Making Media Great Again: The “Fake News” Conspiracy Panic and (Some of) What’s Behind It

(UPDATED BELOW) The burgeoning panic over “fake news” came to an early crescendo on Thanksgiving when the Washington Post trumpeted a report by a shadowy organization calling itself PropOrNot. Its website claims the group is made up of data-minded volunteers devoted to collecting “public-record information connecting propaganda outlets to each other and their coordinators abroad” in order to “act as a central repository and point of reference for related information, and organize efforts to oppose it.” Their “immediate aim” was to bring attention to alleged efforts by Russia to influence the US presidential election.

The Post’s story claimed the group’s analysis uncovered more than 200 websites with a reach of more than 15 million Americans that were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season.” PropOrNot created a list of sites alleged to have transmitted propaganda wittingly or as “useful idiots,” one which included decidedly credible outlets like Naked Capitalism and Polk Award-winner Robert Parry’s The list as a whole reads like a Borges-inspired fever-dream, a hodgepodge of sites many of which appear to have nothing remotely in common with one another except for their placement on the list ( on a list with the nazi d a i l y s t o r m e r?)

PropOrNot has also released a Chrome browser plug-in that flags sites PropOrNot has “identified” as carriers of propaganda:

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A Twitter account bearing the group’s name has already admitted that PropOrNot lied about some of the groups it claimed were allied with it.  At the time of the Post’s story, there was no way to confirm how it came up with the seemingly absurd reach estimates the Post eagerly touted.

A number of journalists were quick to signal boost the story, some breathlessly, and others who should know better initially did the same, either unaware or insufficiently concerned about what they were supporting: Screen shot 2016-11-25 at 1.18.36 PM.png

Some good analyses have been published that cast further doubt on both the motives behind and the substance of PropOrNot’s research and the Post’s dubious decision to publicize it. The whole thing may even be threatening to fall apart. (We’ll update this post with an analysis of the research that was recently – and belatedly – made available.)

Why Media Panic

If the current fake news freak-out were limited to claims that Russia is using social media to influence SU social media channels in low-cost, mostly low-impact ways, there’d be little reason to object. Rival countries do that kind of thing. You may recall the US military sought to achieve a similar set of objectives beginning several years ago which, critics argued at the time, could “encourage other governments . . . to do the same.” Funny how there was no comparable expression of concern at that time in the US press.

Nor was this effort something new in the social media age: US mil/intel is far and away the world’s leader in resources devoted to the science of coercion, happily directing communication-based psyops against foreign governments deemed hostile to US interests as well as nurturing and covertly influencing the domestic manufacture of consent in a variety of ways. The silence with which this history is typically greeted by media outlets reflects a degree of willful ignorance befitting a society that’s too content with its political immaturity.

So let’s offer a working hypothesis about the confluence of circumstances driving the coverage and reception of “fake news.” Stung by 1) the supposed insouciance of the public’s choice of a boorish, deranged plutocrat and family friend of the Clintons to lead the country and 2) the insurgency inside the Democratic party to displace its moribund leadership, a subsection of media outlets ideologically aligned with the Democratic party’s leadership have undertaken a conspiracy panic against entities deemed hostile to it. We’re witnessing an effort to re-contest an election by spreading fear about nefarious foreign influence that’s allegedly being channeled through libertarian and left-leaning news sites. In service of these ends, no concrete evidence need be provided, and no verbal construction of the situation is too dire. In fact, the current dynamics helpfully  reveal similarities between partisan liberalism and the forms of political irrationality against which it tries to define itself. 

It’s crucial to remember that the panickers aren’t primarily concerned  with the sanctity of elections – their relative indifference to the manipulative forms of public management revealed in the Podesta emails, and their lack of outrage over the Clinton-aligned DNC’s leadership pondering ways to sabotage the Sanders campaign make that clear. (And recall the Putin-blaming the Clinton campaign engaged in as an attempt to distract once the DNC’s lack of neutrality was revealed.) Nor do they seem to care much about the long history of public manipulation resulting from truly disturbing “fake news” campaigns brought to us by “genuine news” outlets- the kind that unfold over months or years, engineered by government operatives who capture elite journalists for the purpose of advancing horrifying, or even murderous goals.  No, what mostly concerns them is that the bad guys won this time, and therefore those on the margins who are perceived to have gotten in the way must be punished. The PropOrNot list is just the latest form of an ugly brand of dissent management we will see in the weeks and months to come, as the need to produce scapegoats for Trump’s retrograde presidency grows in intensity.

Second, the panic also seems tied an attempt at institutional resuscitation by an industry that has seen much of its revenue soaked up by the social media giants that now dominate it. Facebook is a primary target here. Many digital communication scholars have called for Facebook to become more transparent about the specific determinants of its news feed algorithm and to offer researchers a closer look at the oceans of data it collects and makes available to its customers. I support these efforts, but also believe they’re highly unlikely to succeed until a more honest discussion ensues about how to dismantle the conditions that gave rise to the possibility of these behemoths becoming so dominant in the first place. This is a big subject better addressed in detail at a later time. For present purposes, what matters is the enormous reservoir of anxiety produced by Facebook’s shockingly swift emergence as a news force and the threat it is perceived to pose to legacy news outlets.

