Fake News Hunt

Did Facebook Just Kickstart the Real Infowar?

To combat the spread of fake information, Facebook is stifling intentional fake-news writers while sparking a fight with people who view such a move as censorship.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Facebook detailed a new plan Thursday to target the rapid spread of fake news across its site, a phenomenon that received renewed attention in the weeks following the 2016 election, with accusations that it may have influenced the behavior of voters.

The problem reached a breaking point two weeks ago when a gunman entered a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., to investigate an internet-based conspiracy theory about a child-sex ring that does not exist.

Now the move from the internet’s largest social-media platform has some intentional fake-news writers, who created their websites to “satirize” right-wing conspiracies or exploit Facebook’s algorithm, believing they’ll soon be out of business.

But the new program also has conspiracy theorists, ones who believe Hillary Clinton’s fictitious ties to the occult are the “real news,” excitedly drawing battle lines over the future of the news on social media.

Should Facebook’s fact-check initiative take off and result in censorship of propagandist sites, editors at websites like Infowars and alt-right leaders insist it will only reinforce the belief that certain ideas are being suppressed in favor of facts from mainstream outlets. One editor told The Daily Beast the Facebook plan proves that now the “‘Infowar’ isn’t a cliché, it’s perfectly apt.”

If Facebook’s experiment is applied correctly, authors of intentionally fake news face a potential hurdle for generating advertising revenue for their sites, if not the banning of their stories from the social network outright.

Marco Chacon, the creator of the intentional fake news website RealTrueNews.org, says Facebook is finally taking a positive step toward making sure websites like his no longer go viral on the social network. In an article for The Daily Beast in November, Chacon wrote that he created his site to make those who share fake right-wing news on Facebook more aware that they’re “susceptible to stories written ‘in [their] language’ that are complete, obvious, utter fabrications.”

Chacon’s larger aim, he wrote, was to force Facebook to work out a solution for a fake-news epidemic he believed was “deeply entrenched” and easily monetized.

“This is the right approach,” said Chacon of Facebook’s new plan Thursday. “The people who fear censors fear a whitelist of ‘approved news sites.’ This sounds like a more intelligent heuristic that is exactly the kind of thing a company like Facebook should employ.”

Chacon, who said he was preparing for NBC News to interview him about his antics in his home later in the day, added that the new safeguards “will give people some greater responsibility in what they spread.”

Between his website, social-media interactions, and his Scribd document drop site, Chacon’s fake “Goldman Sachs transcript”—wherein Hillary Clinton called Bernie Sanders fans “a bucket of losers”—garnered millions of views. Still, the fake story was read on air by Fox News’s Megyn Kelly and was repeated by Donald Trump-approved websites like Infowars.

In context, the fabricated document clearly shows that the fictionalized version of Clinton is speaking about the children’s show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

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The story was later retracted by Kelly and pulled from websites like Infowars without a correction. (It remains on some of Infowars’ sister blogs.)

“Often people who forward fake news—the ones I have talked to—think it might be true. That is, they kind of hope it is, kind of think it isn’t. But they are passing it along anyway, either for comment or just for ‘I’m part of the tribe’-style signaling,” said Chacon.

“They’ve told me it ‘feels good’ to post pro-X stories—even if the stories aren’t true.”

Facebook’s new policy will allow users to self-report the presence of fake news on the site. Stories that are frequently reported will be flagged to nonpartisan fact-checking groups like PolitiFact and Snopes. At the outset, it will be an experimental process, meant to discern how exactly the policy could be practically implemented.

Some critics who traffic in misleading information, but don’t acknowledge that they are writing what’s commonly referred to as “fake news,” point to potential biases with the fact-checking organizations that, they believe, might be more interested in promoting a “left-leaning” agenda.

Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, whose website engages with and promotes conspiracy theories, characterized Facebook’s new efforts as part of a punitive leftist plan.

He took specific issue with the site Snopes, with which Facebook is partnering, because one of its fact-checkers described herself as being politically left-leaning.

“One of the organizations on the list tasked with burying ‘fake news’ is Snopes, which represents a clear conflict of interest given that Snopes is clearly not impartial,” Watson wrote in a piece Thursday.

“As The Daily Caller reported, Kim Lacapria, Snopes’s main political ‘fact checker,’ describes herself as “openly left-leaning” and a liberal. She has previously equated Tea Party conservatives with jihadists.”

Watson told The Daily Beast that his content is already being blocked but that the censorship will simply draw more attention to his cause. And he’s ready for a fight.

“Facebook is already blocking some of our YouTube videos. It’s already happening,” Watson said. “This will fail like every other attempt to silence us failed. Streisand effect. By actually being censored, we will simply draw attention to it and people will be more motivated to share our content.”

“The term ‘Infowar’ is not a cliché, it’s perfectly apt,” he added.

Breitbart, which reports on real news through a pro-Trump lens, similarly placed the announced crackdown in the context of a war on the legitimacy of facts. “Masters of Universe Decree: We Decide What’s ‘Fake News,’” a headline on the website’s homepage blared after the Facebook announcement. The Drudge Report was similarly dismissive, posting a banner headline that read “Facebook to Label ‘News.’”

The idea that fact-based information is up for debate is a disquieting element of a post-truth America. But the potential unintended consequences of Facebook’s new efforts and the categorization of news as fake or real is something entirely new and still being defined.

Mike Cernovich, who popularized the #HillarysHealth hashtag during the presidential election, helping to spread various theories about her rumored ailments, told The Daily Beast that other news outlets, which have reported things that turned out to be false, should also perhaps be banned.

“Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Should The New York Times be banned from Facebook?” Cernovich said in a direct Twitter message to The Daily Beast referencing erroneous reporting about the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Rolling Stone created a nationwide hysteria surrounding the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone created a rape hoax. Should Rolling Stone be banned from Facebook? Should the so-called journalists who linked to the hoax article be banned from Facebook?”

Cernovich characterized the way in which “fake news” could be labeled as an imperfect process.

“It’s complicated,” Cernovich wrote. “Sometimes people are wrong. Being wrong is different from spreading fake news. If a person is legitimately trying to reason her way to the truth, even if misguided, then she is not spreading fake news—even if it seems ‘kooky’ to outsiders.”

He referenced a recent instance in which a young Muslim woman retracted a story about her being harassed by Trump supporters on a New York subway platform to illustrate the country’s treacherous present media climate.

“The entire media enterprise has become dishonest. We define one another based on a few tweets we can dig up or a bad judgment call or two. That’s the game. In that regard, all of media is fake news,” Cernovich concluded.

And the war on information has already begun.