Fake news sites, deceptive memes, and the rise of post-truth politics

One would think that, during the most internet-fueled election in history, we would be less susceptible to lies, hoaxes, and misinformation. We have thousands of sources at our fingertips at all times. In mere seconds, a cursory Google search can retrieve information on nearly any subject we can imagine.

deceiveYet, the Internet has also made it just as easy to locate purposefully misleading information, bogus claims, and propaganda disguised as journalism.  Add short attention spans, a polarized and volatile political landscape, and the ease of one-click sharing, and you get social media feeds that are a morass of lies, propaganda, half-truths, and misinformation.

All of this would be fine if the average person were equipped with the ability to discern between fact-based journalism and partisan propaganda. If only it were that simple.

What’s even more disconcerting is that many of us believe and spread lies and misinformation supporting our own views (or candidate), while we are quick to dismiss information that supports opposing views — even if that information is based in fact. We want to be right, and we’ll perform all kinds of contortions to prove it.

How many times have you seen the following play out on social media?

Joe Blow: Hey, check this out! I knew it! Candidate X is the worst in history!
Jane Doe: Actually, that’s not true. Check out Reputable Source 1 and Pulitzer-Winning Fact-Check Organization 2. Both show that the meme you shared is just a hoax.
Joe Blow: No thanks! Reputable Source 1 is the propaganda arm of Candidate Y, and Pulitzer-Winning Fact-Check Organization 2 is in cahoots with Political Party Z. I’ll stick to reputable sources like Dubious Hyper-Partisan ‘News’ Site.

To be clear, this is not simply a conservative phenomenon. Liberals, too, are susceptible to misinformation. However, research has shown that news sources favored by conservatives (i.e. Fox News) contain more false statements on average than more neutral or liberal-leaning sources (i.e. CNN, and MSNBC, respectively). Research also shows that Fox News viewers are less informed than those who consume news from sources perceived as more neutral or liberal.

As if it wasn’t enough to locate the truth on the Misinformation Superhighway, every statement made by political candidates and elected officials must also be independently scrutinized and fact-checked. Here in Maine, for example, Gov. Paul LePage reliably serves up huge whoppers, while, nationally, Donald Trump tells 20 to 37 lies per day on the campaign trail (yes, someone actually counts them).

How did we get to this point in the age of information?  Why, with widespread access to information, are we bombarded with lies and misinformation on a daily basis?

What we have is a perfect storm of sorts. A bullshit storm, if you will.

The proliferation of hyper-partisan blogs, sites, and Facebook pages

The New York Times:

There’s… a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed. These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook, and you’ve probably never heard of them. They have names like Occupy Democrats; The Angry Patriot; US Chronicle; Addicting Info; RightAlerts; Being Liberal; Opposing Views; Fed-Up Americans; American News; and hundreds more. Some of these pages have millions of followers; many have hundreds of thousands.


Individually, these pages have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, [including] corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times.


[These pages] have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

So what we have here is news turned on its head. These pages have no responsibility to be accurate, and they’re not interested in winning the Pulitzer. Their goal, plain and simple, is to get clicks, likes, and shares, and to monetize web traffic. The strategy in doing so is also simple: to attract eyeballs and clicks, to be hyperbolic and loud, to get likes and shares, and play into the psychology of social media users.

The New York Times again:

From a user’s point of view, every share, like or comment is both an act of speech and an accretive piece of a public identity. Maybe some people want to be identified among their networks as news junkies, news curators or as some sort of objective and well-informed reader. Many more people simply want to share specific beliefs, to tell people what they think or, just as important, what they don’t. A newspaper-style story or a dry, matter-of-fact headline is adequate for this purpose. But even better is a headline, or meme, that skips straight to an ideological conclusion or rebuts an argument.

Buzzfeed, in their analysis of hyper-partisan Facebook pages:

The best way to attract and grow an audience for political content on the world’s biggest social network is to eschew factual reporting and instead play to partisan biases using false or misleading information that simply tells people what they want to hear. This approach has precursors in partisan print and television media, but has gained a new scale of distribution on Facebook.


[These pages] play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle

bullshit asymmetry principleIn 2013, the Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini formulated the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle (aka Brandolini’s Law) which states that: The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.  It would appear that Brandolini coined this just in time for the 2016 election cycle.

The analog version of Brandolini’s Law would be something like when John Adams stated that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist (he wasn’t), or when Jefferson said that Adams was a monarchist (he wasn’t). In those days, although BS was harder to spread, it was harder to refute. (Many today still believe that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree.)

