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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 wtoe5news.com, 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 wtoe5news.com 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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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear