Screenshot of LibertyWritersNews.com.
“NASTY: WHAT OBAMA JUST SAID TO TRUMP WILL MAKE YOU BOIL WITH RAGE!” the headline on LibertyWritersNews.com shrieks.
“WHEW! THE HAMILTON ACTOR WHO ATTACKED MIKE PENCE JUST GOT TAKEN DOWN TODAY!”
Such headlines—most being outright fiction, or at least several degrees removed from the truth—are not designed to inform, but rather to stoke fear and anger within their niche audience.
Back in reality, “what Obama said to Trump” was that he would not definitively stay away from commenting on Trump’s presidency (in vague terms implying he’d defend certain values if necessary), while, the article about Hamilton delves into allegedly misogynistic tweets made in jest in the past by the actor, who—hardly “taken down”—made a public statement to Pence during a performance last week.
The two men who wrote these headlines—Paris Wade and Ben Goldman—live right here in Long Beach.
According to The Washington Post, Wade and Goldman were unemployed restaurant workers just six months ago. Now, they run a website with a Facebook page that garnered 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone. (To compare, the most-read online news source in Long Beach, the Post, counted 28,637 Facebook followers as of Monday afternoon.)
In addition to BuzzFeed News’ studies of fake news sites published last month, the organization published a more in-depth analysis of the popularity of such fake news sites last week (many of them associated with so-called “alt-right” movement—a re-branded white nationalism movement that includes many followers fond of the KKK, flashing swastikas and waving the Confederate flag).
The report showed that fake news outperformed real news in the months leading up to the election.
Image by BuzzFeed News.
In fact, in the last three months of the campaign, the 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions or comments, while the 20 best-performing major news websites generated just 7.4 million shares, views, reactions and comments.
This is apparently a global trend—the US isn’t alone, as demonstrated by the dynamics that resulted in Brexit. In fact, websites leaning heavily on rumor-mongering amid a more “democratic” news cycle prompted the Oxford Dictionaries to name “post-truth” its word of the year.
“Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines,” the company said in a statement.
Sites like LibertyWritersNews don’t just aimed to create an insatiably angry, emotional following; they aim to foster distrust in, and sway audiences away from, centrist news organizations, otherwise labeled the “Mainstream Media” (MSM).
“You will not see this on the Washington Post,” the Hamilton article on the site states. “You won’t see this on CNN. They are only filled with leftist lies and try and smear people that don’t fit their agenda.”
In The Washington Post article, the two Long Beach residents were quoted as follows:
“Our audience does not trust the mainstream media,” Goldman, 26, says a little later as Wade keeps typing. “It’s definitely easier to hook them with that.”
“There’s not a ton of thought put into it,” Wade says. “Other than it frames the story so it gets a click.”
The two jumped at the chance to proudly label themselves the “new yellow journalists,” noting they made between $10,000 and $40,000 each month between June and August, running advertisements promoting Viagra alternatives and acne solutions. And that was when they had fewer than 150,000 Facebook followers.
Though the two voted for Obama, were raised in liberal households and hold college degrees from the University of Tennessee, the two struggled finding jobs after graduation, they said. This led them to question their progressive roots. Turning to the propaganda mill appeared to be the most prosperous way to go.
“There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in,” with nuance and likely long paragraphs to express such complexity, writes The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy. “But who would click on that?”
Propaganda existed long before the advent of the News Feed. But social media has helped rumors and untruths gain stronger momentum and proliferate at a much faster rate, no doubt, within its algorithmically-generated individualized echo chambers.
Both the media and the average American citizen will likely be pondering the effect of fake news on this election for at least the next four years. But there are some who sit in empty, half-furnished AirBnB homes in Long Beach who clearly don’t care either way.