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Conspiracy theorist and Donald Trump ally Alex Jones, who was one of the major proponents of the false “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, threatened to sue Facebook after the company announced new efforts to fight fake news.
BuzzFeed reported that Facebook will partner with organizations that have signed on with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) fact-checkers’ code of principles to label false news stories on its network. The Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes, The Washington Post, and ABC News are the first organizations based in the United States that have agreed to the principles.
Jones, who has promoted numerous conspiracies and false stories including the claim that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by the U.S. government and the allegation that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax done with actors, attacked the announcement on his December 15 internet/radio show.
Running through several New York Times stories which he described as “fake news,” Jones threatened “to sue” Facebook if it allowed certain Times articles to remain active while “censoring” stories from Jones’ website Infowars. Jones also threatened to sue the fact-checking site Snopes for “their treacherous, tortuous interference and all the rest of it.” Snopes has repeatedly criticized Infowars for publishing false stories.
Jones described the initiative as a “blacklist” that would involve “burying news, like the communist Chinese do.” He said the announcement heralded “the end of free internet.”
Referencing the IFCN, Jones said international involvement meant “the U.N.’s involved now.” Jones also bizarrely claimed that the CIA is behind the Facebook decision and called on Trump to “unfund the CIA trying to run this.”
Business Insider reported that the program will begin with “a test with a small percentage of [Facebook] users” Jones responded by instructing his followers to "go on” and “create a fake liberal network” so Jones and his company can label outlets like CNN and MSNBC as “fake news.”
Jones was recently caught by Media Matters scrubbing his website of content promoting the false and dangerous conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s campaign trafficked children through a D.C. pizzeria (numerous pizzagate posts still remain on his website). The criminal complaint filed after a man fired an assault rifle in the pizzeria indicated that the suspect had recently shared a video created by Jones about the conspiracy.
Right-wing media figures attacked Facebook for announcing that it would partner with third-party fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and The Associated Press to combat fake news. The freakout from conservative pundits follows their repeated attempts to hijack the term “fake news” in order to discredit mainstream news sources.
According to a new Pew Research report, 64 percent of Americans -- including a majority in both political parties -- said that fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion about the basic facts of current events.
According to the study, the fake news problem is a bipartisan one: “Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that these stories leave Americans deeply confused about current events”:
While fake news became an issue during the highly charged 2016 presidential election campaign, Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that these stories leave Americans deeply confused about current events. About six-in-ten Republicans say completely made-up news causes a great deal of confusion (57%), and about the same portion of Democrats say the same (64%). And although independents outpace Republicans (69% say fake news causes a great deal of confusion), they are on par with Democrats. This perception is also mostly consistent across education, race, gender and age, though there is some difference by income.
These findings draw a sharp contrast between Americans’ perception of fake news and an active campaign by right-wing media and figures, including Donald Trump and his transition team, to downplay the existence of these false stories and attack credible news sources by blurring the lines between fake news (fabricated information presented as a legitimate news story) and real reporting. Fox host Sean Hannity called concerns about fake news “nonsense,” and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, attempting to make fake news a partisan issue, called it “satire and parody that liberals don’t understand.” Similarly, The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris described fake news as “whatever people living in the liberal bubble determined to be believed by the right.” Trump himself tried to undermine CNN’s reporting on his executive producer credit on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice by calling it “FAKE NEWS!” And Trump transition senior advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asserted that “the most fake piece of news” during the election was that Trump couldn’t win.
The report also found that Americans “collectively assign a fairly high and roughly equal amount of responsibility” for the spread of fake news to three groups: social networking sites and search engines, government and politicians, and members of the public. The survey reported that 42 percent of U.S. adults believe that social networking sites like Facebook and search engines like Google have “a great deal of responsibility” in “preventing completely made-up news from gaining attention.”
