I first heard about Fake News during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. It was not invented by Donald Trump, but he later adopted it. Samantha B on her TV show Full Frontal had an amazing story about the people who openly supplied fake news on the Internet. She sent one of her reporters whose name was (I think) Michael Rubin to report on the issue. He actually found such a news provider who was willing—shamelessly willing—to admit his role in this disreputable business.
To introduce the story, Rubin pointed out that for years already there have been a large number of “Internet hoaxsters and propagandists that have been “pissing in the infostream and preying on the credulous.”
Rubin interviewed Jestin Coler, who is known on the Internet as Alan Montgomery and had been called by NPR “The godfather of the fake news industry.” Coler operated 8 separate sites. He said that he started in the business in order to alert the public to fake news and help them detect it. Unfortunately, what he really did was to manufacture mountains of fake news reports.
When Rubin referred to him and his ilk as “Fake news hucksters” Coler corrected him. They were “fake news providers” Coler asserted indignantly . He did that unabashedly with no shame. Who would feel shame in a post-truth world? Absolutely no one of course. Where truth is dead so is shame! I have also heard these sites referred to imaginatively, as “fact farms.”
Of course what happens when real news by real journalists is drowned out by fake news? No one trusts any news, other than what is most congenial to one’s own prejudices. This is very congenial to authoritarian leaders. They love a cynical populous. A leading Republican politician shrugged at the thought and said, “One man’s fake news is another man’s real news.” Is that all? Is it not a little more important than that? Well it is no more important than that to a politician who lives in the world of lies that the Internet has become. When garbage news drowns out real news what we are left with is toxic crap. It is not nothing and we better recognize it for what it is, because it brings us Donald Trump as the President of the richest and most powerful country in the world. That is far from nothing. That is important.
Cole already had 8 of such fake news sites. And he was proud of it. He knew the headlines that worked with his base supporters and gave them what they wanted. The wanted exciting news. It did not matter to them if they were true. They really were indifferent to that. He knew what they wanted to hear and he gave it to them graphically. They wanted stories that are Anti-Obama, or Clinton, or Muslims, or Mexicans. He fed them. He fed them toxic crap and his base ate it. Of course he made money in the process. Now we might think that is funny, but it is not at all funny. It is scary. It is dangerous because it lead to the election of someone like Donald Trump.
During the campaign Coler’s phoney news sites had graphic headlines that caught the attention of his rabid base. Here are some of them that he made up: “FBI agent suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” That story was all fake, but it sure had a great attention-grabbing headline. It worked and gave him 100s of thousands of viewers in the midst of a tightly fought election campaign. Amazingly this absurd story that Coler completely fabricated out of thin air and an active imagination attracted some fine comments. One comment from a follower of Coler said, “You can’t make stuff up like (I interject here with a “Oh yes you can”). When will people open their eyes to the corruption that is Clinton? Another body on his (sic) death list.”
It is truly, deeply incomprehensible how gullible much of the public is, especially the alt-right followers attracted by people like Coler. He admitted he deliberately wrote stories to catch their attention. He knew his followers; he knew what drove them crazy. And then he made up stories that he knew they would love to hear. To think what 500,000 viewers of his Coler’s site during an incredibly close election campaign could have had an effect on the outcome of that election is truly disturbing. It is enough to drive me crazy. OK crazier.
Amazingly, Coler is a self-described liberal. He said he voted for Clinton. He helped destroy her, but he voted for her because he thought she was the best candidate for President of the United States. To him it was just a job. Like a real news reporter, or a porno star, or a crooked politician, it was just a job. As Rubin said, “You deliberately made up news stories that were full of inflammatory lies against Hillary Clinton.” He just shrugged for there is no shame in the post-truth. Lies are swamping us.
Some of the headlines he made up were astonishing. “Hillary Clinton promises to confiscate 3 times as many guns as Obama did.” I remember hearing about a story circulated by the friend of a friend of mine, “After Hillary is elected they will start executing Christians.” Another lie. Here was a story that caught the eye of many right wing followers of Coler, “City in Michigan becomes first to implement Sharia law.” Again a lie. A friend of mine, a local business person and Republican supporter came to a meeting of his buddies at a local coffee shop with an Internet Story that claimed that Obama was getting ready to outlaw the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in America schools. Another lie. An avalanche of lies is swamping us.
Rubin asked an astute question of Coler, “Would it be all right to shout ‘Fire” in a crowded dark movie theatre? Coler just shrugged. He also asked, “Would it be all right to shout “ISIS terrorists!” at a Trump rally filled with his supporters? Coler just shrugged. How are these statements different from what Coler did? I would say what Coler did was worse. It went a long way towards poisoning our democratic system which depends on people trusting our democratic system of government, and our political leaders, at least to some extent. Coler was poisoning that well from which we all drink. As a result we get political leaders like Donald Trump. These lies are not nothing; these lies are poison!
The comment about the implementation of Sharia law drew a comment that we should get our rifles, gather up the Muslims and drop them 20,000 feet from an airplane. Lies like this are bad news! How can society be vigilant against them? It really is impossible.
Coler admitted that there are a lot of angry people out there. People who are attracted to his lies, no matter how outrageous. Some even take action. Like the guy at the Pizzeria in Washington D.C. He heard the lies about Hillary Clinton and one of her campaign managers setting up a child pornography ring in the basement of the restaurant so he went, he said, “to self-investigate. ” But he did not just go to take a look. He went with his rifle and shot it, endangering the lives of many people, though none were shot. Lies have consequences. That is particularly true with a constant barrage of lies.
Coler said his broadcasts helped teach people how to find the fraudsters, like him, on the Internet. He actually believed, at least he claimed to believe (for what that is worth) that he was providing a public service. Of course he made lots of money for his efforts. Attracting that many viewers attracts a lot of money. Coler brazenly blamed the reading public for not being sharper at detecting fraudsters.
As Goya said, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters”. So does the death of truth.