Una Mullally: Pro-Trump propaganda shows fakery has gone viral

Fake news was clickbait frivolity until its Orwellian role in the US election race

US president elect Donald Trump. Over 140 pro-Trump fake-news websites were manned by youngsters in the Macedonian town of Veles, writing fake news stories to generate clicks for cash. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

US president elect Donald Trump. Over 140 pro-Trump fake-news websites were manned by youngsters in the Macedonian town of Veles, writing fake news stories to generate clicks for cash. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

 

As the media examines the impact of fake news on the US presidential election, we should examine the psychology of what draws people to favour fakery over facts.

In group dynamics, one of the psychological functions of gossip is to promote the self. We obtain and spread information about others – even people we care about – to carve out positions in social hierarchies. Writing in a psychology journal in 2014 after conducting experiments on gossip, researchers from the University of Groningen wrote: “Positive gossip has self-improvement value.”

That is to say, spreading positive gossip about someone is about passing on information that contains teachings about how the giver and recipient of gossip can improve themselves. That’s a good thing, a sort of: “Look at how well they’re doing. What can we learn from that?”

Sometimes positive gossip might induce envy, but those feelings are generally internalised and lead to self-scrutiny (or resentment). However, “negative gossip has self-promotion value, because it provides individuals with social comparison information that justifies self-promoting judgments, which results in feelings of pride”.

Superiority

Self-importance and self-promotion are key components of social media identity and behaviour: we pontificate and pass on information that we feel will reveal our own intelligence, superiority, or adopt an arrogant outlook that the “information” one knows must be imparted to the unaware, aka Wake Up Sheeple! What happens, though, when that information isn’t real?

As a child, the news is boring. As you grow up, you realise current affairs have an impact on your life, and so you start paying attention to the news, informing yourself.

Somewhere along the line, news started being dismantled. The switch from news to entertainment happened long ago, thanks to broadcast news. The big, important issues of our time were gradually given the same space as meaningless reports, leading to a media where so much news has become the “. . .and finally. . . ” portion of a bulletin.

Many of us have experienced people we know as smart and non-crazy sharing fake news reports online. People want fake news. When the truth is sometimes too mundane, you just want to zhuzh it up.

When you have entire sectors of media built on nonsense – journalists taking quotes out of context, phoney controversies, he-said-she-said masquerading as reporting, a collapse in investigative journalism, mistakes that previously would have been marked as critical errors now frequent occurrences, the entire made-up celebrity news sector, a tabloid magazine industry that built itself around a decade-long rhetorical question about whether Jennifer Aniston was lonely – what hope is there for reality to cut through?

There is also the adage that the market gets what the market wants. We want to be entertained, shocked, moved.

Losing advertising revenue, mainstream media ran after viral nonsense that was already being disseminated online like a toddler chasing a pigeon, but what was mainstream media to do when people watch more cat videos than editions of Prime Time? Conspiracy theories migrated from message boards to news sites, copy-and-paste culture became Chinese whispers, and the fake-news industry soared.

More than 140 pro-Trump fake-news websites were manned by youngsters in the Macedonian town of Veles, writing fake news stories to generate clicks for cash. BuzzFeed reported on “the economic incentives behind producing misinformation specifically for the wealthiest advertising markets and specifically for Facebook, the world’s largest social network, as well as within online advertising networks such as Google AdSense”.

Propaganda

Let the cold shiver of realisation that there are potentially more quick-fix opportunities for young people in fake news than there are in real journalism course through your body. The issue with the pro-Trump fake news is that frivolity became propaganda.

For many years, fakery has formed the backbone of our popular culture and media and now facts and truth themselves are being dismantled. Politicians have always lied, but the fact that an electorate would collaborate en masse with such blatant fakery in a democracy is what is so stunning, all the while finding skewed information to back up their realities.

On CNN, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, articulated what a lot of people felt about the attempts to normalise Donald Trump and the surrounding “news”. “It’s a hallucination,” Remnick said.

While it is tempting to slam the media’s role in a post-truth society, we must examine too our own behaviour. What leads us to favour inanity over expertise? What is the desire to be entertained over informed?

For many people, the Trump election tossed everything we knew to be true up in the air. How can we now maintain a grip on reality and fact? As ever, we reach back to George Orwell to make sense of the present. Indeed, Winston Smith, the everyman in Nineteen Eighty-Four, worked at the Ministry of Truth, where his job was literally rewriting history, doctoring historical documents and newspaper archives so that the amorphous party line would always be correct.

This is Trump saving a Ford factory that was never due to close. This is three million illegal immigrant criminals. This is the transition going “so smoothly,” as Trump tweeted. Ignorance is strength. Two plus two equals five.

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