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Fake news — and its trailer-park victims

23 November 2018


THE Johnston Press, a group that owned 200 British newspapers, among them The Yorkshire Post, The Scotsman, and the i newspaper, entered administration last week.

It seems to have been rescued by two New York hedge funds; at least, the papers have been, if not the pensions of their employees. But it was a reminder of the fragility of the trade.

So, too, was the announcement by Facebook that it will fund the salaries of 80 trainee journalists in Britain. It is, of course, Facebook that has, along with Google, destroyed the economic model of print journalism. The 80 jobs that Facebook has promised to fund are not many compared with the 5000 British journalistic jobs that have disappeared since 2007.

In the United States, the situation is even worse. The Washington Post, which was rescued by Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, carried an extraordinarily bleak story about the ecosystem that has replaced real journalists. In 2016, on Facebook, a precariously employed man, Christopher Blair, launched a satirical page, “America’s Last Line of Defense”, which mocked the credulity of Trump supporters by printing grotesquely faked stories for them to believe.

“In the last two years on his page, America’s Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was nine.

“‘Share if you’re outraged!’ his posts often read, and thousands of people on Facebook had clicked ‘like’ and then ‘share,’ most of whom did not recognize his posts as satire. Instead, Blair’s page had become one of the most popular on Facebook among Trump-supporting conservatives over 55.”

He now types up to 3000 words a day — all, according to the Post, in capital letters. The advertisements on his page can bring in as much as $15,000 a month; so he can’t stop. His stories are picked up by Macedonian and Russian fake-news outlets, and circulated still more widely.

There are 14 separate disclaimers on his page pointing out that the stories are false, satirical nonsense, and all made up. None makes any difference. He has recruited a group of 100 friends to jump into the comments and point out that the stories are false. No one takes any notice.

HAD the story stopped there, it would have illustrated things that we already know, or think we know. But the reporter, Eli Saslow, made it real news by finding Shirley Chapian, a retired woman in a trailer park an hour’s drive outside Las Vegas, who follows, and believes, Blair’s lunatic satires.

“On display above Chapian’s screen were needlepoints that had once occupied much of her free time, intricate pieces of artwork that took hundreds of hours to complete, but now she didn’t have the patience. Out her window was a dead-end road of identical beige-and-brown rock gardens surrounding double-wide trailers that looked similar to her own, many of them occupied by neighbours whom she’d never met. . .

“The house was empty and quiet except for the clicking of her computer mouse. She lived alone, and on many days her only personal interaction occurred here, on Facebook. Mixed into her morning news feed were photos and updates from some of her 300 friends, but most items came directly from political groups Chapian had chosen to follow: ‘Free Speech Patriots,’ ‘Taking Back America,’ ‘Ban Islam,’ ‘Trump 2020’ and ‘Rebel Life.’

“On her computer the attack against America was urgent and unrelenting. ‘BREAKING: Democrat mega-donor accused of sexual assault!!!’ ‘Is Michelle Obama really dating Bruce Springsteen?’ ‘Iowa Farmer Claims Bill Clinton had Sex with Cow during “Cocaine Party”.’”

Saslow watches her sharing and liking the story that Blair has made up earlier. He sees Blair’s friends descend and mock the true believers, and sees, too, how this has no effect on her whatever except to reinforce a kind of bewildered stubbornness.

She rises sometimes in the middle of the night to refresh her feed of political news. And, as I read the story, I felt a surge of anger — not with her; nor with Blair, even; but with those of his friends and allies who mock her online.

She lives in this way not because she is stupid or racist, but overwhelmingly because she is lonely. The mockery feeds the self-righteousness of her persecutors, and holds her more tightly in her web of delusion. It is the same dynamic as holds high-functioning conservative Evangelicals in their belief systems among their City peers.

None of that was possible with old media. They were, for the most part, less untruthful, but what really mattered was that they were far less intrusive. Perhaps the word I am looking for is “addictive”.

In the light of this story, big tech looks less like a media business and more like a drug company. Perhaps that’s how it should be regulated.

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