Though Google and Facebook have announced steps to combat the spread fake news, including the policy Google adopted in November barring fake news publishers from using its advertising system, a Media Matters analysis found that Google AdSense-linked advertisements were still running on countless hyperpartisan websites peddling fake news nearly a month later. Ad revenue is a driving cause of the fake news explosion and incentivizes its spread. On Facebook, large, hyperpartisan pages that regularly peddle fake news content still remain verified.
According to the report, nearly a quarter of Americans admitted to sharing a fake news story that they either knew at the time was made up or later found out was fake. Nearly one-third of U.S. adults reported seeing fake political news online “often,” and 71 percent reported seeing fake political news at least sometimes.
Pew’s report comes just two days after PolitiFact named fake news the “2016 lie of the year” and about a month after the election, which saw engagement on Facebook with top fake news stories surpass engagement with top news stories from 19 major news outlets.
Image created by Sarah Wasko.
A Guide To Fake News Terminology
The fake news universe is vast and ephemeral, and to some extent its dimensions are unknowable. But Media Matters’ research team spent hundreds of hours trying to map out as much of it as possible. Below is what we’ve learned and how we’ve come to define many of the moving parts that create an ecosystem for fake news to spread and thrive.
Carusone: Breitbart’s Model “Consists Of Infecting A Political Movement"
The Catalonian newspaper El Nacional spoke with Media Matters president Angelo Carusone about Breitbart.com and its model of “infecting” political movements to advance its racist, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-globalization political ideology. The report comes shortly after Breitbart announced it will launch operations in France and Germany ahead of their elections.
Breitbart -- a right-wing website that publishes misinformation, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic, racist, transphobic, misogynistic and xenophobic content -- has become a platform in the U.S. for the white nationalist movement branded by its supporters as the "alt-right." Breitbart also greatly aided Donald Trump’s campaign, effectively functioning as Trump’s propaganda machine. Breitbart’s former executive chairman Stephen Bannon took a leave of absence to serve as CEO for the Trump campaign, and post-election he has been chosen to serve as chief strategist and senior counselor to the president-elect.
Breitbart, which already has operations in London and Jerusalem, has now announced plans to expand to France and Germany ahead of those countries’ elections. Breitbart is looking to exploit the rise of xenophobic movements like that of Marine Le Pen in France by deploying their extremist ideology in the European media markets.
Carusone explained to El Nacional that Breitbart’s model “consists of infecting” an opposition movement that already exists in a country -- “like Nigel Farage’s anti-European xenophobic party” in the United Kingdom -- and aligning itself with that movement to advance its agenda. Breitbart identifies a political movement that is susceptible to or that will be energized by anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-globalization, or racist sentiments and “generat[es] animosity” to fuel those movements. Carusone also explained that Breitbart doesn’t “have enough income to sustain their operations” and that they must have other sources of funding that aren’t publicly known -- meaning that it is unclear who is ultimately bankrolling the spread of their extremism.
Translated from El Nacional:
Could Breitbart take root in Spain? “Its model, in reality, consists of infecting a political movement” of opposition that is already established, explained Angelo Carusone, president of the progressive think tank Media Matters to El Nacional. “That movement existed in the United Kingdom: the UKIP (like Nigel Farage’s anti-European xenophobic party).
In France and Germany they already have somewhere to take cover: Marine Le Pen’s National Front(FN) and Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The first step is to identify an opposition party in the country where they want to establish themselves that aligns with them and to seek out the sentiments that fuel them: those against immigrants, feminism, globalization, other races …, explains Carusone. Breitbart “generates animosity” against these groups “publishing content more or less in line with the party” they are drawing close to. The party officials “talk about them on TV, on radio or in newspapers, giving Breitbart added legitimacy among the community in which they want to grow and within their chosen party. They are specialists in building this dynamic,” he concluded.
Their business model is unclear. Legally they are a corporation, not an NGO or a foundation. They don’t promote donations, even if their initial push came from one: the at least ten million dollars that American billionaire Robert Mercer gifted them.
