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Full Frontal Interviews a Self-Described “Fake News Provider” About Satirizing the News

We’ve all heard the uproar about “fake news” affecting voters’ choices ever since the election, and the conversation about who bears responsibility for disseminating inaccurate news has begun.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has already denied that the dissemination of fake news on Facebook could’ve affected the U.S. election, even though Facebook users shared more fake news than real news in the final few months before voting day.

Meanwhile, The Guardian published an unnerving story yesterday about the inaccuracy of Google search results, which rely on serving you the content they think you want to see based on what other people have clicked. That has resulted in a lot of astounding and dangerous misinformation floating up to the top of search results, not to mention bigoted autocomplete suggestions.

But who is making these “fake news” stories in the first place? And do they feel any shame about what they’ve done? Based on Michael Rubens’ field segment for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the answer appears to be “no.” Rubens interviewed Jestin Coler, a “fake news provider” who voted for Hillary Clinton but who created “fake news” because he believed it would help discredit the bigotry of the so-called “alt-right” movement. Instead, readers believed in this “fake news” and shared it no matter how ludicrous it sounded, resulting in plenty of page-views (and, therefore, income) for Coler’s media company… as well as a whole lot of lies getting spread online.

Instead of discrediting bigots as gullible saps, Coler’s organization seems to have poured fuel onto their fire. “Fake news” has empowered fringe groups that propagate bizarre anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, like Pizzagate, which eventually led a gunman to try to shoot up a pizzeria, out of a belief that the pizza place played a central role in said anti-Clinton conspiracy. In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that Coler’s preferred candidate lost the election, Coler doesn’t seem very concerned about the idea of “fake news” potentially changing people’s minds and encouraging dangerous behavior from bigots.

It’s definitely interesting to see Samantha Bee’s show covering this topic, since Bee herself used to be part of a satirical news organization at The Daily Show. Of course, The Daily Show has changed a lot over the years; under the Bush administration, I would argue that TDS began to lean a lot more heavily towards reporting the actual news, but doing so while also telling jokes. In my youth, I do remember watching old TDS episodes that would report news that was clearly false, as a joke, but that’s not necessarily the case today. That doesn’t necessarily mean The Daily Show is without its faults–there are plenty of valid complaints to be levied at the show’s method of delivering news, as many writers have done–but I don’t know if TDS‘ form of “satire” takes on the same form as the “fake news” outlet where Coler works.

The other counterparts to The Daily Show have also changed a lot in the past few years, with the rise of Last Week Tonight and now, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, as well as the loss of shows like The Nightly Show and The Colbert Report. Full Frontal still has jokes, obviously, but like Last Week Tonight, the show has more of an investigative journalism bent, with a dose of mockery on the side. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a “good” form of relaying the news, per se, but it’s a different way to approach the issues than Coler’s “fake news.”

I remember during the Bush administration, a lot of people blamed shows like The Daily Show for making millennials jaded and disaffected and disinterested in politics. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, since voter turnout (and voter disaffectedness) has gone up and down for lots of different reasons over the past several decades. The rise of “fake news,” both the satirical sites and the outright bigoted sites, does seem to affect voters’ attitudes, though, based on past research. Although Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to admit it, Facebook’s own studies of their users found that changing which items appear in the news feed does influence voter turn-out. Google and Facebook could have altered the course of the election simply by changing what appears in our news feeds–and that’s pretty scary, in and of itself, because it doesn’t seem like those companies have any idea how to use that power.

Anyway, it would be interesting to hear Samantha Bee’s perspective on the idea of “fake news” and satire, given that it used to be something she did herself–although I’m sure she sees the topic very differently than Coler does. Still, like Coler, her work takes aim at bigots through mockery, and that may or may not be effective. I enjoyed this segment, but it would have been interesting to see the Full Frontal staff go a little further when it comes to introspection on this topic.

(via Uproxx, image via YouTube screencap)

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).