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Did fake news on Facebook swing the US election?

Its 1.7 billion users were treated to articles about how the Pope backs Trump and Clinton is dying. It's time to accept Facebook is a force in politics.


Did you know that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump? Admittedly, there are many reasons you might have missed this particular piece of information, not least the fact it’s not true. How about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being sacked for supporting Hillary Clinton? Also false. Yet during the US election fake news spread so widely that even senior politicians regurgitated its main themes: “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness’ and take a look at the videos yourself,” the Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani told Fox News in August. He was referring to a long-standing conspiracy theory that she was concealing a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

What drives these online rumour mills? Since the election, a large part of the blame has fallen on Facebook, where the Megyn Kelly rumour trended in August soon after the company sacked its human moderators and replaced them with an algorithm. Simply, fake news exists because it makes money. Between them, Facebook and Google control 64 per cent of the digital advertising market, and it’s possible to make a good living by running a parasitical Facebook page filled with content scraped from other websites. Strongly partisan political content is particularly well suited to this model. As the former Facebook product designer Bobby Goodlatte put it: “Sadly, [Facebook’s]News Feed optimises for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders) has many fans who are convinced that the mainstream media are biased and corrupt. And, responding to these voters’ desire to read “what the MSM won’t tell you” – often because it wasn’t true – came a legion of chancers intent on making a quick buck. In one case uncovered by BuzzFeed, 100 pro-Trump pages were being run by teenagers in one town in Macedonia; in another example in the New York Times, a 35-year-old man from St Louis was making $22,000 a month by outsourcing content production to a couple in the Philippines.

I chased one source of the Pope news to a website called, which sells itself as “Your local news now”. The site itself was a hollow shell. Clicking on the “Weather” tab brought up a video headlined “Jay Pharoah Acts Out a Secret Meeting Between Black Comedians”; under “Community” was Ben Affleck looking sad. The whole site seemed to exist only to surround the Pope story with plausible architecture. Although let’s be realistic: among the 99,000 people who shared it on Facebook, how many clicked through to WTOE5, as opposed to just reading the headline and hitting “Share”? Tucked away on the About page was a disclaimer: “Most articles on are satire or pure fantasy.”

Facebook is trying to remove hoax and “satire” sites such as this one; recent changes to its news feed have downgraded them in favour of more established outlets. A more difficult case is something like the American Patriot page, which has more than 500,000 followers and has a grey verified tick, certifying that Facebook has “confirmed this is an authentic page for this business or organisation”. The Patriot’s stories skirt the edge of total bollocks, rather than being flat-out lies. “Christmas lights now banned as ‘security’ threat”, says one. “Everyone Noticed One Thing About Hillary’s Clothes During Her Concession Speech”, says another.

Facebook would argue that its verification mark is no reflection on the quality of stories, just that they are coming from the organisation named on the page. But it’s hard to see American Patriot as a news organisation in the way that the BBC is. Still, is it Facebook’s place to make editorial judgements like that? Mark Zuckerberg says no; he has always maintained that he runs a platform, not a publisher.

And there’s another problem. The sites peddling bullshit on Facebook are disproportionately right-wing. They are a extension of the alternative media – Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart – built by conservatives over two decades to redress what they saw as the liberal bias of the mainstream. If Facebook goes after fake news in a big way, it will disproportionately affect right-wing pages. And if you put that together with a site that is petrified about appearing biased (and has a prominent Trump supporter, ­Peter Thiel, on its board), what happens? A retreat into “objectivity” that actually benefits the right.

Some will say: why all this focus on Facebook when the mainstream media also publish misleading articles? The first reason is the site’s sheer size (1.7 billion users) and reach (44 per cent of us get our news there). Admittedly, the rest of the media are also irritated that Facebook is taking digital advertising dollars that might have replaced their own falling print revenues. They wouldn’t mind it being taken down a peg or two.

On Facebook, there is also far less visibility and accountability. When the Sun and the Mail published a false tale about Jeremy Corbyn “dancing a jig” on Remembrance Sunday, they were forced to remove the stories after an outcry. Crucially, enough people saw the fake news, and knew whom to complain to, for it to be taken down. That process is much harder on the sprawling, decentralised world of social networks.

Facebook is also where politics happens now. It is vital for fundraising – the Trump campaign said it was their single most important source of donations – and its built-in tools for advertisers allow endless A/B testing of messages to find the perfect one that resonates with voters. For those who wondered where Trump’s “ground game” was – his Get Out the Vote operation – there’s a simple answer: Facebook.

As for the Pope, two days before the election, he warned about fear, intolerance and “physical or social walls”. So probably not a huge Trump supporter, then.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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