In 1835, the New York Sun published what is believed to be the first large-scale news hoax. As part of an effort to increase sales, the paper fabricated a story about the discovery of life on the moon. A series of six articles detailed the moon’s fantastical creatures and its intricate society. Despite the lack of evidence for the claims, many readers believed every word of the stories. Eventually, the Sun admitted to its readers that the stories had been fabricated. But the hoax achieved its intended goal. Sales of the Sun drastically increased.
The maturing of the internet has plunged the world into a crisis of misinformation. Donald Trump used his social media accounts to falsely claim victory in November’s presidential election and spread baseless lies about widespread voter fraud. It was far from the first lie that the former president has spread on social media. In fact, it was arguably his infamous lies about former President Barack Obama’s place of birth that catapulted him into his status as a voice for the populist right.
These incidents are stark reminders that long gone are the days in which gatekeepers at broadcast networks and legacy print media outlets determined the news that was fit to print. In one sense, this is a revolution. Now, ordinary people and small organizations without media connections can amplify important stories that may have otherwise gone unreported. For example, the non-profit advocacy group “More Perfect Union” recently used social media to amplify a story about Amazon reducing the length of a red traffic light near an Amazon warehouse in Alabama to curtail union organizing. The story was eventually picked up by outlets like The Verge, but only after a video posted by More Perfect Union to Twitter had been shared thousands of times.
But for every positive story about the internet functioning as a tool for liberation, there seems to be a dozen in which the internet serves to amplify misinformation. In 2020, a conspiracy-laden video went viral on social media. The video made an assortment of false or misleading claims about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines including that the wearing of a mask “literally activates” the virus and that vaccines are a “money-making enterprise” that cause “medical harm.” Despite its absurdities, the video took the internet by storm and amassed eight millions views across several platforms before it was ultimately taken down.
The rise of this type of content is not a minor issue. Recently, California state senator and pediatrician Richard Pan pointed out that some anti-vaccine extremists have become domestic terrorists, citing an incident that occurred in January during which anti-vaxxers shut down a large coronavirus vaccine site in Los Angeles.
“These extremists succeeded in temporarily shutting down the site, delaying patients, many of them elderly, from getting their shots. The anti-vaccine activists have told the Los Angeles Times that they intend to keep disrupting vaccination efforts,” Pan wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.
We must ask if incidents like the one in LA would have happened without the rampant spread of misinformation online. The New York Sun’s “Great Moon Hoax” reminds us that this is not a new phenomena, but there is evidence to suggest that support of conspiracy theories are at an all-time high in the United States. NBC News reported in August 2020 that Facebook groups that promoted the increasingly popular QAnon conspiracy theory had millions of followers. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken in May 2020 revealed that 44 percent of Republicans that participated in the poll believed that Bill Gates was planning to implant a microchip in the COVID-19 vaccine.
Even commentators like Ben Shapiro, who undeservedly claim an aura of credibility, often promote a form of soft conspiracy that typically goes unnoticed. Speaking recently about social guidelines adopted to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Shapiro pushed the conspiracy that such guidelines are promoted by authorities simply as an example of government overreach. “People in control who think they will maintain control with the threat of the virus, the answer is no,” Shapiro said.
But even if conspiracy theories were completely wiped from the internet tomorrow, America would still be facing a crisis of misinformation. A new class of commentators, styled after radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, have built massive audiences by weaponizing the fears of conservatives and other assorted reactionaries, not necessarily through actual conspiracy theories but through conspiracism, the idea that nothing that society’s leaders say is true and that left-of-center people are just inches away from engaging in genocide against Republicans.
Take for example, Tim Pool, a conservative YouTube creator that received over 70 million YouTube views over a 30-day-period starting in June 2020. For reference, this total was nearly 39 million more than the views received by Prager University, Steven Crowder, and The Blaze during the same period. Pool uses an increasingly popular form of deceit to affirm his audience’s belief that the American left is marked by radicalism and political correctness. By portraying himself as a liberal and a “milquetoast fence-sitter,” Pool is able to make the argument that liberalism in American has grown to be so outrageous that even liberals are concerned. It’s a tactic that has been used to varying degrees of success by popular figures like Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, and Dave Rubin.
However, Pool’s content constantly brings the credibility of his self-professed status as a moderate into question. “Gina Carano Defeats Woke Leftists, Plans Movie With Ben Shapiro’s Company” reads one recent video headline. “Leftist Race Hoax That Destroyed Several Lives and Jobs Finally Exposed” reads another. In another recent video, Pool claimed that TIME Magazine published an article that claimed that an “elite cabal conspired to stop Trump from winning” November’s presidential election. Pool’s audience instantly took the article as a confirmation that the election was stolen. “They aren’t admitting they did it. They’re BRAGGING they did it,” one commenter wrote. “Funny…isn’t this exactly what Trump said was going on?” wrote another. The video, which has nearly 500,000 views at the time of this writing, has almost 50,000 likes and only 514 dislikes.
In reality, the article describes the work that was done to protect the integrity of the election. “The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted,” the article reads.
These examples suggest an unfortunate truth, that thoughtful arguments aren’t compelling when juxtaposed with a news version of junk food that is designed to increase traffic and reaffirm tribal biases. Thanks to Tim Pool, hundreds of thousands of Americans now falsely believe that TIME Magazine admitted that the election was stolen. Sadly, this type of misinformation is constantly being spread around the internet by large media outlets, Twitter pundits, TikTok influencers, YouTube creators, image-boards like 4chan, and even your family and friends on social media.
I come by these concerns honestly, so to speak. After growing up in a conservative home, I was excited to land a job with a popular right-wing news outlet in my early 20s. By the time I quit a few years later, I had published 3,000 articles on a variety of topics. I learned quickly that a nefarious yet simple formula underpins “reporting” by right-wing media; reporters work backward from a predetermined conclusion. For example, it was my job to seek out stories that confirmed the conclusion that American universities and colleges are illiberal hell-scapes run by lawless Marxist academics that seek the censorship of conservative ideas and destruction of American ideals. If a story that I presented to my editor did not affirm that conclusion, it was immediately shot down. This form of lying by omission presents a distorted view of reality in which the world is one that is overwhelmed by all of the reader’s worst fears. The events of January 6, 2021 confirmed that this form of media presents an ongoing threat to democracy.
Despite the insights I gained during my shameful tenure as a purveyor of online misinformation, I am at a loss on what the solution might be to this growing problem. But if Americans do not recognize and understand the powerful incentives that motivate partisan media, they will hand off control of what is left of America’s shared sense of reality to forces that would gleefully destroy it in exchange for a bit of power and wealth.