Media Matters Names Fake News and ‘Alt-Right’ Misinformer of the Year

As 2016 draws to a close, Media Matters’ yearly look at some of the “most egregious false and misleading claims” has caught our epidemic of fake news and the so-called “alt-right” in its headlights.

Media Matters digital director John Whitehouse explains,

While reporting real news requires a newsroom and some sort of process that can be critiqued and examined, “fake news” is built to obfuscate and hide sources. Its creators are varied, from a random American making $10,000 a month from his fabricated Facebook posts to a group of teenagers in Macedonia running more than a hundred pro-Trump websites. The business model is simple: identify the news that people want to read, and give it to them, regardless of the truth and with no effort whatsoever put into actual reporting.

As Whitehouse puts it, “There is no question that fake news got lots of attention in 2016, in part because the president-elect himself — and several people close to him — pushed fabricated information.” It seems wishful thinking has come into its own, a sort of “create a reality” that can be made endlessly more congenial to those who find facts a bother.

Whitehouse placed the blame squarely on Facebook and Google, saying of the former that “It was Facebook’s platform that allowed fake news to spread far and wide.”

“Facebook’s algorithm has always been extremely prone to confirmation bias, but changes in recent years seem to have allowed fake news to rise much more easily,” he explains.

Of Google, Whitehouse has this to say:

Google is also responsible for this burgeoning fake news empire. Google’s third-party advertising platform, AdSense, is driving mass profitability on many of these websites. When pressure started to rise about fake news, Google said it would be taking action to remove these actors from its advertising network, eliminating their ability to generate revenue. Our review showed that the company still has much work to do.

Whitehouse goes on to separate “fake news” from what white supremacists are doing, explaining that, “the misogynist and white nationalist “alt-right” embraces it for a more dangerous purpose: to encourage fake news readers into harassing individuals and discouraging people from taking part in public life. The fake news ecosystem is broader than just lies; many of these lies are purposeful.”

Smear campaigns and harassment are their game, including death threats against those who speak out, or even just happen to belong to a demographic that somehow threatens white privilege’s place in the sun. Look what was done to electors and journalists, or to Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald, or actress Emmy Rossum if you require a couple of prominent examples.

Again, Facebook comes under fire as Whitehouse points out that while “It is not clear to what extent this vitriol on Facebook overlaps with the ‘alt-right’ proper (to whatever extent there even is an “alt-right” proper)…Facebook crowd-sourced virulence is at least overtly reminiscent of what is seen from the ‘alt-right.’”

When Whitehouse says that “Members of the “alt-right” don’t just preach” misogyny and bigotry, “They mobilize it,” the examples are all around us, and his caution that misogyny is a “gateway drug” that leads to White nationalism and neo-Nazism is well-taken.

It has been a rough year for the facts and Whitehouse is correct to point a finger at the mainstream media, saying “failure of others in the media landscape helped the perverse movement get this far.” The problem is, as he goes on to explain,

“While mainstream media outlets seem to realize that fake news is a problem, they largely raise concerns only to the extent that fake news is a competitor or when the abuse is big enough that they can easily see it.”

Whitehouse concludes that “There’s never been such a challenging time to be an informed citizen,” and it is impossible to argue with that statement. A perusal of social media platforms will reveal even folks on the left can fall prey to fake news. Don’t be Trump: be careful what you retweet.

It is a lot easier to be misinformed than to be informed, and soon, says Whitehouse, “And soon there will be a president who will validate those feelings.” It’s a scary thought.

The only advice I can offer in closing is to question fearlessly. Don’t be intellectually lazy and fall into the right-wing trap. Never trust what you read without checking the sources.

And don’t let people tell you what to believe: Always, always, pursue the facts, and make your own informed decisions.

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