The Fake News Scandal Isn’t Quite What You Think It Is

Welcome to Missing Comma, a bi-weekly look at anarchy in the news.

It would be remiss of us to bring Missing Comma back in the current age without talking about the “fake news” scandal – specifically, how fake it is as a scandal.

For those who have somehow missed the last month of legacy media content, the “fake news” scandal began in earnest on Nov. 17, when the Washington Post published an interview at their internet culture blog, the Intersect, with fake news website creator Paul Horner.

In this interview, Horner said, “I thought they’d 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. 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].”

Until this point, the narrative on fake news was that it was a problem, and skewed people’s views during a particularly contentious election season. After this interview, the story – at least as the legacy media portrayed it – changed into something completely different, and interest in the idea of “fake news” as presented shot way up.

Google Trends shows a skyrocketing increase in interest in “fake news” around Nov. 13.

After the Horner interview, fake news became the new buzzword in the political press to mean anything from outright fabrications to satire to clickbait to ideologically-based media. There are even entire campaigns – such as PropOrNot – which aim to seek out such media, under the banner of fighting “Russian propaganda.”

Bewilderingly, PropOrNot has included longtime libertarian stalwarts and our friends-in-anarchism over at the AntiMedia on their list of “over 200” established media organizations, fake news sites and blogs they’re calling “Russian propagandists.” It’s pretty weird, and their report is… a mess. But we’ll tackle that another time.

In truth, fake news has become a zaxlebax, a package-deal anti-concept that encompasses all of these wildly different media forms and describes nearly none of them correctly. The Onion has never claimed to be anything but satire. Upworthy has never said they don’t use clickbait headlines, and they’re not trying to mislead the public. C4SS, Antiwar, Infoshop or the AntiMedia have never claimed to be objective, nor have they ever misled their readers into believing they were fueled by anything other than their respective ideologies. The only media that really fits the bill of “fake news” in the sense most folks mean by it are actual, fake news websites like “” and tabloid news.

These organizations and individuals have no issue writing fake news stories, creating things that never happened, weaponizing people’s naivety and bigotry.

And to their credit, the folks over at the Washington Post’s Intersect blog recognize this and did a write-up on it the other day.


Fake news has, in a period of weeks, gone from a concern about how we share news online today to a meme — one that allows nearly any source of information to be “fake.” It seems inevitable that the Internet will continue to twist the term “fake news” into new definitions.

John Herrman at the New York Times also recognized the issue with fake news as a concept:

“Fake news” as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.

Essentially, there is no longer a premium on credibility, and the same tactics that led to the rise of the alt-right as a meaningful force are on full display now. Redirect concern, misdirect from intent, obfuscate the truth.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, puts it best in a column he wrote last week. He said:

So what I mean by a miss bigger than a missed story is this. It is one thing to bypass the journalists and go directly to voters. It’s another to pull up the press by its roots. It’s one thing to lie for political advantage. It’s another to keep lying to prove you have the power. The retreat from empiricism was a disturbance in 2004. Twelve years later it is a political style in utter ascendency. “When we act, we create our own reality” was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world. Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.

As anarchists, we here at C4SS have always engaged in what is, essentially, a propagandistic mission: to evangelize anarchism to folks outside of academic or activist circles and create cultures of conversation about radical politics in small towns through the main vehicle of small-town talk – the local newspaper. But we have never done so by hiding our intentions or shying away from calling ourselves anarchists. As a result, we have, in recent years, seen diminishing returns from newspapers that once ran our work and now don’t. But telling the truth about our politics and then offering ideas surrounding that has always been our aim, and not one we’re going to drop.

There is an idea I’ve had about media since I started writing Missing Comma in 2013. Namely, it’s that you could apply the same ethics and integrity that power legacy media like the New York Times and Washington Post to media run, staffed and read by anarchists. That you could create media with the same standards of quality and ideas about gathering information and presenting it to people that “mainstream” press did, but without any of the pretense toward neutrality, or away from ideological viewpoints. I don’t know that we’ve done that yet. I’d like to see us try. It might make the next however many years easier.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory