In July I went to Cleveland to cover the Republican National Convention for CNET. I roamed the city speaking with people of all political stripes, but two conversations stuck out that foreshadowed the rise of the fake-news phenomenon in 2016.
One was with a middle-aged African-American trucker from Alabama, pictured below, selling "Truckers for Trump" T-shirts around town. We talked about life, politics, family and work until he diverted our chat onto conspiracies about secret Muslim plots within the Obama administration and made several claims about policies like Obamacare that are easily proven wrong through a quick review of Congressional records.
When I challenged his assertions, he told me I was getting my information "from the wrong sources online."
This is Henry S. Twiggs, just arrived from Dothan, Alabama. One of the first street vendors to arrive in Cleveland for the RNC, Henry is ready to hit the ground running. He's having a bit of difficulty with a car full of T-shirts - the hatch of his car keeps closing on him, and he has not only the shirts to carry to the corner but his cash box as well. So I give the man a hand. The shirts are large. Actually very large. Think XXXL, like bed sheets. And they are heavy. We get them all to a set up of picnic tables at 9th and Rockwell. Henry is an Air Force vet and a working truck driver since 1963 and he's here to support Donald Trump as part of the Truckers for Trump community. I ask him what it means to him that he's a black man in support of Mr. Trump. Mr. Twiggs explains that "color is irrelevant. What matters is respect; we all need to get beyond racial issues of entitlement and expectation. This is one of the things that's wrong with our country." I am in my hometown of Cleveland for the RNC, as much to bear witness in this volatile time as to reconnect with what makes Cleveland special to me. #cleveland #rnc #vendor #truckersfortrump #civilrights
The next day, on the other side of Cleveland, I met a twenty-something African-American activist who opposed Trump. His distrust of public officials was inspired by a litany of ill-informed notions ranging from mind control via fluoride in drinking water to the "fact" that the Earth is really flat.
I was left shaken by the misinformation that seems to be guiding individuals active in the political process on both sides of the partisan divide.
Late that evening, I began an essay laying out my concern that the internet and the phenomenon we now call fake news might be killing democracy. I never finished it. I couldn't make a strong case based on a few conversations and anecdotes gathered from social media and insane email forwards. Besides, most people don't really take this stuff seriously, right?
After the election, we started to get some actual data on the depth of the fake news problem. According to a survey in the first week of December by the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans say fake news has caused a "great deal of confusion" about the basic facts of current events.
"Clearly, the US elections brought fake news to the limelight because of the fierce divisiveness of the two camps," S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, told me via e-mail. "Besides, this was the first election where social media played a significant role in transmitting political news and views -- made more easy because of the widespread diffusion of smartphones."
With the influence of fake news becoming more clear, I decided to wade in and go through all the fake stories of year. In the process I gleaned quite a few insights, including why it was a mistake to ignore the scourge of fake news until now.
Here's a breakdown of lessons learned from my fake-news odyssey.
1. I was fooled by fake news stories, too
You've probably seen or heard about the meme claiming Donald Trump told People magazine in 1998 that Republicans are "the dumbest group of voters in the country." I certainly did, and I never bothered to check if it was true because at that point in late 2015, Trump had made a habit of insulting people, so it seemed believable. Turns out he never said it.
Also, beloved Hall of Fame football coach and commentator John Madden has been dead for the past several months in my mind. I was happy to learn during my recent research that Madden's supposed death was just a hoax. Clearly, being duped by fake stories isn't a problem that only affects everyone else.
2. Most fake stories are obvious if you look beyond the headline
The two examples above tricked me in part because I never actually investigated them. A headline came up in one of my social media feeds that seemed believable and I never clicked further to check that it was really true. Many fake news stories come from satirical sites that clearly state they're fake. The more malicious click-bait sites that are trying to fool you are pretty easy to identify if you actually click through to the source as well. They are often poorly written and get basic facts wrong.
Check out CNET's guide to identifying fake news for more tips.
3. Stories involving fear and an element of the unknown are fertile ground for fakes
Some of the more believable stories take advantage of whatever is causing anxiety in the latest news cycle. In the internet age, it's an unfortunate truth that there's lots of competition for your attention, and headlines are increasingly written to grab it.
Many fake stories take advantage of this reality by taking the viral bad news of the week one step (or several steps) further. Stories of creepy clowns (real news) that go on murdering sprees (fake) and the new law allowing for vigilante action against suspicious clowns (also fake) are perfect examples.
4. Polarized politics and demonization of the other side is a huge factor
The divisive nature of politics, not just in the United States but also in Europe and elsewhere, helps make fake news believable.
"As people's mistrust of traditional, mainstream news media grew (teased on by Donald Trump's shrewd media guides), a flurry of voices grew up on social media with an intensity that's unprecedented," Biola University journalism professor Michael Longinow told me. "The apparent reception for those voices was also unprecedented, if we can judge receptivity by clicks, likes, retweets, forwards and re-postings."
Accusations of crimes hit both candidates during the US presidential campaign and there were multiple instances of violence between those in support and opposition to them along the campaign trail. In a climate of hate, fear and anger, facts can become more emotionally tinged, and what you believe may be less important than what you want to believe.
To see what I mean, go through my review of the year's fake news and replace the names "Trump" and "Clinton" with the name of the leader you respect most. Then do the same exercise replacing the names with that of one you despise most. Take note of how the stories become more or less believable by simply substituting one name for the other.
5. Some fake stories crossed over into the real world
I hate to say this after just saying fakes are usually easy to spot, but sometimes truth is as strange as fiction. There was the bizarre case of the fake news report of a man being stabbed in a bad neighborhood while playing Pokemon Go. It came out just days before an Oregon man really was stabbed as he wandered around in search of Pikachu.
Fake reports that Hillary Clinton was given debate questions in advance also came out weeks before real reports surfaced that a CNN pundit and Hillary supporter had passed questions to the candidate in advance. The first story was still a fake; it wasn't proven right by the similar, real report that came later.
All the more reason you can't rely on seeing a single headline to know what's real and what's not.