Posted by Guest on August 03, 2018 in Blog

by Allison Ulven

Since our nation’s founding, misinformation has been part of our political discourse. Over the years, conspiracy theories and “fake news” have plagued that discourse, causing confusion and distrust among citizens. But advancements in technology have supercharged this crisis and created a modern monster that risks not only dividing this country but quite possibly shaking it to its core.

The phrase “fake news,” is used and abused: It clearly means the spreading of false and misleading information, but President Trump has used it to discredit perfectly real and serious information. And then there are those times when groups straddle the line between real and fake, spreading one-sided stories with a clear agenda while pretending to be legitimate news sources.

In New Jersey, Senator Bob Menendez is using the website HealthNewsNJ.com to campaign against his opponent, Bob Hugin, former CEO of pharmaceutical company Celgene. “How greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin gouged cancer patients and enabled Donald Trump,” reads the site’s banner headline. It also features a graph portraying the rising cost of a Celgene cancer drug.

Aside from a small-print disclosure at the bottom, the webpage simulates a news site. But after a visitor submits their name and email address, the user is redirected to another page branded by Menendez on ActBlue.com, a platform for fundraising. On Facebook, HealthNewsNJ describes itself as a “news and media website.” The connection to Menendez only becomes clear if you click the “about” section. Although they only have 99 follows, their posts get hundreds of shares.

HealthNewsNJ’s Twitter page joins the action as well. “$18,546 per bottle,” reads a promoted tweet paid for by Menendez campaign chairman Michael Soliman, “Bob Hugin jacked up the price of drugs for cancer patients three times in one year.” Spokesman for the campaign, Steven Sandberg, says that all of the information posted to the site is factual and can be backed by credible sources, despite its connection to Menendez. In fact, most of the posts on the site’s homepage link to mainstream media sources. While the site’s content may be factual, the danger of pretending to be a news outlet while touting negative content in an attempt to sway voters is a dangerous game.

Another Senate candidate, Kelli Ward from Arizona, played the misinformation game by boasting an endorsement from fake news site the Arizona Monitor. The Monitor was a pro-Ward blog that asserted its mission as, “Striking Fear into the Heart of the Establishment.” The site was taken down just hours after Politicoreported the incident, calling the page “fake news.”

The site, for the short time it was up, frequently criticized Ward’s primary opponents including calling Martha McSally “Shifty McSally.” But the Senator denied any connection to the page and insisted that she is unaware of who was behind it. Because its domain registration remained hidden, the person behind the site was able to stay anonymous.

The Monitor was one of many fictitious pages made to look like news organizations created by Republicans to bash their opponents and mislead voters. TheRepublican Governors Association introduced the website the “Free Telegraph” which depicts real journalism on its face, but only posts one-sided stories. It wasn’t until they were questioned by reporters after the site was launched that they disclosed their affiliation. Their Facebook page consists of articles and videos slamming political opponents. Although it classifies itself as a “community” and states its mission as committed to electing Republican Governors, it also describes its purpose as “Bringing you the latest political news outside of Washington.” What’s more disturbing is that Facebook has verified the page, meaning the social media site views the Free Telegraph as “authentic.

The fake news debacle took the country by storm during the 2016 campaign with Donald Trump constantly attacking the news media and dismissing them as non-credible sources. According to a Buzzfeed News Analysis, the top 20 fake news stories during the end of the election received 8.7 million likes, shares, and comments compared to the top 20 real news stories which received 7.3 million. Trump also contributed to the problem by spreading false news himself, like Breitbart articles and incorrect statistics on Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter have begun measures to remove some fake posts and accounts from their platforms. The popular music streaming app, Spotify, recently took down podcasts from Alex Jones for violating their policies on hate speech. But we see no standard being applied to government officials for their role in creating and spreading false news sites and misinformation. People should be able to trust the information distributed by the public servants they elect. If this trend of lying and distrust continues, it could have a disastrous impact.

The book, The Road to Unfreedom, written by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, traces the origins of this modern-day “fake news” challenge back decades to Russia, and explains how the Russian government used this force to further pedal their own agenda.

The Russian strategy of disseminating false information began in the 1990s and 2000s. In an overall attempt to disorient their own society, Russian leaders drowned television and the internet with inaccurate stories, criticized those who tried to uncover the truth, and exploited the confusion that arose.

One of the first moves made by Putin was diminishing the print media so the focus was on television, a platform that was easier for him to influence. Next, by completely wiping away local news and combining all television media into just a few channels, he turned the national attention to grand issues of “national greatness or injustices against Russia.” The real message the Russian government was sending is that the world is conspiring against Putin, and that you can’t really trust any information.

This is what Russian government “excels” at, argues Snyder, and in a world where everyone is connected and information is so easily spread, their results are amplified. Unlike Americans who may still need to see armed fighting in order to classify something as a war, Russia’s government sees these types of campaigns as “breaking the will of the enemy.” The country began using these techniques to shake down Western countries in 2010. They slowly created chaos from the inside, causing people to question facts and the truth and turn people against one other.

Free speech is vital to our society and is not something that should be infringed upon, but prominent government officials using false information to mislead the public should not be tolerated either. As citizens, we can speak out against this trend and if we don’t want to watch our democracy deteriorate any further, the time to do so is now.


Allison Ulven is a summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.