Last night, a website notorious for spreading disinformation across social media claimed that Donald Trump had, through negotiations with Ford chairman Bill Ford, ensured that Ford would not move its Lincoln production plant from Louisville to Mexico. The claim was, at best, misleading – Ford was never going to close the plant; Lincoln production was going to move to Mexico while the Kentucky plant shifted to producing only the Ford Escape, with no jobs lost – but, as is often the case with fake-news reports, it was quickly and uncritically distributed by an audience in the tens of thousands, if not much higher, especially after it was picked up by the galaxy of far-right fly-by-night sites that profit from the creation and distribution of exaggerations, wish fulfillment, and lies on social media. The fake-news site that originated this particular story is based here in New York City, and located at http://www.twitter.com/realDonaldTrump. Its proprietor is the president-elect of the United States.
In the week since the election, the non-fake media has been, understandably, attentive to the problem of “fake news” websites that take advantage of social media and automated ad platforms to perform a kind of traffic arbitrage, enticing enormous audiences to their bootleg sites and generating revenue, and profits, from display ads sold on those sites. Google and Facebook both recently announced that they’d stop allowing misleading websites to use their ad networks, which could potentially strike a significant blow against this particular scheme, and the financial incentives for creating and disseminating fake news.
But the incentives to create and distribute fake news are not only financial, and All-Star Macedonia Crying Eagle Number-One News and Views Very Good is not the only kind of fake-news website undermining the media infrastructure necessary for a functioning democracy. Trump’s nominee for national security adviser, a Jack D. Ripper type named Michael Flynn, has a particular fondness for publishing fake news to his Twitter account, as does Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conaway. Even nominally anti-Trump Republicans like Nebraska senator Ben Sasse have gotten into the fake-news business, entertaining ideas of “paid protesters” on the same day one of the most prolific fabricators of fake news admitted that the most widely shared account of paid protesters was wholly made up.
The point here is not to re-prosecute the Fox News wars of the early 2000s, though it’s always worth remembering that an entire portion of the American electorate exited the gravitational field of facticity years ago, and Facebook is, as much as anything, giving an injection of rocket fuel to its rickety little spaceship. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize that the problem of misinformation across social media is one that exists not because of the arbitrage math of advertising rates but deep within the structures of platforms themselves.
At heart, the difficulty facing us is that everyone online is now, more or less, a news outlet. Everyone has the power to authoritatively determine truth; everyone is engaged in the same task of publishing content that might grab the attention of their followers. On Twitter, what’s the difference between The New York Times and Donald Trump? (Or for that matter, me and you?) Trump’s tweets are not just events and statements on which the Times can report, they are themselves rivals to the Times‘ reporting. The audience, too, is made up of “publishers” – individual Twitter accounts with their own, generally smaller publisher-audiences – and the Times and Trump both rely on those publishers to distribute their content, through shares and retweets, to an even wider audience. In this environment, publishers quickly learn that their most successful content, measured by size of audience, is that which readers are compelled to share to their audience. And so on.
Of course, social media as an activity isn’t only about distributing information to one’s peers. It often isn’t about that at all. Generally, we post on social media as a way of establishing an identity in a crowded online environment, and in the hopes of receiving some degree of validation in the form of “engagement” – likes, comments, shares. So not only does “consuming information” (or, you know, “reading”) become less and less often distinguishable from “distributing information,” those two activities become wrapped up in the public shaping of individual identity. The news-media economy, in which a small number of publishers competed to deliver new information to a large number of readers, is in the process of being swallowed into a much larger media economy, in which hundreds of millions of functionally identical publishers compete with each other for attention from each other in an environment whose chief function isn’t the dissemination of information, but socially performed identity formation.
This is, uhh, extremely weird, at best. Traditional news organizations, to state the obvious, are not built to survive an economy like that. You know who is, though? Politicians. The scary thing about “fake news” isn’t just that it’s financially incentivized by our new platform-gods, it’s that it’s socially and ideologically incentivized by them in ways that can’t be fixed without dismantling their entire operation. And, further, that the people best primed to benefit from “fake news” aren’t Macedonian teenagers hoping to buy guitars but leaders willing to untether themselves from truth in exchange for the powerful organizing capabilities of a passionate online audience. In this sense “fake news sites” aren’t a vestigial artifact of an awkward transition from print to digital – they’re the very future of politics itself.