Can Donald Trump thank a flood of fake news stories shared on Facebook this year for his shock presidential election victory? While historians and political scientists will be arguing for years over what really led to Trump’s victory, media critics are now pinning at least some of the responsibility on an unprecedented number of fabricated, fudged or misleading “news” stories online that were shared widely via Facebook, as well as other social media outlets.
An article in New York Magazine last week, bluntly titled, “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” made the case that, “the most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.”
An investigation by BuzzFeed News published less than a week prior to the election traced about 100 political “news” sites trafficking in fake stories — most of them extremely pro-Trump — to a single small town in the Balkan state of Macedonia, where groups of college students and teenagers discovered they could rake in big bucks by generating phony “news” stories favorable to Trump or damaging to Hillary Clinton, and sharing them on Facebook where they would quickly go viral.
What are these fake news stories, where do they come from and did they help to win the election for Trump?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Facebook is One of America’s Top News Sources
More than 60 percent of American adults use Facebook as well as other social media sites for their news, and 18 percent use the platforms “often” as a major news source, according to a Pew Research study from May of this year. Facebook has the broadest audience of any social media site, reaching 67 percent of all adults in the United States.
According to the site Internet World Stats, as of June 2016 Facebook had 201 million total users in the United States — a penetration rate of 62 percent.
Of the millions of adult Facebook users, the Pew Study found, about two-thirds, 66 percent, use the social media platform as a news source.
What percentage of news stories displayed and read on Facebook are actually fakes? That number has not been determined. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks the figure is as little as one percent.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” he wrote in a Facebook post of his own on Saturday. “The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
But one former Facebook employee, Antonio Garcia-Martinez — author of a book about Facebook, Chaos Monkey — called his former boss “disingenuous” for dismissing the idea that Facebook may have influenced the election. Facebook sells itself to advertisers on the basis that it can and does influence voters, Garcia-Martinez told National Public Radio.
“There’s an entire political team and a massive office in D.C. that tries to convince political advertisers that Facebook can convince users to vote one way or the other,” the former Facebook employee said. “Then (Zuckerberg) gets up and says, ‘Oh, by the way, Facebook content couldn’t possibly influence the election.’ It’s contradictory on the face of it.”
2. Most, But Not All, Fake Stories This Year Were Pro-Trump
A study by BuzzFeed News in late October of “hyper-partisan” news sites — that is, sites taking a strong and obvious slant toward one candidate — 38 percent of stories generated by right-wing, pro-Trump sites were false, or contained falsehoods blended with fact to create a misleading impression.
On left-leaning sites, which would tend to be support Clinton or in many cases her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders, 19 percent were false or contained significant fabrications — half as many on pro-Trump sites, though still a large number considering that legitimate news sites should contain no fabrications at all.
In addition to the recent false story — pictured above in a Facebook post from pro-Trump site American News — claiming that actor Denzel Washington “switches to Trump” and “speaks out against Obama,” other popular and totally fake news stories that were shared widely on Facebook this year included a story claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump; a claim that the Clinton Foundation had “purchased over $137 million of illegal arms and ammunition” to be delivered to the United States in November; and even a story claiming that Clinton and her top aide Huma Abedin were lesbian lovers.
As recently as Monday, November 14, the top Google search result for the query “final election results” led to a story claiming that Trump was winning the popular vote in the election. Like the other stories, that one was completely fabricated. (In realty, Clinton was ahead by more than one million votes, with that number expected to rise.)
3. Many Fake News Stories Originate With Moneymaking Sites Overseas
Two separate news organizations this year — BuzzFeed News and the U.K. based Guardian newspaper — investigated the origins of fake news sites and found a large number of pro-Trump sites based in Macedonia, a Balkan nation bordering on Greece to the south, Kosovo and Serbia to the north.
In fact, both investigations traced at least 100 pro-Trump sites to a single town in Macedonia — Veles, population 44,000. The Guardian probe found 150.
“We are an independent news magazine with [our] primary goal to influence American policy, especially politics,” the anonymous operator of one of the Veles-based sites told The Guardian. “Then my city fellows saw what I was doing and started to copy my work. They are just looking to earn money from ad networks.”
According to the BuzzFeed News investigation, the sites in Macedonia are run mostly by teenagers looking to turn a quick buck. While U.S. publishers struggle to build revenue streams from Facebook shares and search engine clicks, the small amounts of money paid by those sources can be substantial in a struggling economy such as Macedonia’s.
The Macedonian teens interviewed by BuzzFeed earlier experimented with fake or often plagiarized stories about Bernie Sanders, but found that even Sanders with his devoted cult following did not generate the same level of traffic as Trump.
“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” the 16-year-old proprietor of pro-Trump site BVANews.com told BuzzFeed.
While not all stories even on the Macedonian sites are flatly false, BuzzFeed found that false stories on average generated significantly more internet “clicks” than accurate news stories. A false story claiming that Clinton in 2013 had described Trump as “honest and can’t be bought” generated 480,000 Facebook shares, comments and reactions in one week — compared to the New York Times bombshell revealing that Trump had likely paid no income tax since 1995, which produced 175,000 Facebook engagements.
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4. Fake News Stories Also Cover Trump-Related Themes
The pro-Trump fake news sites do not confine themselves to generating false and misleading stories only about the candidate. They also churn out stories on themes that they believe, often correctly, will appeal to Trump supporters. Those fake or distorted stories often involve violent crimes committed against white people by African-Americans.
The above story claiming that “blacks” had set “two white men” ablaze with gasoline was posted on September 23 by the pro-Trump site Freedom Daily, on its Facebook page. The story generated nearly 14,000 shares, more than 2,000 comments 9,500 reactions. But as BuzzFeed found by checking old news stories, while the photos in the post may have been real, the story itself was a total fabrication.
The incident had taken place about a year earlier, and involved a dispute between co-workers that turned violent. The story was not “censored” but received wide coverage in local media in the Baltimore area, where it happened, including this report in the Baltimore Sun.
Similarly, a story posted Tuesday to Facebook by the pro-Trump site USA News Flash claimed that Trump supporter in Alabama had been “martyred,” stabbed to death by a “black man.”
While the murder described in the story happened, it was the result of a tragic robbery — not a political attack targeting a the victim for supporting Trump. The suspect has been arrested and charged with capital murder.
5. Facebook and Google Are Now Taking Steps to Curb Fake News
On Monday, both Facebook and the dominant search engine Google announced steps to reduce fake news stories from circulating on their respective platforms.
The two internet titans announced measures to hit sites that promulgate fake news where they will feel it most — the bank account. According to a Reuters report, Google will evaluate sites for misleading and false news content and remove offenders from the company’s AdSense network, which is the primary source of revenue for many news sites.
Facebook said that it would stop displaying revenue-generating ads on sites that traffic in fake news.
“In accordance with the Audience Network Policy, we do not integrate or display ads in apps or sites containing content that is illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake news,” a Facebook spokesperson told NBC News on Tuesday. “While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news. Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”
While depriving fake news sites of advertising will clearly reduce the incentive to publish phony news stories, neither Google nor Facebook announced new policies aimed at actually reducing the number of fake news stories that show up in search results and user news feeds.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated Buzzfeed found Freedom Daily was incorrect in reporting that the victim set on fire by a co-worker in Baltimore was not white. The victim’s father is white, according to Freedom Daily and social media pages connected to the victim and his family.