Year of post-truth – Did Trump become president thanks to a surge of pro-Trump fake news sites?


“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” the headline on Facebook screamed. Another read: “Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!”

But neither of these were true. There are part of a massive spate of misinformation and propaganda that many are arguing might have influenced the US presidential elections.

“In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News,” a BuzzFeed analysis found.

It’s all the more problematic because 44% of the US population get their news via Facebook, according to a May report by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook, saying it was “a pretty crazy idea” that such fake news on the world’s biggest social network might have impacted Trump’s rise to the presidency, which wiped $1-trillion off global bond markets in the first two days alone.

“What’s crazy is for him [Zuckerberg] to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season,” a Facebook employee told BuzzFeed, which reported the network’s own staff had formed an “unofficial task force” to try solve the problem.

If you believe, after the improbability of Brexit and President Donald Trump, that it seems like reality and been distorted, there’s now a word for it: “post-truth”. It’s the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016, an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

It’s been the year of unbelievable dents to the common sense fabric of the world. First the isolationist, anti-immigrant, anti-expert disaster that was the Brexit vote. The isolationist, self-interested politicians astoundingly admitted the morning after they won that some of their own “facts” weren’t true.

Then the utterly inexplicable rise of Donald Trump, the failed businessman and property tycoon whose investors emerge broke while he makes millions, pays no taxes and was swayed over the finish line by the same transatlantic groundswell of the anti-immigrant rural disenfranchised.

These anti-establishment voters were willing to believe any of the crazy nonsense that emerge on fake news sites – as much to influence the election as to reap advertising spend (which Google is says it won’t allow fake news sites to carry).

There’s another phrase for it, that could just as effectively summed up the year: filter bubble. Because of the way Facebook shows you things it judges you “like,” it thereby reduces people’s exposure to viewpoints they don’t agree with. These algorithms suddenly appear more ominous to human interaction and tolerance than anything else.

What is arguably scarier, as we saw with Brexit, was a backlash against reason and logic, summed up by Michael Gove’s mind-boggling assertion that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. When truth and rationality get in the way, smash the reputations and intellectual standing of “experts”. With the plummeting pound and potential economic disaster ahead with the EU subsidies that keep vast tranches of rural England going, I wonder how people feel about those experts now.

This fake news conundrum was aptly summed by this satirical headline: “Mark Zuckerburg – Dead At 32 – Denies Facebook Has Problem With Fake News.”

It’s a post-rationality world now.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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