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Can't Handle the Truth

Fake News Is Winning

Politicians and the establishment mainstream media are fighting back against hoaxes and lies, but it's not working.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome to Can't Handle the Truth, our new Saturday column looking back at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.

"The stories are fake, but the consequences are real," Scott Pelley of CBS's 60 Minutes intoned during a report on fake news that aired Sunday. The segment was a a vintage network TV investigative report with all the trappings. It was what your dad thinks of when he sees the word news. Pelly's main interview subject, and target, was a guy who's become famous selling lies and pretending they're on the level of 60 Minutes: the rabidly pro-Trump blogger and vlogger Michael Cernovich.


It did not go well—for Pelley.

The reporter listed a bunch of Cernovich's badly-sourced, misleading claims and asked him to defend this nonsense. Cernovich did the only thing you have to do to win in today's media landscape: He stuck to his guns. Cernovich called his stories "100 percent true" and insisted, "I don't say anything that I don't believe." Maybe you think Cernovich is a sleazebag, but it's doubtful that the interview did a whole lot to persuade anyone of that if they were on the fence. Afterward, Cernovich was bragging about how well he did.

It didn't help when Pelley segued into a clumsy, no-duh, exposé on fake social media followers. "Some fake news publishers use computer software called 'bots,'" he said, to audible roars of laughter from anyone under 50.

Then, on Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee held its first hearing about Russiagate—or whatever that whole mess is called—and fake news took center stage for a moment on Capitol Hill. When a former FBI agent and current foreign policy think tank researcher named Clint Watts answered a question about why Russia got so audacious with its propaganda during the 2016 election, Watts's exasperated answer explained an awful lot.

Watts brought big ideas. "We need a State Department, and a DHS website that immediately refutes when falsehoods are put out," he suggested. He also said media organizations need to slow down when publishing leaks, and consider whose agenda is being served. "What if they boycotted Wikileaks collectively?" he offered. (Given the various incentives of the media business, that particular proposal isn't like to get past the "what if" stage.)


But in the process, Watts laid out a fairly convincing case that Russian propagandists ramped up the creation of fake news because team Trump kept signal-boosting it on the campaign trail. That, he thinks, was why the propaganda worked.

"[Trump campaign head] Paul Manifort cited the fake Incirlik [Air Base] story as a terrorist attack on CNN, and he used it as a talking point," Watts said, referring to fake Russian reports of a terrorist coup attempt in Turkey. He also pointed out that time in October when Trump cited an apparent fake news story from Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik News. Watts also suggested that Trump has made life easier for Russian propagandists by repeating Russia's signature talking points about the election being rigged and by initially denying US intelligence reports about Russian interference.

If presidential candidates are willing to exploit fake news for their own ends, what chance does anyone have to discredit it—especially when a majority of Republicans trust Trump more than the media?

Overall, Watts was pretty resigned about the whole situation: "I'm going to walk out of here today. I'm going to be cyber-attacked. I'm going to be discredited by trolls," he told the very concerned-looking senators, who actually appeared to be listening intently.

Across the pond this week, the BBC rolled out an ad saying it has "always championed the truth." In the ad, BBC reporter Katty Kay walks by floating words and uses her finest newsy tone of voice to reassure the viewer that the BBC has "never taken sides in any war, revolution, or election," so it can call itself "the most trusted brand in news." When a venerable media titan like the BBC has to reassure people that it's objective, you know we've lost faith in our institutions.

And according to the BBC, we can't even trust scientific papers. The Beeb ran a pretty brutal investigative story about the world of scientific research being chock full of papers that were in some way fraudulent. Apparently there were 319 reports of misconduct between 2011 and 2016 among UK researchers. Ivan Oransky, of the science blog Retraction Watch, told the BBC that no one knows how much bad science is out there: "Universities and funding agencies and oversight bodies are not reporting even a reasonable fraction of the number of cases that they see."

BBC's report on fake science was a reminder that, as Buzfeed also pointed out this week, and VICE pointed out three years ago, it's not just Trump and Russia—the internet is filling our brains with fake stories about everything, and the real media hasn't been able to get people to realize what is and isn't true.

So remember kids: Don't believe anything you read on the internet, or anywhere! Except this.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.