look different and they talk different and it doesn’t help when you get this constant line of BS.
* This article originally misstated that more people shared fake stories than shared real news on Facebook in the three months before the presidential election. We regret the error.