Hoax-warningAfter running it for a year and a half, the Washington Post is winding down its “What was fake on the Internet this week” column for what has to be one of the saddest of possible reasons.

When the Post started the column, writer Caitlin Dewey explains, it was intended to debunk various urban legends and pranks that were proliferating—silly stuff “like new flavors of Oreos and babies with absurd names.” But over the last 18 months, the timbre of hoaxes on the Internet has changed considerably—and the response of readers to these stories has changed, too.

As with so many iterations of the tragedy of the commons, it comes down to money. People found that they could rake in cash by making up fake news, slapping ads on it, and turning it loose to go viral. People share it because they’re angry or titillated, more people visit, more people share, and the ad revenue rolls in. (I wrote about one notable instance of it in April, 2014, the month before that column started.)

And what’s the biggest thing that gets people angry? Political stories—particularly political stories about prominent figures in or causes espoused by the other political party. Many of them don’t even come from those fake news sites—they come from “partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.”

Dewey writes:

Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

xfiles-i-want-to-believe-jpgSo, it’s useless to try to debunk many of the most virulent hoaxes currently flooding social media right now, because the people spreading the hoaxes don’t want to hear it, and they’ll only argue with people who try to clear up the hoaxes. As the X-Files poster goes, they want to believe.

For example, a few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a photo, ostensibly of Obama cabinet member Valerie Jarrett’s 1977 yearbook photo, in which she claimed to be “Iranian by birth and of my Islamic faith” and trying to “change America to be a more Islamic country.” When I pointed out that Snopes indicated the photo was fake—among other things, Jarrett was a married name that she only acquired six years later—comments in response scoffed at Snopes’s trustworthiness, saying “Snopes has been repeatedly exposed as far left agit-prop.”

How can you even argue with someone like that? Someone who would rather believe in an obviously, demonstrably fake photo just because the site that specializes in pointing out fake claims, with evidence, is asserted to be “far left agit-prop”? (And how do you suppose it got that reputation? Might it be at least in part because it debunked anti-Liberal hoaxes the Conservatives wanted to believe?) The truth may be out there, but these willfully-credulous hoax believers are even further “out there” than the truth is.

Perhaps this is the tragedy of the greater reach and proliferation of digital and social media. In the old days, it was a lot harder to spread extreme viewpoints and propaganda, because printing presses cost so much, and most of the people who owned them had editorial standards. You did get some fake stuff, but it was largely segregated in the pages of tabloids that only total space cadets took seriously.

But as with so many niche interests on the Internet, now even the space cadets can meet up with each other on social media and reinforce each other’s beliefs. People with political leanings on either side can make up their own version of the truth, and people of similar politics will believe it and spread it.

As Dewey points out in another column, this is also an era when people can search their Facebook friends to see who supports the candidacy of Donald Trump, so as to unfriend them.

In the past week alone, thousands of Facebook users have publicly promised to unfriend each and every Trump supporter in their network, regardless of — in the words of one Trump critic — “how long I’ve known you or how close we are.”

I have little doubt the same holds true with supporters of Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or whoever the most polarizing Democratic candidate is at any given time. People choose to isolate themselves from opposing viewpoints so they can share, reinforce, and be reinforced by the beliefs of other people of similar points of view. They can do the same thing with the news sources the follow. (Heck, the entire GamerGate movement has been effectively kept alive by the attentions of just one or two extreme-far-right news sources like Breitbart.)

Hence, the Internet, which was supposed to give us all broader outlooks by exposing us to all points of view, has effectively done the opposite for many. The ease of selecting, filtering, and blocking news sources and friends has allowed people to cocoon themselves away from opposing beliefs far more effectively than they could when they could only take what television, papers, and magazines gave them. Is it any wonder so many people are willing to support extremist politicians like Donald Trump?

So, in the end, the Washington Post is closing down its column debunking Internet hoaxes because there are simply too many political hoaxes and the people who believe them don’t want them to be debunked.