In the digital age, however, BS spreads like wildfire. As the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Fact-checkers simply can’t keep up. Many could care less what the fact-checkers say anyway. fake news

A 2012 metastudy from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that even strategic retractions and other debunking/fact-checking only exacerbates the problem:

“People will refer more to misinformation that is in line with their attitudes and will be relatively immune to corrections, such that retractions may even backfire and strengthen the initially held beliefs.” This “boomerang” effect can also desensitize individuals to future attempts to correct erroneous information.

Confirmation Bias

It’s no secret that we tend to choose and share information (or misinformation, as the case may be) that aligns with our personal worldview, and we tend to deny or ignore those that don’t. This is confirmation bias, and when you throw social media into the mix, it’s like confirmation bias on steroids, as a recent study focusing on Facebook users illustrates:

“Users mostly tend to select and share content according to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest.” On Facebook, the result is the formation of a lot of “homogeneous, polarized clusters.” Within those clusters, new information moves quickly among friends (often in just a few hours).

The consequence is the “proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.”


Once people discover that others agree with them, they become more confident — and then more extreme.

In that sense, confirmation bias is self-reinforcing, producing a vicious spiral. If people begin with a certain belief, and find information that confirms it, they will intensify their commitment to that very belief, thus strengthening their bias.

We have seen this play out often in recent years, most notably with regards to controversies surrounding vaccine safety and climate science.

Don’t think for a minute that politicians and ‘news’ sources do not understand how confirmation bias works.

Gaming the BS System

lies and the lying liars who tell themPoliticians and content producers alike, are very, very aware of Brandolini’s Law. They understand the nature of BS in the digital age, and they cynically exploit this phenomenon to their advantage, whether for monetary gain or for votes.

Donald Trump continues to claim that thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the twin towers fell, despite the fact that nobody has been able to corroborate it.  Many of his supporters believe this to be a fact, and refutations only reinforce their belief, rather than convince them that this claim is simply not true.

Daniel Bush, reporting for NPR:

“In the era of the Internet there is so much information out there, true and false, and it is virtually impossible for most citizens to separate fact from fiction…This increases the incentive for politicians to literally say anything.”

Trump has certainly paid notice.

20160910_FBC512Consider, as another example, Trump’s repeated refrain that “crime is rising.” It totally isn’t. Crime has been on the decline for nearly 25 years. Yet, as Brandolini’s Law predicts, many who hear it believe it, and once it’s out, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At times, the proliferation of bogus ‘news,’ the spreading of false information, and the gullibility of the average citizen can be amusing — until you stop to consider the parallels between the playbooks of political candidates and those of dictators who have used misinformation to control a population.

Both parties have painted their opponents as “enemies of the state.”  We are seeing a vilification of the media by Donald Trump, including threats of lawsuits or jail to those who write unfavorably about him. We are seeing unsubstantiated claims that the election is “rigged.” The list goes on and on.

While our misinformation problem here in America is not on the scale of, say, North Korea, some of the symptoms we experience should serve as a collective warning.  Dictatorships employ similar tactics to confuse and manipulate the populace. When average US citizens start to wonder “What is a fact?” or “Who can I trust?,” or when we are emotionally manipulated to distrust entire swaths of the population or our own democratic process, it’s beyond time to change our behavior.

We could start by using common sense online. Sounds easy, but even highly educated, and well-informed individuals fall victim to hoaxes, confirmation bias, and misinformation.

We could take a moment, upon reading the latest explosive BREAKING bombshell, to consider the source, to cross-check or corroborate the information, using known, reputable sources (and avoiding known fake news sites and hoax purveyors).

We could stop sharing and reposting inflammatory memes and headlines (most of which are manipulating us for the clicks and the web traffic, anyway), and instead take a moment to communicate our sentiments in other ways, using less-exploitive (and more reputable) sources.

Until we have effective apps and/or services for addressing BS, or until social media finds reliable ways to address hoaxes and fake news, we could do worse than to follow the below steps, courtesy of The Last Word On Nothing:navigating bullshit

Eric Shepherd

About Eric Shepherd

Eric is a marketing professional working and living in Portland, ME. His writing on politics, science, and culture has appeared on NPR.com, Babble.com, and other national and regional outlets. Eric is also a public speaker on topics related to branding, social media, and cause marketing. He spent 10 years as a recording and touring musician. He has lived up and down the East Coast, but loves Portland the very most.