Facebook and Google Algorithms Are the New ‘Useful Idiots’
On May 14, a little-known Donald Trump donor wrote an encouraging text message to a former Washington, D.C., cop. “Not to add any more pressure,” the donor, Ed Butowsky, texted Rod Wheeler, now a private investigator. “But the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately.”
The article in question, which Fox News published two days later, claimed that Wheeler had uncovered evidence that a former Democratic National Committee staffer was the source of the WikiLeaked emails that helped win Trump the presidency. This was a bombshell, discrediting evidence that hackers close to the Russian government took those emails. (WikiLeaks has denied Russia was the source.) It also gave new life to a discredited viral conspiracy theory that someone connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign had killed DNC staffer Seth Rich. “This could become one of the biggest scandals in American history,” Sean Hannity declared on his show.
Except that Wheeler found no evidence of communication between WikiLeaks and Rich. In a lawsuit filed last week, he said Fox News fabricated quotes to that effect, after he refused pressure from Butowsky and the Trump administration to say Rich had been a WikiLeaks source. The Trump administration denies that the president was involved, but Butowsky did put Wheeler in a room with former press secretary Sean Spicer, all three men have since acknowledged.
Fox—which, like Butowsky, disputes Wheeler’s allegations—retracted the story a week later, saying it didn’t meet the network’s editorial standards. By then, of course, the Rich conspiracy theory had been given new life. It led the Drudge Report and was picked up by dozens of the outlets that have proliferated on social media over the past few years, including Circa, Breitbart, WND, Infowars, and many others. Three days after the retraction, according to a report published earlier this week by Yahoo News, the White House correspondent for Russian website Sputnik News was fired for refusing to present it as fact during questions at a White House press briefing. Sputnik didn’t respond to a request for comment.
No one in this ridiculous episode comes out looking great. Not Fox, of course, and not Spicer, who told NPR’s David Folkenflik the meeting “had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda.” Neither does Wheeler, who seemed happy to flog the Fox scoop he now says was fabricated, nor Butowsky, who in an interview on CNN after the lawsuit was filed dismissed the text to Wheeler as “tongue-in-cheek talking.” And if Sputnik is, as many have suggested, a Russian propaganda front, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective in that role.
We live in conspiracy-minded times, and Wheeler’s lawsuit has been portrayed by some as another chapter in the story of how the Russian government’s sophisticated disinformation campaign “hacked” our election, possibly with the help of Donald Trump and his advisors. What it really shows is how our current media landscape, in which algorithms controlled by Silicon Valley tech giants play an increasingly important role, has made it possible for utter nonsense to take root.
When I read Wheeler’s lawsuit, I don’t see masterful propaganda. I see fools, and not necessarily useful ones. The Rich theory isn’t a con job engineered by the Kremlin; it’s standard-issue schlock. “Stories like this pop up every 10 years or so,” says Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. “It’s a randomly occurring death on which people can project their anxieties, fears, and desires.”
Fenster notes that these conspiracy theories were once largely ignored by the press; today, they can lead the news. Opinion-driven news outlets, like Fox, are an obvious culprit, but tech companies have been unwitting players too. Facebook, Google, and most other new media companies were premised on small-d democratizing media by placing material from all over the internet on largely equal footing—putting a news article about politics next to a self-published personal essay, or a recipe for watermelon gazpacho, or a video of your infant niece.
This has been awesome for media consumers, who have access to a mind-boggling diversity of information. It has also been incredibly lucrative for Silicon Valley. Readers’ reliance on Google and Facebook algorithms to decide what to read has meant that tech companies have claimed pretty much all the growth in digital advertising.
Unfortunately, the system has also been great at empowering cynical people who don’t deserve our attention. “On a Facebook timeline or Google search feed, every story comes prepackaged in the same skin, whether it’s a months-long investigation from the Washington Post or completely fabricated clickbait,” Kyle Chayka wrote in a thoughtful essay published last December by the Verge. It’s not just the design of these sites that subverts our sense of truth, but the tech companies’ own rhetoric about their supposed mastery of the information sciences. Google routinely suggests that its artificial intelligence algorithms are superior to human judgment, which makes it even more confusing when you get a YouTube push notification urging you to watch a video that, on inspection, is obviously fake.
Both companies have at least taken steps to try to address the problem. Facebook said last week that it would begin routing suspicious stories to fact-checkers and would try to show fact-checking posts alongside conspiracy theories. And Google has made an effort to demote obvious lies in its search results. But the companies have been uncharacteristically flatfooted in their responses, and both have a long way to go.
After Wheeler’s lawsuit was filed, the Rich family issued a statement: “We are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth.” That’s worth hoping for. But for now, what should be a private tragedy for Rich’s parents and brother continues to get plenty of play on social media. On Facebook, Roger Stone and Alex Jones are still publishing Seth Rich stories, and there are dozens of videos peddling versions of the same BS on YouTube, each with tens of thousands of views.
Conspiracy theorists will always find allies in useful idiots. It’d be nice if the big tech and media companies would stop playing that role, too.