Lies in the Guise of News in the Trump Era

Gentle Reader – The next months in our United States will be fraught. How many of our people could have been convinced to vote for a fraud, a charlatan, a self-described abuser of women is a question that will consume gallons of ink and reams of paper (or 1s and 0s). There will be much blame to pass around; indeed analysis has already begun.

In this Section –  Issues of our Time and Destiny – we will discuss what went wrong and how we can correct the wrongs. I have some thoughts in this and will post them as well as the thoughts of others. Please comment and criticize if you wish.

By the way, the section title, Issues of our Time and Destiny, is from a poem of one of the victims of the first 9/11, Victor Jara.



NOVEMBER 12, 2016

Nicholas Kristof

IF you get your news from this newspaper or our rival mainstream news sources, there’s probably a lot you don’t know.

You may not realize that our Kenyan-born Muslim president was plotting to serve a third term as our illegitimate president, by allowing Hillary Clinton to win and then indicting her; Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump helped avert the election-rigging.

You perhaps didn’t know that Clinton is a Satan worshiper at the center of “an international child enslavement and sex ring.” Or that Chelsea Clinton isn’t Bill Clinton’s daughter, but a love child of Hillary’s by another man — or that Bill has his own love child with a black prostitute.

Oh, the scoops we miss here at The Times!

None of those items is actually true, of course, but all have been reported by alt-right or fake news websites (the line between them is sometimes blurred). And one takeaway from this astonishing presidential election is that fake news is gaining ground, empowering nuts and undermining our democracy.

As I’ve argued for most of this year, I think we in the mainstream media — especially cable television — sometimes bungled coverage of Trump. There was too much uncritical television coverage of Trump because he was good for ratings; then there was not enough investigation of his business dealings, racism and history of sexual assaults, and too much false equivalency that equated the two candidates as equally flawed.

More broadly, we in the mainstream media are out of touch with working-class America; we spend too much time chatting up senators, and not enough visiting unemployed steel workers.

Yet for all of our sins in the mainstream media, these alt-right websites are both far more pernicious and increasingly influential. President-Elect Trump was, after all, propelled into politics partly as a champion of the lie that President Obama was born abroad and ineligible for the White House.

Even now, only 44 percent of Republicans accept the reality that Obama was born in the U.S.

While the poisonous 2016 campaign is behind us, these alt-right websites will continue to spew misinformation that undermines tolerance and democracy. I find them particularly loathsome because they do their best to magnify prejudice against blacks, Muslims and Latinos, tearing our social fabric.

The venom directed at minorities is staggering: Alt-right kooks suggest that Obama is literally the devil and is trying to destroy humanity through vaccines.

A BuzzFeed investigation found that of the Facebook posts it examined from three major right-wing websites, 38 percent were either false or a mixture of truth and falsehood. More discouraging, it was the lies that readers were particularly eager to share and thus profitable to publish. Freedom Daily had the most inaccurate Facebook page reviewed, and also produced the right-wing content most likely to go viral.

Some of the people promoting these sites aren’t even conservatives; they’re foreign entrepreneurs trying to build websites that gain a large audience and thus advertising dollars.

Alt-right and fake news sites for some reason have emerged in particular in Macedonia, in the former Yugoslavia. BuzzFeed found more than 100 sites about U.S. politics from a single town, Veles, population 45,000, in Macedonia. “I started the site for a easy way to make money,” a 17-year-old Macedonian who runs told BuzzFeed.

Facebook has been a powerful platform to disseminate these lies. If people see many articles on their Facebook feed, shared by numerous conservative friends, all indicating that Hillary Clinton is about to be indicted for crimes she committed, they may believe it.

These sites were dubbed “alt-right” because they originally were an alternative to mainstream conservatism. Today they have morphed into the mainstream: After all, Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart, one of these sites full of misinformation, ran Trump’s campaign.

It’s particularly troubling that alt-right sites agitate for racial hatred. Freedom Daily lately has had “trending now” headlines like “Black Lives Thug Rapes/Kills 69 y/o White Woman.” In fact, the killer was black but seems to have had no connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the murder happened in 2015.

There are also hyperpartisan left-wing websites with inaccuracies, but they are less prone to fabrication than the right-wing sites. Indeed, the Macedonian entrepreneurs originally came up with leftist websites targeting Bernie Sanders supporters but didn’t find much reader interest in them.

Rather, the problem with mainstream news sources is in part that we’re out of touch with many of the ordinary voters whom we purport to care about.

And one way in which we’re disconnected is that we don’t hear about or respond to these falsehoods in the alt-right orbit. I think that’s a mistake: When Americans come to believe lies such as that the pope endorsed Trump, or that Barack and Michelle Obama unendorsed Clinton, those are assaults on our political system and we should challenge them.

The landscape ahead looks grim to me. While the business model for mainstream journalism is in crisis, these alt-right websites expand as they monetize false “news” that promotes racism and undermines democracy. Worse, they have the imprimatur of the soon-to-be most powerful person in the world.

About AJ Layon

AJ Layon was, for 28 years, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, in Gainesville, FL. For the approximately 10 years until September 2011, he was Professor and Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF; In September of 2011 he became System Director and Co-Chairman of Critical Care Medicine in PA; this ended in 2017. He served as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) through 2018 and is presently an intensivist in Florida, struggling through the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. While his interests are primarily related to health care, health care reform, and ethical issues, as a citizen of our United States and our world, he will occasionally opine on issues of our "time and destiny". Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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