For some perspective on the present panic, it’s useful to recall another episode in media history where a new technology (in this case, the internet) was responsible for hand-wringing over future prospects. Twenty years ago, several major corporate news outlets led a conspiracy panic against the San Jose Mercury News and reporter Gary Webb, who in August of 1996 had the audacity to publish a devastating series of articles exposing CIA complicity in the crack cocaine epidemic inside the US. The backlash against the series proved punishing to him. He never fully recovered, and the ruin in which his career was undeservedly left surely contributed to his suicide in 2004.

The substance of the series was explosive enough: CIA assets were shown to have funneled cocaine into America’s inner cities and used the proceeds to help fund a covert war in Central America, with what Webb suggested (entirely correctly) was CIA’s careful cooperation. Far from discrediting the series, the CIA’s own internal investigations eventually revealed far more involvement by the CIA, DEA and other federal officials than was originally suggested by Webb, much of it to shield the CIA assets from prosecution inside the US. Unfortunately the results of those investigations were made public long after Webb’s reputation had been sullied. An indispensible summary of the affair and its aftermath reaching up to the present day can be found here and here

But what also made the story an incendiary one was its mode of dissemination. The story was posted on something known as the World Wide Web, and visitors from across the planet could view it and click on hyperlinks that opened new pages with documentation for the startling claims being presented. Soon the SJMN website was getting more than 100,000 additional hits per day, and the story could not be contained to the margins of social awareness. Following a massive wave of publicity, the elite journalism-centered backlash kicked in.

As Jack Bratich, author of Conspiracy Panics: Popular Culture and Political Rationality notes:

Any discussion of conspiracy panics, following the moral panics framework, would need to examine the way that the news media articulates these problems and the proposed solutions (as with the classic work Policing the Crisis). But more than looking at journalism as an institutional support for conspiracy panics, this book examines what conspiracy panics do to the support discourse itself. Journalism has increasingly become a subject of concern regarding its public role and its relation to governance. Understanding professional journalism as a discourse that governs at a distance through rationality gives a glimpse into the broader political rationality. (p. 23, my emphasis)

In the case of Dark Alliance, Bratich argues, the corporate press engineered a panic that both characterized Webb and the other professionals at the SJMN as irresponsible conspiracy theorists guilty of violating truth-telling protocols of the profession, and which sought to code the internet as an “anarchic, turbulent, and disorderly” space where dangerous information careened wildly. In this way, the press sought both a reinvigoration of its diminishing cultural authority as gatekeepers of valid information, and a way to incorporate the “untameable, irrational world” of the internet into mainstream journalism in a controlled fashion.

Panic: Making Media Great Again

Today, Trump’s electoral bombshell has a shellshocked media class feeling a need for institutional resuscitation that’s arguably never been greater -but neither is its collective denial over the course of events that’s brought it to this precipice. Understand that a noxious parasite like Trump could never have done this himself – he needed a host from which to draw energy. He found that host in the form of the professional press. And why? Because like the president elect and Richard Nixon before him, the professional press long ago decided it too couldn’t really have a conflict of interest. Contemptible media executives like Les Moonves gleefully jettisoned any remaining public commitment they may have felt in order to turn the election cycle into a bloated, disfigured cash cow while simultaneously rubbing the public’s face in the fact they were doing so. More troublingly, the press as a whole for many years has behaved as if it was no big deal to ingratiate itself to the political class in hopes of joining it, all the while it was supposed to remain adversarial. But it was an enormous problem.

It’s not like this is a secret – even the most cloying, openly partisan and press-identified media critics can see it (even if they are constitutionally incapable of understanding what it would take to remedy it). The requirement to perform faux responsibility ensures its acknowledged, but they won’t emphasize or insist on it, of course, since that would be bad manners and might risk their place on the inside. Yet there’s no way to understand the historic levels of hostility toward the professional press without closely examining how it came to conceive of itself in ways that no longer required true adversarialism, and how it also became determined to let itself off the hook for that failure. This blog project will be a small effort to highlight past work done to illuminate this professional descent and – time and interest permitting – undertake some original work to further explore it.

Judging in part by the mostly bullshit panic over fake news, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite for serious soul-searching in the rapidly emptying newsrooms of a soulless industry. But because journalists must perform a sense of responsibility in keeping with the level of their self-regard, plenty of simulacra (to borrow a phrase) will abound. The studious avoidance of the bottom-most, structural realities attending the fake soul-searching genre is far preferable to actually confronting the ways profit-based media models produce perversities that sicken news culture and the rest of society. Certainly, as Upton Sinclair understood, legacy media won’t be rushing to join a discussion about how failed commercial media models might be overcome. It’s apparently more important they serve up pathetic, contemptible blacklists from a bogus watchdog groups espousing points of view that are mind-numbingly simplistic and openly propagandistic. Good to know.

Let’s not take our eyes off the ball. The hyperventilation over fake news cannot be permitted to obscure the responsibility the “genuine news” industry bears for abandoning the public interest in pursuit of inclusion within the political class. Press-led conspiracy panics offer hyperbolic distractions designed to forestall fearless, ruthless, and needed scrutiny. They also, of course, when effective, can offer opportunities for short-term resuscitation. So expect them. You can also expect a nasty reckoning for media in the months to come as they are dislogded from an assortment of comfortable assumptions they’ve operated under for a long, long time. There will be a lot to watch for as this process develops, and there should be plenty more to say.

But one thing is for sure: panic will not make corporate media great again because, like America, it never was great. 


UPDATE: The Washington Post distanced itself from its own report, long after it was obvious to most that the story was full of holes:


Naked Capitalism had a pretty pointed and clever takedown too.