Yesterday, I wrote that Democrats are going through the Five Stages of Blame-Throwing in an attempt to explain their utter and nationwide failure to connect with voters outside of their base. The fourth scapegoat presents an especially pernicious trend, given its widespread traction over the last couple of weeks — “fake news.” We have a new moral panic on our hands based on a very old phenomenon, and its embrace typifies the paternalism and elitism that has Americans in such an anti-establishment mood in the 2016 cycle.
An analysis by Buzzfeed last week gave this moral panic more momentum. It claimed that the top 20 “fake news” articles got more clicks on Facebook in the final three months of the election cycle than the top 20 “real news” articles, and highlighted the top five from each list. As Timothy Carney pointed out in the Washington Examiner, the five consisted of four liberal anti-Trump opinion columns and naked pictures of Melania Trump. At least one of the top five so-called fakes was a pro-Trump opinion piece, not a news article at all.
Regardless, people have demanded that Mark Zuckerberg start filtering content to screen for “fake news,” even though no one has shown any correlation at all between Facebook news-feed clicks and voting decisions. There isn’t even a correlation posited, let alone a causation, and yet the same people who blew the election by talking past middle-America voters now demand that Facebook and others treat them like idiots, too.
It’s doubling down on elite paternalism and contempt, I argue in my column for The Week:
Zuckerberg has said he’ll look into ways to identify misinformation, but scoffed at the “fake news” theory of the election. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” he said after the election. “I think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news.”
Zuckerberg hit the nail on the head. Rather than deal with the lack of connection that Clinton and Democrats made with voters — including in House, Senate, and state legislative races — Democrats and the media would prefer to reject those voters as hicks and rubes who can’t tell the difference between facts and opinions, and between false stories and facts. It goes beyond a lack of empathy; it’s outright contempt.
That contempt from elites in media and politics may or may not have produced the electoral results seen two weeks ago, but it certainly explains the shock that has resulted from it. That contempt is also reflected in the push to shut down commentary and pressure Facebook into editing their social media network to allow only those sources deemed acceptable by those in power, politically and culturally. They are creating a new social panic within their own circles and doubling down on paternalism. Don’t expect that to end well when the midterm elections roll around in two years.
How do we know “fake news” is a social panic and not a threat to the Republic? Er, because it’s nothing new. Going back to my childhood, I recall very clearly the tabloids sold at the counters that were filled with lurid headlines and ridiculous stories. Some of that was standard celebrity-gossip nonsense, much of which was untrue, but some went to the truly weird and obviously faked. For instance, here’s a hot scoop from the Weekly World News from nearly a quarter-century ago:
How’s the alien baby doing, anyway? The tabloids spent eight years peddling gossip and nonsense about the Clintons, but it didn’t stop Bill from getting re-elected in 1996 or Hillary from winning a Senate seat in New York in 2000 and 2006.
No one freaked out about “fake news” then, even though the advent of e-mail provided a cheap and quick way to mass-market paranoia. Why? Because so few take those sources seriously that it has no impact at all on elections. Of course, those tabloids sold millions of copies every week, not just freebie clicks on a social-media platform, and probably still do, but it’s largely a form of entertainment rather than serious reflection. And the clicks that so-called “fake news” get on Facebook and elsewhere almost certainly serve the same purpose.
This hysteria over fake news reflects a deeper contempt for Americans by the elites pushing this as a national threat, and demanding top-down solutions to “solve” it. As with practically every other issue, they want to make those choices themselves for everyone else because they think everyone outside the Beltway, Manhattan, Hollywood, and Academia are too stupid to think for themselves. The cure for bad speech (or “fake news”) is not censorship and filtering by the elites, but broader access to better information that allows consumers to find the truth on their own, which we do pretty well. Even before the Internet, when research was an expensive and time-consuming process, American voters knew how to evaluate sources of information and judge accordingly.
The truth is that voters rejected the contempt aimed at them by these same elites — and the elites remain in denial about it, despite that broad rejection on every level in the past election. Unfortunately, that contempt is at least as old as “fake news,” and it doesn’t appear to be waning.