For my part, I want to be optimistic about the future of the Internet. Harking back again to that poster, I want to believe that the opportunities for accessing and sharing information and culture the Internet offers can help us to become better people. But it sure is hard when I see so many people willfully using it to shut other points of view away instead.


  1. Quote: “So, in the end, the Washington Post is closing down its column debunking Internet hoaxes because there are simply too many political hoaxes and the people who believe them don’t want them to be debunked.”

    Taken literally, that claim makes no sense. The Post isn’t really thinking, “This problem is so bad, we’re going to do nothing.” That’d be like firefighters deciding that responding to more than four reports of fires a day is “simply too many” and not responding to any. If the sheer size of this problem were the only factor, the Post would be redoubling its efforts to expose these hoaxes.

    What the Post has discovered is that the public, across the political spectrum, no longer believes what the Post and the rest of their profession says. I’ve been expecting something like that to happen since the extremely distorted coverage of 2008 election, although I didn’t think it’d come on quite this suddenly or this powerfully.

    The problem starts with the fact that the press is dogmatically and uncritically mainstream liberal. Stories not fitting with that get smothered. Stories fitting with that get exaggerated. The press may think that’s OK, that the only trust they’ve lost is that of conservatives and Republicans. That’s not so. There are other liberal-to-left points of view that are getting misrepresented just as badly. Puffing Hilary, for instance, infuriates Bernie Sanders supporters who see her as crooked, self-serving, and empty of principle. In addition Bernie supporters see the news media doing their best to split the Republicans while attempting to cover up the growing Hillary/Bernie riff inside the Democratic party.

    Keep in mind that people often have a rough and ready sense that is itself right, even if they get the details wrong. I believe Oswald really was a lone gunman who killed JFK. But I also believe that many of those tasked with reporting on his assassination were suspicions that, if pursued fully, the trail might lead, perhaps through the Mafia, to Castro. That would force the country into a very messy Cuban invasion. Better to see nothing than to discover that, they thought. The public, sensing something was being hidden, began to invent conspiracies of all sorts, some really bizarre.

    The same it true today. Unwilling to admit that their Wonder Worker of 2008 has proved to be not only peculiarly incompetent but strangely indifferent about his failures, the press is refusing to state the obvious, that is country is in trouble domestically and that the world is falling apart because Obama is either incompetent or hates this country (or both). Not having either explanation offered, all sorts of beliefs are spouting up.

    You saw that just a few days ago when the NY Times accidentally broke with the narrative and printed a remark by Obama that he didn’t know the country was upset about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino until he saw it on cable television. The NY Times then removed that remark, since it made both Obama and them look badly. That tells many Americans, whose access to news goes far beyond the NY Times, that those in charge of both this administration and of mainstream media are not only out of touch with public opinion but with reality. Why listen to them? They only conceal the truth, whatever that truth is.

    And if you feel that way, why not listen to an ignorant, pompous blowhard like Trump, particularly since he says precisely what the press hasn’t been saying. Their urge to hear said what he is saying is so great they aren’t even grasping that the guy is a life-long liberal Democratic, so much so he differs little from either Obama or Hillary. My own sense is that his primary political advisor is Bill Clinton. That certainly best fits with his behavior. Why else would he go out of his way to outrage middle-aged women, blacks, Hispanics and Muslims? He wants them in the end to vote for Hillary.


    Here is an analogy. Long ago, when I was working nights caring for children with leukemia, I heard the mothers of some of those kids raising the idea that maybe leukemia was caused by giving your child an unusual name. Their proof was the unusual names of the kids on our Hem-Onc unit. Crazy? A hoax like those the Washington Post is describing? Yes and no.

    They were right about one thing. We did have kids with unusual names. But that only meant that about four years before (the average age of a child with leukemia is four), there’d been a fad to give your child an unique name.

    The truth was that these mothers desperately wanted what we could not tell them, why their child and not another had gotten leukemia. With no other answers being given to them, they were grasping at whatever came to mind.

