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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lies are OK

In what may signal the end of an era – and the beginning of a terrifying new one – the Washington Post‘s dedicated section to exposing outrageous internet lies announced that it would be closing up shop. Not because people have become better at spotting hoaxes – they haven’t – but because a large section of the population no longer seems to care whether the facts are on their side or not.

The internet has always been used to spread misinformation, and no political persuasion is immune to it, but in recent years, as unrepentant liars like Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina dominate the headlines and the polls, it’s clear that conservatives have crossed the Rubicon. 

No longer is it necessary to even pretend that the facts are on your side; if it confirms your entrenched beliefs, it’s “real” to you. Or as Stephen Colbert once coined it, “truthiness.” It may be wrong, but it feels right.

In a damning indictment of not just bona fide hoax sites, but also of the right-wing punditry that shovels baseless falsehoods for political gain and profit, Washington Post writer Caitlin Dewey patiently explains how frustrating it is to fact-check bogus myths and watch as people simply ignore the facts and go on believing them anyway. 

It’s not just that the audience is gullible, they actually enjoy being lied to. Internet hoaxers specifically target conservatives because they make the best victims.

Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

In an even more aggressive twist, many of these fake sites now target right-wing xenophobia and racism. It performs even better because nothing fires people up like hatred.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

But more depressing than the mercenary clickbait engineers who craft fake stories meant to go viral are the right-wing pundits who do the same and call it “conservative journalism.” 

Places like Breitbart, The Blaze, and Fox News routinely misinform their readers and stir up their audience with stories that focus on race, gender, immigration, or poverty framed or fabricated in a way to reaffirm their pre-existing stereotypes. It’s no surprise that these right-wing sites are highly profitable. 

As Horner remarked earlier, middle-aged conservatives (the very audience of Breitbart) love to share this stuff on social media. Your Facebook newsfeed is probably filled with it right now.

Sadly, the very people that need more reality-based facts in their lives are the ones who refuse to believe them. For years Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have been pushing the convenient narrative that the “mainstream” media and scientists are lying to them. 

Republicans can only trust right-wing sources. The relentless fear-mongering has done its job. The paranoia has reached a boiling point. Seeing all of this, Dewey reaches her painful conclusion: Not only are these gullible people beyond help, they don’t even want to be saved.
Had I written this column as normal this week, I probably would have included, say, this widely shared poston Before It’s News that claimed an Alaska judge called for Obama’s arrest. But Quattrociocchi has found (and this is perhaps intuitive) that the sort of readers who would unskeptically share such a far-fetched story site are exactly the readers who will not be convinced by The Washington Post’s debunking.To me, at least, that represents a very weird moment in Internet discourse — an issue I also addressed earlier this week. At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?
The answer, sadly, is now.

Author Jameson Parker covers US politics, social justice issues, and other current events which aren't getting the attention they deserve. Feel free to follow or drop me a line on twitter.