They have scarce advertising and there are a handful of companies that have decided to stop advertising on Breitbart: Kellogg (foods), Allstate (insurance), Warby Parker (glasses), Earthlink y Sofi (internet) and BMW. Others, like Nissan, have decided to stay, perhaps for fear that they will mount a boycott campaign as happened to Kellogg.
Breitbart doesn’t make its financial accounting public. It also avoids asking for or soliciting grants or credentials that would force them to make this information public. “They don’t even talk about these things. What seems clear to me is that they don’t have enough income to sustain their operations. They have to have other sources of funding,” suspects Carusone, for whom “all of that is not what most concerns them, in the sense that they are more interested in advancing their ideology and political agenda” than they are in business aspects.
"They lie, misinform, intimidate, harass and try to suppress or eliminate the activities of those who oppose them. I wouldn’t say that they are a medium for information, but rather the organizational nexus of a community. They look like an informational website, but they are an organization tool. That’s where their political power comes from,” explained Carusone.
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Since the presidential election, conservative radio host Sean Hannity has devoted himself to promoting the dangerous and undemocratic notion that President-elect Donald Trump should not have a press office in his White House. The Trump campaign is taking steps to ensure that Hannity’s vision may become a reality.
Hannity has used his radio and television shows to urge the incoming president to “rethink how he deals with media,” arguing that mainstream media outlets are “all full of crap." Hannity advised fellow right-wing radio host and potential Trump administration press secretary Laura Ingraham that, if she got the job, she should not "go out and talk with" the media every day. Hannity even suggested to Trump advisor Newt Gingrich that, instead of a press office, Trump should come on The Sean Hannity Show to “take calls from people all over the country.”
On December 14, Hannity repeated his offer to allow Trump to have a “fireside chat” using the 550 radio stations that receive his broadcasts instead of Trump taking the media's "inane, idiotic, combative questions every day":
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Journalism’s dead. I honestly could see Trump saying, “we don't need a White House press office anymore. We don’t need” -- He hasn't named a press secretary. Why? Why go out there, the dog-and-phony-pony show? Where you have a bunch of Hillary Clinton supporters in the media, a bunch of propagandists, a bunch of people that colluded with the Clinton campaign, why sit there evwery day and take their inane, idiotic, combative questions every day? What, and then what, run it on MSNBC? Because they can’t get any better programming than that? I think you just say forget it. I’ll do a fireside chat with him.
It appears that the Trump administration is listening. On Wednesday Reince Priebus, incoming Trump administration chief of staff, told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt that “many things have to change” in the relationship between the White House and the press, “including the daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary and the seating chart." According to Politico, Priebus said that "I think that it’s important that we look at all of those traditions that are great, but quite frankly, as you know, don’t really make news and they're just sort of mundane, boring episodes”:
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested that major changes are coming to the White House press corps.
Speaking to radio host Hugh Hewitt, Priebus said "many things have to change" in the White House's relationship and daily traditions with the media, including the daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary and the seating chart.
"I think that it’s important that we look at all of those traditions that are great, but quite frankly, as you know, don’t really make news and they're just sort of mundane, boring episodes," Priebus said.
"The point of all of this conversation is that the traditions, while some of them are great, I think it’s time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House, and I can assure you that change is going to happen, even on things that might seem boring like this topic, but also change as far as how we’re going to approach tax reform, the American worker, how we protect them and business all at the same time why skyrocketing our economy," Priebus told Hewitt.
Trump is already setting the stage for more favorable press coverage during his presidential tenure. Right Side Broadcasting Network, a new 24-hour conservative media network favorable to Trump has recently announced that they will “be in the White House” and “be at the press briefings” in the Trump administration. And while Trump has been extremely hostile to the press, Trump has maintained his relationship with Hannity. After his election, President-elect Trump was sure to make his first cable TV appearance with Hannity, who not only appeared in a campaign advertisement for Trump before the election but also gave Trump over $31 million in free publicity and over 24 hours in total airtime.