    The same is true now. Consider this quote: ‘For example, a few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a photo, ostensibly of Obama cabinet member Valerie Jarrett’s 1977 yearbook photo, in which she claimed to be “Iranian by birth and of my Islamic faith” and trying to “change America to be a more Islamic country.” ‘

    Nonsense? Not really. The press in this country has failed to investigate the extremely major role that Jarrett, who is an Iranian, has played in formulating Obama’s disastrous Middle Eastern policy, particularly his bizarre favoring of radical Islam. They would never, never, never in a million years let a Republican president get away with that.

    The Post can huff and puff about what’s wrong about that fake Facebook posting but:

    1. The Washington Post and the news media in general are not looking in any depth into why Obama is making what seems to be most disastrous moves, particularly with Iran. Jarrett is certainly part of that.

    2. The reality is that, unlike those unusual child’s names I mentioned, finding that Jarrett made such claims is quite plausible. People are taking their reasonable suspicions, seeing no alternatives offered by the press (including the Post), and formulating their own solutions. In this case, they’re simply assuming that what she is clearly doing now is something she claimed she would be doing with that bogus 1977 yearbook photo.

    In short, for years the so-called mainstream media hasn’t been offering a credible view of current events. In 2008, we were told that Obama was a “constitutional law scholar.” It must have been at least two years since I have read any reporter made a claim that’s now obviously absurd. Indeed, the most reasonable view of Obama and the constitution is that what little he knows about it he hates.

    And yet, the press, having advanced and then silently abandoned that point of view has not replaced it with anything else. It’s left a hole in which all sorts of conspiracies can be placed, Obama trying to abrogate the Second Amendment and grab our guns being merely one of them.


    Nature abhors a vacuum. The major news media in this country, with the exception of Fox News (whose audience is growing), has created a horrible vacuum around the Obama administration, and the result is a host of hoaxes. But we should never forget that the worst hoaxes are those in which nothing is said when the truth should be spoken.

    In its silence, particularly over the last eight years, the major media has formulated far worse hoaxes than those the Post criticizes. For instance, not probing Jarrett’s role in the Obama administration and any devious schemes it may involved is a far more distorted, deceptive, and dangerous hoax that virtually anything that’s being said about her in the fever swamps of the Internet.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia

  2. Great article. It immediately reminded me of two passages from “The Complete Murphy’s Law” book:

    “No matter how often a lie is shown to be fake, there will remain a percentage of people who believe it true.”
    — Law of the Lie

    “If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.”
    — Maier’s Law

    Sadly, a majority of people in today’s society lack critical thinking skills and operate totally in resonance with the second passage.

  3. @Michael W. Perry: short version of your screed — I will babble and prove the article’s point that “now even the space cadets can meet up with each other on social media and reinforce each other’s beliefs.”

  4. Michael W. Perry
    The press in this country has failed to investigate the extremely major role that Jarrett, who is an Iranian, has played in formulating Obama’s disastrous Middle Eastern policy..

    While Valerie Jarrett may have been born in Iran, her prominent parents were from what has sometimes been called Chicago’s black aristocracy. Last I checked, Chicago was and is part of the United States. Her physician father was working in Iran at the time of her birth. John McCain was born outside the US, but is still 100% American by virtue of being born of American citizens. No naturalization papers necessary. Ditto Valerie Jarrett.

    Please get your facts straight.

    Otherwise an interesting comment.

    From what I have read, Obama runs nearly everything through Valerie Jarrett, so she has probably had an influence on our Middle East policy- for better or worse.

    There is a well-documented connection between Frank Marshall Davis and Vernon Jarrett, Valerie Jarrett’s former father-in-law. An interesting coincidence, to say the least.

  5. @Reader: That was why I made my previous comment. Michael Perry seems to get his information and talking points from rightwing conspiracy websites and doesn’t bother to do any fact checking. Otherwise he would have known about Jarrett’s parents being American citizens, that Valerie left Iran at the age of 5 (a bit too young for indoctrination as an Iranian mole) and that Iran does not confer citizenship just for being born there so she was never Iranian or a dual citizen. In other words, Michael Perry is the personification of this article, someone who swallows every paranoid hoax and wild-eyed claim whole.

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