Is Fake News Actually Not a Big Deal?

Welcome back to Can’t Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.

Ever since fake news became America’s boogeyman in about the middle of November, 2016, academia has been trying document and quantify the causes and effects of the phenomenon. This week, a trio of political scientists published an analysis of news-consuming habits of voters in 2016. Some results were what you’d expect: “Almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets.”

One unusual observation in the study, though, is that “visits to fake news websites are highest among people who consume the most hard news and do not measurably decrease among the most politically knowledgeable individuals.” In other words, whether you’re a right- or left-winger, fake news is mostly consumed by voracious news junkies, and—perhaps more importantly—as just a small part of a balanced news diet with much healthier elements. Maybe that’s why the New York Times ran a headline about the study acknowledged that fake news was widely consumed but had “little impact.” That, however, is a pretty dubious takeaway.

If you’re just talking about the 2016 election, it’s possible to minimize the effects of fake news. But just look around and it’s obvious something is seriously wrong: Flat Earthers seemed to be gaining momentum all last year, despite the earth being round. The Pizzagate crowd keeps finding new and exciting ways to harass public figures. There may not be an obvious causal thread between those phenomena to garbage fake news websites like The Last Line of Defense, which are the focus of the study, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t related.

Like I said last week, the widespread existence of lies that flatter people’s partisan beliefs seems to be a symptom of some larger problem (or constellation of problems) in the US. I wish I could be reassured by that study, but I’m not.

Anyway, here are some of this week’s lies:

Chocolate is on the brink of extinction

According to an article this week from Business Insider, “Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years.” The story was viral dynamite (as was a similar story in the Washington Post three years ago), because chocolate is one of those foods like bacon that people feign an obsession with in order to seem funny or interesting. Fortunately, the Cathys of the world can reserve their outbursts of “Ack!” for scarier news. Chocolate is most likely here to stay.

In short, the piece is overstating the perils of climate change. It cites real (and totally scary) stories from a few years ago about tropical diseases that attack cacao and the ways that climate change is reducing the amount of land on which the crop can be cultivated. It’s really just the headline misses the mark, and sometimes that’s all that matters since people don’t tend to read entire articles, or even click through to the actual story.


Cacao farmers do face climate change–related challenges, and as Business Insider noted, scientists are working with chocolate companies to overcome these difficulties. But as the 2014 Post piece about this problem noted, the problem is largely one of too much demand. “By 2020, the two chocolate-makers warn that [chocolate consumption] could swell to 1 million metric tons, a more than 14-fold increase; by 2030, they think the deficit could reach 2 million metric tons.” While this brings to light serious questions about the long-term availability of cheap chocolate, there’s absolutely no evidence anywhere to suggest that the world will actually run out of chocolate.

Trump craves televised gorilla fights

“The Gorilla Channel” is the latest creation from Pixelated Boat, a popular Twitter account probably best known for the Milkshake Duck meme. Boat created this fake book except on Thursday, and it’s now a widespread (and probably permanent) Twitter meme. Here’s the tweet:

Imagine! A whole channel of nothing but gorillas, and just for the president! Actually, thanks to my VICE News colleagues, you don’t have to imagine it. It literally already exists now.

Obvious Twitter jokes that get mistaken for the truth can get you suspended, as happened with VICE contributor Krang T. Nelson, when that user pretended to be a violent leftist in the process of overthrowing the government. But as Boat has acknowledged, this is a somewhat lower-stakes joke format—it was around at least as far back as 2014, when writer and VICE contributor Kaleb Horton tweeted out a fake excerpt from Lena Dunham’s book and right-wing Twitter users believed it was real.

The steps involved are all very familiar by now: 1) Come out on social media with some revelation so unbelievably silly that, come on, no reasonable person could ever possibly believe it, no way, not in a million years. 2) Have a good number of fans who read your posts and totally “get” you. 3) Have those fans distribute the hilarity to their followers (who, sadly, might not “get” you). 4) Some of those second-tier recipients of the jokelike Farhad Manjoo from the New York Times—will be confused because the post is getting a lot of shares, including some from people who think it’s real. 5) Jackpot: the dum-dums believe your obvious joke and lose their shit. 6) LOL.

Some laugh. Others have their confused brains filled with still more internet bullshit. Is the world better because we dance this eternal dance? I leave that question to you, dear reader.

Trump doesn’t know who John Boehner is

Pixelated Boat’s fake excerpt was ostensibly pulled from the brand new Trump administration tell-all, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff. The book is full what appear to be candid opinions from insiders about the competence—or lack thereof—of the commander in chief. The revelations in Fire and Fury, which was published on Friday, were a big deal even before physical copies were in stores. Promotional excerpts were so incendiary that by the middle of the week, they’d already driven a wedge between Donald Trump and former White House advisor Steve Bannon.

Already, many journalists have pointed out mistakes in the book, some of them the obvious sorts of things any competent fact-checker would have flagged. And that was just after combing through the sections that had already been published ahead of the book’s release. In one obvious example, Wolff claimed that Trump said he didn’t know who former House Speaker John Boehner was—but Trump has golfed with Boehner. At least one source for Wolff’s book has denied saying what Wolff reported he said.

Then again, people often claim they’ve been misquoted when the public reacts strongly to something they’ve apparently said. Wolff himself says the quotes in the book from major bigshots (like the president) will be backed up by audio recordings. Also, nonfiction books—including really important ones like the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association—sometimes go to press with errors that have to be corrected in later editions.

Trump and his allies would have called the book “fake news” regardless of its accuracy. And its worth noting that the book’s broader thesis about an unprepared president who isn’t trusted by his own staff is a story some of the most plugged-in people in DC acknowledge as true. At the same time, small but obvious mistakes in a work of journalism can lead people to distrust the larger conclusions. The book is clearly not 100 percent wrong, but in this case it seems hard to figure out which parts to take seriously but not literally.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.