5 Reasons Fake News Killed Facts In 2016
Hi. I'm Cracked editor David Bell. Before I wrote columns, I was a full-time researcher for the site. During that time, I wrote scores of articles calling out the terrible instances of fake news occurring weekly online. The series strove to be bipartisan, from exposing fake racism against Obama to misguided outrage about Obama to generally batshit stories reported anyone from Gawker to Breitbart. It's not hard to remain objective when your brain is a flood of deadline stress mixed with throbbing Odin rage toward the mainstream media. In the thick of it all, I hoped my humble contribution would be joined by an internet-wide embracing of reason.
You can imagine how 2016 has been for me.
Guys. What the demon-balls happened? How did it get so bad that even the Pope lost his holy shit over the epidemic of false news? Well, I have a theory. For you see, my few years of news-stalking allowed me enough of a backstage view to see exactly how this clown show got arranged ...
The Demand For Constant Information Made The News Terrible
While seen as a hindrance, newspapers had the hidden advantage of coming out once every day. This delay gave journalists time to fully process an event, but instead encouraged the value of page-filling "scoops" over patience. So when cable TV showed up, everyone was thrilled to embrace 24-hour news networks while letting papers die in isolation like a discarded Tamagotchi.
Only there was a problem: It turned out that there simply isn't that much pertinent news to fill the time. And so stations had to find new and time-consuming ways to "inform" their viewers.
"Wu-Tang Clan: Who they are, and why they are not to be fucked with. Tonight at 6."
And right when it seemed like everyone was scrambling to be the fastest, most reactionary source of ratings, the internet became a thing. Suddenly media bullshit broke the physical realm like a thizzing Neo -- and the time between an event happening and someone reporting on it got wafer-thin. In the peak of internet news, the need to be first quickly became infinitely more dire than the need to be right. Sites began clumsily ejecting every lead like a diarrheal horse on a high-speed treadmill.
And thus a new form of "journalism" was birthed in the foggy moor between facts and opinion, one that required zero ethics or experience. We called such journalists bloggers, and they ruined everything. It didn't take long for CNN to incorporate this with "iReport" -- a section of their website devoted to "citizen journalism."
"Bruce Willis will be 86. Who will save you and your children?"
In other words, the media fucked right the hell up. Quantity became more important than quality, and the public became less and less trustful of once-respected sources. Collectively, America decided to find factual refuge elsewhere. And in hindsight, people didn't land on the best network to do it ...
Comedy Started Taking Over The News And Political Arena
After doing so many "BS News" articles, I began getting praise from people telling me that Cracked was the "most credible" news source on the internet. This terrified me. Not just because social interaction exhausts my soul, but also because I'm probably the least qualified person to get ALL your news from. Until Cracked, I was a dishwasher by trade. I have no background in journalism, and once punched my friend while sleepwalking. I went to film school, for crying out loud.
Not to compare myself to The Daily Show at all, but my horror was not unlike Jon Stewart's when all the kids "got their news" from him. But despite his disapproval, we still held him up on that pedestal.
So why was Jon Stewart such a voice of reason in modern America? As he himself once described it on C-Span, the media bubble is a lot like six-year-olds playing soccer, too busy crowding the ball to see the bigger picture. Meanwhile, political comedians had the luxury newspapers once did, in that they could fully digest the news and pinpoint the most important narrative. They aren't smarter than CNN or NBC or Fox, but rather lack the exhaustion of covering every goddamn thing that happens all the time.
And that luxury-turned-superiority made them a more respected source, suddenly elevating these silly comedy shows to president-worthy pedigree.
"Tonight's Moment of
Zen Holy Shit, Is This Really Happening?"
Politicians have always used comedy and late night to court voters, sure. But the days of playing sax or yelling "Sock it to me" were now muddled with actual discussions about policy and ideology. The relationship was no longer exclusively symbiotic, but sometimes combative and downright ballsy. This was no more evident than when Stephen Colbert satirically drilled into George Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.
And also drilled into, let's not forget, the media for being too pally with the White House.
Yes. There was still the "slow jamming the news" and Carpool Karaoke pandering, but our generation's Edward R. Murrows suddenly existed between Crank Yankers episodes and YouTube ads. Then, at one such Correspondents Dinner, something crazy happened. Along with a late-night host, Obama spent a considerable amount of time using comedy to lay into another public figure.
While it's rumored that this moment inspired Trump to run for president, the real damage it did was bring him into the same circle of comedy as late-night entertainers and politicians. As comedians legitimized themselves by making fun of politicians, politicians legitimized Trump by making fun of him. But this was but a sliver of why Trump was eventually taken seriously ...
The News Began Treating Social Media As A Valid Source (And Legitimized Hearsay)
It's weird that I even have to say this, but social media isn't the news. You shouldn't be pouring your morning coffee (or cutting up breakfast cocaine), taking a chair (or hookers you paid to form a chair, Voltron-style), and letting Facebook's algorithm or a bunch of Reddit upvotes dictate how informed you are. Same with Twitter -- a site often filled with fake #outrage stories about racist boycotts and teen trends. That isn't to say these places don't have value (Reddit is really good at weeding out BS hoaxes and supporting people in need). They are simply not reflective of society as a whole. It's groupthink, which tends to result in insular bubbles and unfounded witch hunts. There's nothing wrong with social media, as long as you don't treat it like reality. It's more like reality LARPing, with everyone acting inflated due to the lack of real physical danger.
And yet ...
Yes, they mean your aunt on Facebook.
Everyone gets their news from social media, and it's gross and terrible. And while you've probably been hearing that since 2009, the fuck-awful consequences finally became realized during this last election ...
That's a visualization from a Twitter study by MIT and published by Vice. It shows that while the media, Clinton followers, and unaligned voters were mingling amongst each other, Trump supporters had effectively broken off from the mainstream and created their own insular world. It's why the election came as such a surprise to everyone. Just as the Trumpsters ignored mainstream news, the mainstream news ignored the Trumpsters. And that's the big issue: not that we got our news from social media, but that the news was getting its news from social media.
Like the 24-hour networks, sites like Twitter became yet another outlet for even faster coverage with ZERO hindsight. Only this time, everyone was a reporter. Unsourced Reddit and Twitter posts would show up on CNN and NBC like guest experts, effectively empowering any rando as a credible news source. We weren't commenters and trolls anymore, but qualified "citizen journalists" grilling celebrities in AMAs or live-tweeting protests or scouring Wikileaks. Anyone could be the next Woodward and Bernstein ... and thus began an era of blind-hucking "gate" after every mildly upsetting event under the sun.
And as the journalists looked to the people, the pendulum swung way too far in the wrong direction. By the time publications began realizing that anonymous and unsourced comments were actually undermining researched articles, it was too late to turn back. And that's when things got really bad ...
There Was A Revolt Against "Experts" And "Insiders"
Reality has no political slant. The farther someone devotes themselves to an extreme ideology, the more they have to reject those unbiasedly presenting scientific fact. Anti-vaxxers. Climate change deniers. GMO alarmists. These are all beliefs that exist due to some rejection of popular medicine and science. Other divides, such as gun control and abortion, tend to exist more on a spectrum between hard facts and personal ethics.
The key to it all is recognizing what is a fact and what is a feeling. And despite everything I said earlier, there's a completely unsourced image going around social media that pretty much nails it.
That scale is based off of many things, such as staff, reputation for accuracy, credentials, etc. That's how most professionals and experts are judged publicly. It's how we know to certify some doctors and scientists while distrusting others -- through documented experience and knowledge (people tend to call these "diplomas"). And with all this support, they still make mistakes, because the world is unpredictable and beautifully flawed, like a volcano or Bill Murray. So we should always hold experts accountable, but also remember that the system is built on trusting others to gain knowledge we ourselves don't have the time to master. This is how we have plumbers, and lawyers, and dominatrices, and school teachers, and politicians.
"Also, your MOM wasn't an amateur, lol!!"
One of the central themes of supporting Brexit was a rejection of "so-called experts" in favor of gut emotion. The same thing happened during the 2016 election, as Donald Trump's policy pretty much boiled down to a series of unrealistic slogans that defied expert opinion. Only it didn't matter much, because Trump had harnessed a very real and justified frustration from rural America, which was aimed toward "elitist big city politicians" and "snowflake college kids." Even those turtlenecks at PBS jumped on this when they put out a quiz that equated living in a city as "being in a bubble."
While it's certainly appealing to imagine the election as a fight between "real" Americans and "big city elitists," putting the most ethnically and culturally diverse parts of the country in a "bubble" is a mind-boggling mistake. Especially when "real" America is the less-diverse, culturally entrenched populations literally screaming "Build a wall" at the top of their lungs.
The expectation of diversity is itself a product of the liberal bubble.