A Media Matters analysis found that Google AdSense-linked advertisements were still running on countless hyperpartisan websites peddling fake news nearly a month after Google announced it would ban these types of sites from using its online advertising service. Ads linked to Google AdSense create key revenue streams that make fake news content profitable and enable purveyors of fake news to thrive.
On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. Google’s new policy expanded its existing ban on misleading advertisements, “including promotions for counterfeit goods and weight-loss scams, … to the websites its advertisements run on.” Google spokesperson Andrea Faville released the following statement on the new policy:
Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.
In a report on the decision, The New York Times acknowledged that “it remains to be seen how effective Google’s new policy on fake news will be in practice.”
Despite Google’s announcement nearly a month ago, a Media Matters search of more than 40 fake-news-peddling websites found that a majority were still displaying ads linked to Google AdSense.
Ad revenue is a driving cause of the recent fake news explosion, in which engagement with top fake news stories posted on Facebook surpassed engagement with top news stories from reputable outlets on Facebook in the last three months of the 2016 election. As TechCrunch explained, while mainstream outlets “may be held accountable for exaggeration,” fake news purveyors “can focus on short-term traffic and ad revenue,” which “incentivize(s) misinformation.” Google turns billions in profits by allowing advertisers to use its advertising service on third-party websites.
In November, BuzzFeed broke a story on young Macedonians running more than 100 pro-Donald Trump websites pushing fake news content. The websites’ owners told BuzzFeed that “they don’t care about Donald Trump” -- then the Republican presidential nominee -- and were “responding to straightforward economic incentives.” Detailing their strategy, they acknowledged that “the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.” The teens then earn money from ads on their websites as a result of increased traffic via Facebook clicks. Anecdotally, BuzzFeed reported that unnamed owners earned up to $3,000 per day or $5,000 per month.
The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser detailed how fake news writers make money, with one interviewee telling her he makes “$10,000 a month from AdSense.” That same fake news writer said that if Google and Facebook “are successful in stopping fake-news sites from profiting … the effect would be devastating for his revenue.” David Carroll, an expert in advertising technology and professor at the New School, estimated that one fake-news share from a person within the Trump campaign “could earn the lucky hoaxer as much as $10,000 in extra revenue” and called it a “‘huge economic incentive to create stories that they want to distribute.’”
In practice, Google’s announced ban can be effective in stopping websites from peddling fake news. RedFlag News, which frequently publishes fake news stories, announced on December 2 that Google had disabled its advertising service on the platform. According to the website, RedFlag News saw a “50% drop in traffic” and a sharp decline in its Facebook audience engagement in recent weeks. The site is now accepting donations to its “Facebook, Google AdSense & Twitter Emergency Fund” to stay afloat.
Evidence suggests, however, that plenty of websites that push fake news stories have yet to feel the effects of Google’s ban, instead remaining incentivized to publish fabricated, sensationalist content without regard for the truth.
Image created by Sarah Wasko.
Websites circulating fake news were still using Google’s online advertising service as of December 12, nearly one month after Google announced it would ban such sites from using its advertising platform as a revenue source.
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Brian Stelter: "What Is He Hiding?"
Media figures criticized the secrecy surrounding President-elect Donald Trump's postponement of a press conference regarding his conflicts of interest arising from his business holdings.
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NBC's Financial Relationship With The President-Elect Puts Its Reporters In An Impossible Situation
NBC and its parent company, Comcast/NBCUniversal, have put the network’s news division in an impossible situation by entering into a financial agreement with the next president of the United States. As NBC News reporters grapple with the announcement that President-elect Donald Trump will remain an executive producer on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, many aren't discussing the intolerable conflicts of interest this business arrangement poses to NBC. In this deal, NBC will have a fiduciary relationship with the president, making it financially invested in Trump’s reputation -- a situation that threatens to compromise the news division’s political reporting. The arrangement is now providing a case study in how conflicts of interest affect the quality and the integrity of reporting.
