For most of us, fake news was a term Donald Trump employed to deride and discredit real news purveyors, like most TV news channels and newspapers. It was not something he invented. He simply used it to make attacks easily picked up by right wing propaganda groups and their echo chambers.
Then, last summer I attended a small gathering for the chief economist of a huge bank. The economist gave us the usual spiel, and then said something extraordinary. He said Russia’s use of fake news was so advanced it was analogous to post-WWII America when only it had the atomic bomb. He said Russia was attacking not just the U.S., but also any other country it wished to destabilize or impact and that Russia was so far ahead of the U.S. it would take us years to catch up.
After the prepared talk, I quizzed the economist for some time. I asked him how bad was it? He shook his head and said it was worse than our worst fears. Fake news is not a singular act. It is a continuous campaign. How many times have you seen an item on Facebook being shared that may or may not be true, but it seems true, so you share it. It is an electronic virus with no known cure.
Perhaps the most famous fake news story of the last national election
was that Hillary Clinton operated a child porn ring out of a pizza store in Washington, D.C. The story was crazy, but that did not matter. It enraged one man so thoroughly he stormed the pizza parlor with a machine gun and shot up the place. And it now has been confirmed the original fake story was created by a Russian operative.
In response, national news organizations have started “fact-checking” fake news, but by the time it is fact-checked, the narrative is obsolete. Some other fake news has occurred.
And President Trump makes it worse. I have many friends who swear by him, know much of what he says is nonsense invented on the spot, but they don’t care.
Then I created a version of fake news myself.
It was for a column in the Indy. I created a fictional character to entice readers into actually reading the column, a criticism of the general over-reach of the Laguna Beach City Council. This is an inherently boring subject, so I created a sexy character called The Hot Blond and even gave her a name, Petra, and a personality. What she said was factually accurate, so it is not really fake news, but a literary device created solely to generate reader interest in an often uninteresting topic.
My stratagem worked. The column created a minor sensation with the sheer number of “shares” on Facebook and other platforms.
And it was so easy.
To me, she was so obviously fake that I did not think readers would believe she was more than my personal avatar. To my surprise, most readers did think she was real. After another similar column, called
The Hot Blond Returns, one reader whose actual name is Petra wrote in complaining about my using Petra’s name and opinions without her consent. I even responded to the real Petra’s complaint to state I knew the Fake Petra quite well and that I had her total support for using her name and her opinions.
It shook me. People actually believe this stuff. It is so easy.
And it is more than that. It can make you money. Get enough hits on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or any other social media site, and they will pay you. You can make a good living creating fake news; it is a growing industry and the First Amendment protects it.
I do not have an answer on how to combat it. I don’t think anyone does. When the president of the United States continually lies and makes up facts, it must be socially acceptable. How can it not be? He is our president. We elected him.
But he did not start fake news, he only amplified it and Russia is continuing it’s attack and now fake news has spread everywhere. Our very identity as seekers of “truth” is under attack and it seems fruitless even to think there is some solution floating out there that can save us.
It is so depressing. I did it myself. I am ashamed. But I will probably do it again if it fits my needs. It is so easy and so useful. That is why it is so evil.
Local Michael Ray is a real estate investor and developer and founding board member of several Orange County nonprofit initiatives.