Recently, the buzzword problem of ‘fake news’ and President Donald Trump’s attacks on the fourth estate have called into confusion the role of journalism during a Trump presidency in ‘post-truth’ America. Two weeks ago, then-President-Elect Trump engaged in a shouting match with CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, who pressed the petty tyrant about a leaked dossier tracing Trump’s financial connections to Russia spanning the past five years. In response, Trump dodged the question and dismissed Acosta and CNN as ‘fake news.’
Ironic, coming from the man who spearheaded the birther movement, who insists that (non-existent) millions of fraudulent voters cost him the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, who thinks global warming is a Chinese conspiracy.
Let’s be clear: fake news has a real meaning — misleading news narratives deliberately constructed with outright lies. But lately, it’s been warped to mean any number of different things: any news left-of-center, or too far-right of center. Really any news that a reader doesn’t want to acknowledge as factual.
The rise of fake news online is not self-contained, but rather a symptom of a larger trend of shape-shifting media consumption. In the past few years, the digital media ecosystem has upended once rigid lines between mediums, genres and styles. Myriad media distribution platforms, evolving technologies (like livestreaming and virtual reality) and the web’s unique remix-mashup sense of humor has untethered institutions from their stations. We track news on our watches, catch the ball game on our Twitter feed. In the past, news anchors brokered breaking nightly news from behind a lectern. Now, Pew Research indicates 62% of American adults use social media for news — real or fake.
Social media ‘news’ sites like Reddit and Facebook have totally redefined what it means to reach an audience. An audience was once a finite resource, something earned with time and money by new corporations invested in building brand reputation with ethical journalism and the infrastructure to disseminate it. Now, democratized platforms have effected a paradigm shift in news consumption: capture an audience with advertising and business models built entirely on monetizing our attention. We used to pay for quality news; nowadays, we expect an endless supply of free content. We assume that algorithms that reward sensationalism, novelty and agenda-ridden stories, regardless of veracity, have our best interests in mind. We read widely, but thinly, uncritically trusting, providing corporations massive ad revenue through high engagement and trolls fertile ground to hack our attention.
Phenomena like fake news could not arise without these conditions: a media ecosystem in flux, a web economy dictated by captivating attention, and the keen ability of hacker-minded cultural disruptors — trolls — to manufacture narratives that thrive in what has been called the ‘attention economy.’
The sensationalist, attention-seeking ethos of digital news distribution encourages a unique sort of manipulation — trolling. It began in 2003, when a teenager named Chris Poole created a website to expedite sharing porn and anime with his friends. 4chan was born. As the site grew more popular, Poole encountered a problem: he simply couldn’t manage the site’s growing content. So he deleted the archives, to the frustration of these early 4channers. They began reposting the images, tweaking them and adding text each time for entertainment. From this grew meme culture, establishing the formal top-text and bottom-text superimposed on random images that any longtime internet user would recognize. In the following few years, social media sites’ user bases soared, co-opted the 4chan-born memes, and an internet pop-culture evolved (see: Lolcatz, Newgrounds, Reddit).
Traditional media entities recognized growing competition — Youtubers and bloggers challenged established entertainment and news corporations, and it grew apparent that anyone with enough internet clout or savvy could influence media narratives. 4channers launched informal, leaderless campaigns to troll entrenched cultural institutions. Some did it for fun, others for notoriety, and a fraction pushed ideological agendas. One prominent, if not flippant example involved a band of /b/tards (browsers of 4chan’s miscellaneous forum called /b/) manipulating TIME’s 100 most “influential people” list to make it so that the first letter of each honoree spelled out “Marblecake and also the game,” an inside joke to the community. Another example is the now-classic meme, the rickroll.
But it’s not all lulz and games. 4chan birthed the politically-minded, vigilante hacker group Anonymous, whose members have popularized “doxing” — researching and publicly broadcasting personal, sensitive, identifiable information of an individual or institution — as a means of punishment. Anonymous has also run propaganda campaigns of outright hate and harassment against women, as evidenced in the Gamergate controversy, a dialogue that traditional news corporations engaged with seriously, as if there was room for debate. Another campaign sought to expose Scientology as a farcical, scammy religion. Another ties Anonymous to Wikileaks’ emergence in 2011, and thus the ensuing Arab Spring. And most recently Anonymous and their generic successors on Twitter, Breitbart and Reddit, have banded around the neo-nazi ‘alt-right’ movement, which has breached mainstream news sites with their meme-inspired campaigns to smear Hillary Clinton and elect President Trump.
The boundaries between education, entertainment, propaganda, news and activism have been distorted by a growing, decentralized network of new media-savvy provocateurs. Frankly, we’re all being trolled.