Polman: Obama is not plotting a 'treasonous coup'
We're all well acquainted with the fake news phenomenon — the Trumpian sewage that's routinely pumped into the brains of the dumb and numb. But the good news is, Facebook has started to fight back, working with a coalition of fact-based media outlets.
Better late than never. The 2016 campaign was festooned with phony scoops like "Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president" and "FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide" and "Hillary sold weapons to ISIS." Credulous social media users clicked and shared and were happy to get suckered.
It's no surprise that the con lives on. My new favorite bit of fakery, which has already been shared tens of thousands of times, and re-posted on dozens of websites with names like Angry Patriot and Trump Media, features this eye-candy headline:
"BREAKING. Congress Moves to STOP Obama's Treasonous Coup Attempt Against Trump"
Sigh. These people still can't quit the guy.
Last I saw, Obama was photographed on a boating vacation, wearing cool shades and flashing a free-at-last grin. He sure didn't look like somebody plotting a coup and seething with treason, but hey, maybe his vacay vibe was just part of the conspiracy. And if Congress is indeed moving to stop his coup, I can respect its apparent decision to do so quietly. Maybe that explains why not a single Republican in Congress, or Spicer or Kellyanne, has breathed a word about what Obama has afoot.
Anyway, I bring all this up because ABC News — working with Facebook — has posted a deconstruction of the fake-news story, explaining how the infauxmation process worked.
Basically, this was the fake-news logic: Trump is plagued by government leakers; many government officials are civil servants who stay on the job from one administration to the next; some leakers might be officials carried over from the last administration; therefore, the leakers are partisan Obama loyalists; therefore, Obama is directing his loyalists; therefore, Obama is plotting a treasonous coup.
ABC News dryly concluded that, aside from the people making stuff up, "no one is alleging that former President Obama ... has committed treason because of these revelations." But the most noteworthy true info comes at the bottom of the post:
"ABC News has launched 'The Real News About Fake News' powered by Facebook data in which users report questionable stories and misinformation circulating on the platform. The stories will undergo rigorous reporting to determine if the claims made are false, exaggerated or out of context. Stories that editorial partners have also debunked will then appear flagged in your News Feed."
Facebook announced this project earlier this winter. The social network had long prided itself as a neutral bulletin board, but its leaders had come to realize that allowing sewage to flow unchecked was a social negative. As Adam Mosseri, one of the Facebook veeps, said in December: "We really value giving people a choice (of information), but we also believe we need to take responsibility for the spread of fake news on our platform."
So Facebook hooked up with ABC News, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org (housed at the University of Pennsylvania), Politifact, and Snopes. Users can now flag stories they suspect to be fake, and stories that draw enough flags are typically steered to these fact-checking media sites. The Obama slime job met the specs for scrutiny. And another group called First Draft — which includes The Washington Post, Vox, and ProPublica — combats what it calls "the misinformation ecosystem."
It's nice to finally see some kind of pushback, even if these efforts don't really make a dent. The users who guzzle fake stories about Obama certainly won't accept a thumbs-down verdict from ABC News, which they probably dismiss as part of the conspiracy. No, they'd prefer to believe the lies that jibe with their Trump worship and ideological predilections; look no further than the scene Thursday morning at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference where a standing ovation greeted the on-stage appearance of alternative-factess Kellyanne Conway.
But there's hope for the reality-based community. A new Quinnipiac poll says when Americans are asked whom they trust "to tell the truth about important issues," 52 percent choose the media, and only 37 percent tilt to Trump.
No doubt he would dismiss those stats as "fake news." I call it good news.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.