The Washington Post decided this week to shift the “fake news” debate to a new frontier.
The debate has been motoring along for a few weeks now, centered loosely on the tacit proposition that “fake news is anything with premises, arguments, and conclusions that I don’t agree with. Plus there’s this guy who suckered in some right-wing bloggers with his fake Craigslist ad.”
Now WaPo has moved on to the proposition that “fake news is anything that sounds like the Russians could have said it, which might as well mean the Russians planted it. Plus there’s that guy who suckered in the right-wing bloggers with his fake Craigslist ad.”
Other than the one guy with his one fake Craigslist ad – which I think we can all agree constitutes genuine, certified “fake news” – the scourge of “fake news” keep changing its spots. But the problem goes beyond that. The supposed “fake news” phenomenon keeps making little, if any, sense, in terms of how it and its meaning are being defined.
In the latest iteration, a couple of study groups – one from a well-known think tank, the other no one’s ever heard of – looked at the content of some news and blogging sites in the U.S., and compared it to the content of Russia’s state-run media. The previously unknown study group (from the organization PropOrNot) found similarities in the content of the Russian media and sites like ZeroHedge, TruthOut, and Gates of Vienna, among some 190-odd others.
In fact, WaPo goes full-bore with the PropOrNot theme that ZeroHedge, because it was started by the son of an officer in Bulgaria’s Cold War-era intelligence service, is presumably an outlet for pure Russian propaganda.
Parts that don’t fit together
But here’s where things get crazily impressionistic and untethered. The riff on Russia and the 200 Sites (which sounds charmingly like an Arabian Nights tale) isn’t the main thesis of WaPo’s “fake news” argument.
Rather, it is deployed as backstory, for a disjunctive main thesis: that the release of Democratic Party emails and Hillary emails prior to the election was, by implication, a big “fake news” assault by Russia. It was intended to undermine America’s faith in democracy. And that led, willy-nilly, to…Donald Trump.
None of that parses. It’s a mishmash of suppositions and things we might partially agree with, strung together to produce an implied but never categorically asserted conclusion.
In short, we’re asked to believe that if ZeroHedge and Russia Today have the same perspective on some issues, that’s evidence that Donald Trump won because Russia used Hillary’s emails, in some sort of “informational” trick, to convince Americans that democracy is a bad deal.
A nugget of reality
It’s important to say this. Russia does engage in persistent propaganda campaigns. That fact is well-documented and not in doubt.
Moreover, I have found it to be true myself that a number of popular Western websites have the same editorial perspective as the Russian state media on key issues, such as who has been the bullying aggressor in the Ukraine conflict, and what the U.S. policy posture really is on the Middle East, especially under Barack Obama.
Some sites are unquestionably those of conspiracy theorists with a near-psychotic bent. Others have less of that character; some have none at all (e.g., Gates of Vienna).
But there’s a reason most of them aren’t mainstream sites. The Canadian site Global Research, just to take one example on PropOrNot’s list, can’t even say “NATO” without throwing spittle. As far as it’s concerned, NATO is basically a U.S. conspiracy to blow up the planet, and terrorize Russia (along with others) in the bargain. (To the extent it has an identifiable left-right perspective, I would call Global Research lefter than right.)
So it’s not necessarily that there’s no “there” there. Significantly, however, we don’t actually know how much “there” is there, in terms of literal Russian manipulation and news-planting. It would be premature to draw conclusions.
But the “there” that definitely isn’t there is the series of connections made to get from “these websites over here agree with Russia” to “Russia made Americans lose faith in democracy; hence, Donald Trump.” Between those two propositions lies an unbridged chasm.
To validate the second proposition, the “Russian fake news” analysts would have to do something they utterly fail to do, and that’s show that Americans actually voted as they did for the reason the analysts posit.
The analysts would have to show that Americans were suffering from a crisis of faith in democracy, and that’s why they voted in such numbers for Donald Trump.
It should hardly need to be said that the analysts of “Russian fake news” have shown no such thing. The proposition itself is not merely untested. It is quite probably untestable.
