by Thomas R. Wells
The statistics are shocking. A Russian troll farm created false anti-Clinton stories and distributed them on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have encountered at least one piece of Russian propaganda; Russian tweets received as many as 288 million views. The Russians, just like Trump's campaign itself, leveraged the adtech infrastructure developed by social media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to identify and target those most receptive to their lies and provocations.
What is going on? Is this something new? Does it matter?
I. Do People Believe Fake News?
One popular interpretation of what is going on is that social media and its associated adtech have isolated us in filter bubbles and made us newly vulnerable to politically or commercially motivated lies. The bubble is a controlled information environment based on what we want to hear and what adbuyers want people like us to believe. Organisations that know how to use this – whether a Russian troll farm or the company hired by the Brexit campaign – can exercise enormous power over the information we are exposed to and thus our beliefs about the world.
I disagree. I think very few people actually believe fake news. Rather, they indulge in believing that they believe it. People's relationship to such beliefs is much more like the way they relate to icecream than the enlightenment idea of respecting objective truth. Consider Pizzagate, a recent very famous example of fake news.
At the end of October 2016 an anti-Clinton conspiracy theory started circulating on fringe rightist social media and fake news websites like Infowars. Russian troll accounts seem to have been among those helping the story spread. Over the next month, millions of Americans heard or read that top members of the Democratic Party were running a child sexual slavery ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC.