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Pathfinders: Coprophilia

Which of these news stories is true: The Queen threatened to abdicate if the Brexit vote won; the Pope supported Donald Trump for president; Hillary Clinton sold guns to ISIS; the Pope called fake news purveyors 'coprophages' (shit-eaters)?

Just the last one is true. And you can't blame the Pope for swearing in Greek. Actor Denzel Washington was also incandescent with rage after a fake news story identifying him as a Trump supporter went viral. Fake news is big news since the US presidential elections were riddled with it, not least because many of the hoax items (aka blatant lies) seemed to stem from the Trump camp itself. When a quasi-secret meeting of senior Facebook executives suggested that Facebook, also riddled with fake news, had influenced public perceptions to the extent of altering the outcome of the elections, CEO Mark Zuckerberg ridiculed the idea, only to change his mind a few days later and agree to new measures to start flagging suspect stories. When confronted with the same question regarding Google's inadvertent promotion of fake news influencing the election result, its CEO responded simply "Sure", and agreed immediately to work on ways to block them.

The nub of the matter is that where once you could tell a satire from a genuine story if only because the satirists did not have the means to make their products look authentic, now anyone can create a genuine-looking website. If you are tempted to cite a news story from the National Report, Boston Tribune, Denver Guardian, Empire Herald, News Buzz Daily or United Media Publishing, you have been conned because they are all fake news sites, and there are hundreds more.

Journalists aren't immune either. In a rush to get stories out, or to follow the day's fastest bandwagons, journalists often publish first and check later, thus contributing to the fake virology. A study of US TV stations revealed that up to a third of their news reports contained unchecked information culled from social media sources which turned out to be false ('The rise and rise of fake news', BBC Online, 6 November) .

So, what's the deal with fake news? Money, in a word. There are towns in Macedonia and other poor countries where fake news generation is the main industry and source of employment (Wired Online, 8 December). The BBC article above cites a prominent shit-eater talking about the advertising revenue derived from so-called click-bait designed to pander to prejudices: "We've had stories that have made $10,000. We're constantly trying to tune into feelings that we think that people already have or want to have. Recently we did a story about Hillary Clinton being fed the answers prior to the debate. It was all fake - but that sort of headline gets into the right wing bubble and they run with it." An independent researcher agrees: "There's a lot of confirmation bias. A lot of people want proof that their world view is the accurate and appropriate one."              

But not just any people, conservatives in particular. One faker claims to have helped get Trump elected: "My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time… His followers don’t fact-check anything – they’ll post everything, believe anything" (New Scientist, 7 December). Another complained that liberals are harder to dupe: "We've tried to do [fake news with] liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out" (Washington Post, 7 December). A recent UCLA study has indeed concluded that conservatives are more likely to believe fake news if it is in the form of a threat which rings true in their world view (http://tinyurl.com/hyvrpnr).

It's not just about the money. Wired Magazine points out that the past 30 years has seen a complete capsizing of news media. Where once a few big news broadcasters churned out a bland and monotonous news agenda designed not to appeal but to avoid offence, now in the 'post-truth era' a plethora of small agencies are actively hunting audiences by targeting passionately-held niche opinions. Moreover the power to propagate stories has passed from news editors to readers, and one study suggests that anger is the key motivating factor in spreading stories - the more angry the reader is about a story, the more likely they will share it. "Reasonableness gets you no points," says one former Facebook VP (Wired, 14 February).

So on this argument the people most likely to share fake news are angry right-wingers with no great interest in objective reality. Not surprisingly, some commentators fear that democracy is suffocating in a steam of rage-fuelled stupidity. It's as if someone has turned the gas stove up, and now everybody's boiling. No wonder politics seems to be going through a phase change. The lukewarm centrism of the past few decades is fast giving way to aggressive and polarised extremes that must seem unprecedented to anyone under the age of 40.

Would it therefore be perverse to suggest that fake news is a good thing? After all there is a sense in which most of the news is fake anyway, if one considers how 'real' stories about the number of infant deaths from preventable disease or hunger, or the number of people living on the street or in tents, virtually never appear in the news, which is instead obsessed with celeb gossip and party political trivia.

The capitalist class as a whole used to control workers by withholding information wherever possible. Now there's too much information and misinformation, and workers will either sink or learn to swim. In all the fakery this one fact must stand out as obvious, even to the most fact-averse conservative.

If you had to 'sell' the idea of capitalism to people on a socialist planet they'd laugh at you. There'd be nothing in it for them except misery and slavery. Most people don't support capitalism because they think it is perfect or even particularly pleasant. They support it because they think they've got no choice, and they think that because they are hypnotised by its bogus ideology, its bogus values and its bogus leaders. Capitalism is adaptive and very clever at whitewashing itself. Our hope is that, in a new climate of radical scepticism which even conservatives can't be immune to, perhaps the whitewash won't wash for much longer.

PJS