Despite what Mark Zuckerberg has insisted to the public, it doesn’t take a degree in computer engineering to understand that Facebook has a very, very serious problem with fake news.
In the years since the social network juggernaut has become such a dominant player in the media industry, more and more people’s news consumption habits have been shaped by the way that content is distributed through Facebook. But, along with the reported, fact-checked journalism that’s posted to Facebook, there are countless memes and hoaxes being passed off as truth. It’s a problem that’s been thrown into sharp relief during this year’s election.
Thirty-eight year-old Paul Horner made a name for himself creating and promoting the spread of such factually inaccurate content. Unlike the Onion, which blatantly telegraphs the fact that it’s pure fiction, Horner’s stories rarely made a point of disclosing their farcical nature, instead working very, very hard to come across as legitimate reportage from trusted news outlets. A recent hoax Horner ran claiming that President Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools took Facebook by storm in no small part due to the fact that story was published using a URL and webpage meant to imitate ABC’s.
In the past, if you were to ask Horner what role fake news like his plays on the internet, he’d describe his content as “satire” meant to entertain, but in a recent interview with The Washington Post, Horner admitted that there are moments when he’s shocked at people’s willingness to believe the outlandish things he publishes. The public’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, Horner continued, played a critical role in the election of Donald Trump.
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected,” Horner said. “He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.” He even said that Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski shared one of his fake stories.
While Horner’s particular stories might not themselves have been direct endorsements of Trump, their popularity may have contributed to the atmosphere on Facebook that’s made it so easy for entire sites filled with false “news” that borders on propaganda to proliferate during the campaign. There’s no way to quantify or verify what impact, if any, Horner’s posts had on Trump supporters. But, speaking to the Post, he was frank in his admission that he never believed that Trump would be elected and that, accordingly, he could be as outlandish as possible without considering the consequences.
“I thought [readers would] fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse. I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots,” Horner reasoned. “But Trump supporters — they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”