On the other hand, we have a straightforward explanation of the 2016 vote that fits the known facts. Put it this way:
The 2016 vote isn’t evidence that the American people have had their faith shaken in “democracy.”* Not in the terms WaPo and other MSM outlets mean by that. Rather, a strong plurality of Americans is very dissatisfied, for a list of clearly stated reasons, with what their actual government is doing. In November 2016, they used the tools of constitutional representation to change the face of that government, in the hope that that would change its actions and direction.
Unlike the “Russians made us do it” thesis, this one requires nothing more than accepting what we have direct, empirical evidence of.
Here are the important, actionable things to take away from the “fake news” discussion.
Hallmarks of a Big Lie campaign
1. There is no coherent, consistent definition of “fake news.”
2. The theme of “fake news,” with nothing consistent and tangible behind it, is being repeated over and over and over, apparently to convince us that “fake news” is a thing.
3. With a vague, unaccountable definition, “fake news” can therefore be whatever someone needs it to be. The deployer of the “fake news” theme will remind you about Craigslist Guy, to convey the drive-by impression that there’s something real there.
4. The advice from those who identify “fake news” for us is – conveniently – that we should be sure to get our news from the mainstream/leftstream media.
From PropOrNot (emphasis original):
Obtain news from actual reporters, who report to an editor and are professionally accountable for mistakes. We suggest NPR, the BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, VICE, etc, and especially your local papers and local TV news channels. Support them by subscribing, if you can!
Not exactly a disinterested appeal there.
5. The scourge of “fake news” is being urged as a reason for government action, some of it so poorly defined and open-ended as to be utterly unreasonable. Yet some of it, oddly, not. PropOrNot again:
We call on Congressional leadership, and the Obama administration, to:
Immediately begin investigations to determine whether any U.S. government action or inaction has allowed Russia to manipulate the US domestic political process, and interfere in the 2016 election, through online propaganda.
Immediately begin investigations to determine whether, by action or inaction, the American public has been deprived of related information that they need to vote in an informed manner.
Work with our European allies to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT financial transaction system, effective immediately and lasting for at least one year, as an appropriate response to Russian manipulation of the election.
Huh? In contrast to the first two, that last point is, shall we say, awful darn particular.
6. At the moment, the thesis being featured in the MSM is that this all played havoc with our election. If it were not for this “fake news” assault, you good people would have been less confused and upset, and somehow that means you wouldn’t have voted for Trump.
But “fake news” is a really useful concept because it can be blamed for almost anything. It is apparently being set up as a mechanism for exactly that.
In other words, “fake news” bears the hallmarks of a Big Lie**, in the mode of Josef Goebbels. And, just as PropOrNot says of itself, I make that point not to implicate culpable people or motives, but to call out the behavioral pattern that goes with a Big Lie.
We mustn’t whitewash the reality of Russian propaganda efforts. But neither should we swallow everything we’re told about the connection of those efforts with political events in the United States. The story being concocted about Russia, the Hillary emails, and the supposed loss of confidence by Americans in “democracy” strains logic and credulity in multiple ways, and is not to be taken seriously.
Rather than seeing one systematized propaganda campaign, it looks more like we are seeing two. The “fake news” campaign, for which our mainstream media are acting as a giant repeater network, is going after the Russian propaganda campaign this week. But neither campaign owns the narrative of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Beware both campaigns. And go with your gut: the American voters made their own decisions on 8 November.
(More reading: See also this Daily Caller article on the WaPo piece; Ed Morrissey’s post reflecting on the long, silly history of fake news; and Howard Portnoy’s treatment of fake news generated by the mainstream media. For additional food for thought, watch Howard Portnoy document the development of what we would call a legitimate “fake news” story, and compare it with the many other things out there that are being tagged as “fake news.”)
* The United States is, of course, a constitutional republic, not a democracy.
** Note that TruthOut, one of the “Russian propaganda” websites on PropOrNot’s list, is no fan of Donald Trump’s, and actually accuses him of using Big Lie-type propaganda.