Variety reported on December 8 that Trump will stay on as an executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice. As Media Matters pointed out, because of the business relationship, NBC is now financially invested in Trump's reputation and will have an incentive to weigh aggressive reporting about Trump across its news platforms against what the network mighty lose in revenue if Trump's reputation is damaged. The arrangement implicates NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC.
NBC News’ reports on the announcement have generally presented the conflict as a possible problem for Trump, but not for NBC -- and that’s when the network reports on the deal at all. NBC’s flagship Sunday political show, Meet the Press, failed to address the story entirely on the December 11 edition. Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, who also anchors the weekday program Meet the Press Daily, said on December 8 that Trump being “connected to The Apprentice is not news to the American public.” NBC correspondents Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander both characterized the deal as a conflict for Trump, while downplaying NBC’s own conflict. Welker noted that there is “new scrutiny of the president-elect's decision to stay on as executive producer of The Apprentice,” referring to the deal as “Trump’s business entanglements,” and adding, “NBC Entertainment declined to comment, noting MGM owns and produces the show.” Joe Kernen, host of CNBC’s Squawk Box, told a critic, “Don’t bring it to your conflict thing again.” MSNBC’s Ari Melber argued that Trump remaining an executive producer isn’t a conflict, “it’s just … weird,” and made a point of saying that “NBC Entertainment is a separate division of our company” from NBC News.
MSNBC reporters have also tried to compare Trump’s deal with NBC to Obama receiving royalties for his books. But, as The Associated Press explained, Obama’s “books’ publishers are not financially tied to news divisions.”
By contrast, other media outlets have noted NBC’s numerous conflicts in this arrangement. On ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked incoming Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus: “The FCC regulates NBC corporate. Corporations could try to curry favor with the president by placing their products on the show, buying advertising. Isn't that an issue?” CNN’s Dylan Byers explained that the business relationship “presents a thorny situation for Comcast/NBCUniversal, which controls the [product integration] deals” that companies make with Celebrity Apprentice, which, according to Byers, often range from $5 million to $9 million. Trump personally profits from those deals, making NBC the middleman through which companies can “curry favor” with the president. And Fortune magazine noted that NBC was already criticized in October “for reportedly sitting on the Access Hollywood footage from 2005 that showed Trump boasting about committing sexual assault,” which the network reportedly withheld due to “fear of spurring yet another lawsuit from Trump.”
Media and ethics experts have also pointed out the untenable situation NBC has created for itself. Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive and journalism professor, called the arrangement “mind-boggling” and said it’s “a clear conflict of interest” to have a company “that has a news division …. covering the president of the United States” when he “has an interest in a show on that network.” Aly Colon, a journalism ethics expert, noted people’s desire to “believe in an independent news division not affected by business ties,” saying, “A lot of people find it difficult to believe there is a wall between news and entertainment.” And NPR’s David Folkenflik pointed out that, as president, Trump will be appointing the regulators tasked with scrutinizing the media, which NBC has an obvious interest in. Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert explained on MSNBC’s AM Joy that “No amount of disclosure is enough here. Is NBC for the next four years, every time they report on Trump, [going to] say, ‘By the way, our parent company has a financial relationship with Donald Trump’?” Boehlert also asked, "what if a company, in theory, says, 'Let's give The Apprentice $5 million and Trump could get a cut of that?' I mean, we're just paying off the president.”
NBC cut ties with Trump last summer, declining to air his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants and stating that the network did not want to be associated with Trump because his bigoted statements had defied its core values. What’s unclear now is whether NBC believes Trump’s values have changed or whether the network believes such statements became acceptable with his election.
Sign Media Matters’ petition telling NBC to dump Trump.