And that's why blaming Trump's victory on "out-of-touch Democrats and Republicans not reaching out to the working class" is like blaming your roommate for letting you stick your tit in a blender. The working class and rural America should fucking know better than to vote for Trump. But just as the media failed us, so too did mainstream politics cause people to roll the dice on this shuffling troll burger. And while I totally get that he is supposed to be an "outsider" bringing "change" the same way Obama did eight years ago ... Obama was still qualified for the damn job. He was a political science major specializing in international relations who went on to be an honor student at Harvard Law. He was a freaking senator. So I don't care how shitty mainstream politics are; rejecting "experts" and "elitists" (even if it's Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton) for an inexperienced corporate demagogue is like the sheep hiring a drunk hyena to stave off the wolves. It's like having Russell Crowe host a meditative wellness seminar.
This is why the worst thing that conservative and liberal experts can do is blame themselves for not reaching out. If a meteorologist tells you it's going to rain exploding turds, they shouldn't be blamed when soon-to-be-shit-covered people rally against "weather elitists who aren't always 100 percent accurate." And speaking of plummeting excrement ...
Cold Hard Facts Became "Political Viewpoints"
Remember that graph above? Well, Infowars (one of the sites on the extreme right) took issue with it, and decided to put out their own "corrected" graph.
Fun tip: If someone is gauging truth on a scale between two complex and emotional concepts, they're probably dirt-eating crazy. I mean, come on guys -- we've all seen Donnie Darko. And the Alex Jones scream rag isn't alone here. When Facebook announced they would fact-check articles with Snopes and Politifact, some sites declared the move to be "liberal propaganda."
Calm your smug, liberals, because the act of shuffling reality to justify extremism isn't party-exclusive. As someone who tends to have more left-leaning Facebook friends, I was subject to an unbelievable slurry of headlines from Daily Kos and Occupy Democrats declaring that the electoral college was totally going to overturn Trump's victory (spoilers: they didn't, and there was never much evidence that they would). But to a lot of worked-up progressives, questioning that narrative (or any hyperbolic anti-Trump headline) is somehow treated the same as giving Hitler a greased "Thank you" handy at a Kid Rock concert. Because fact-checking has now become a partisan fucking act - especially now since our new commander-in-chief is a pathological Twitter maniac.
This is our fucking president now.
When Trump won, there were a lot of reasons for people to be scared and upset. But for me, a news researcher and fact-checker, one of the saddest aspects was watching a large group of Americans proudly embrace total ignorance like an ideology. This new divide wasn't between liberals and conservatives, but between informed and misinformed voters. Lord knows that Republicans have been just as vocal about the dick-clownery going on from the Trump camp.
In the normal political arena, disagreements happen when multiple parties have different interpretations of facts. Only Trump doesn't recognize facts at all. He rejects them like middle-aged spouses. That's why he's basically the only political leader (from either side) refusing to recognize the overwhelming evidence of Russian hacking. We've seen him bend logic to such a mind-fucking extent that he denied making a statement minutes after he made it. All political debate against him is a Mad Hatter Monopoly game in which he sweeps all the pieces off the board, pisses in your soda, and walks off with the bank.
Seriously. He will be in Disney's Hall of Presidents. Jesus Christ.
And people voted for this. They boldly bought his insane and blatant lies because their sense of logic had been drowned out by emotion and personal bias ... all thanks to a world that gave credence to anonymous feelings over thoughtful and researched discussion. Trump was all of the problems I've described here combined into one ubermensch of hogwater. And now he could use his most powerful position to further detach supporters by labeling a flabbergasted press as sinister liars while proudly proclaiming himself as the same.
And the weirdest part is that all these observations are somehow considered a partisan bias. There are people who will read this and conclude that I'm just some "butthurt libertard/cuckservative who can't get over Pepe Trump's victory." But I don't give a wheeling turd about Hillary or Ted or Jeb. I'm a professional fucking news researcher who observed a president-elect use xenophobia and bullying to gain media traction, lie pathologically to the American people, joke in private about sexual assault, incite harassment against private citizens, get put into power through piles of bipartisan evidence of influence from Russia (after he publicly asked them to hack America), and already begin to muck our relationship with China -- possibly leading to hostile actions.
If you think any of what I just said is politically biased, then too freaking bad. Go form some baby fantasy party based on Breitbart comments and Tumblr posts and gumdrop farts. Meanwhile, there are very real issues that need to be discussed, and we simply don't have the luxury of entertaining alternate reality fan-fiction anymore. Unless it's, like ... erotic.
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