In the days after the election, fake news—the vast majority of which demonized Hillary Clinton or manufactured good press for her opponent—had become the fixation of the mainstream media. Watchdogs published lists of websites to disbelieve. Facebook pledged to vet bogus information; gullible readers would be educated by cigarette pack-style warnings. And yet there was no perceptible decrease in the quantity of fact-free fare being peddled by enterprising young internet trolls, from California to the Balkan states—“Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America" was a particularly popular one. Unlike the #pizzagate gunman, whose parents suggested that psychological trauma from a car accident might have contributed to his confused thinking, a number of people who should have known better clung to the most sensational of made-up stories. People like Michael Flynn, Jr. I was aware that the president-elect was susceptible to the occasional National Enquirer cover story (remember Ted Cruz’s dad and the JFK assassination?), but to understand what produces strenuous conviction in such absurdities, I knew I’d need to do more than take a stroll through the checkout line.
So I became @HighCastlePhil. I decided I’d take Flynn Jr.’s tailored feed (944 accounts; a couple of dozen users with private accounts declined my request) and wear it myself for a while. I picked my Twitter handle in honor of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the ultimate alt-reality novel “The Man in the High Castle,” about a world in which the Nazis won the war. I didn’t tweet but watched and tried to imagine what was going through the mind of the man who sees the world through faux-tinted glasses. I noted that when Flynn Jr. opened his account several years ago, he evinced a conventionally conservative outlook, following Rush Limbaugh and the Heritage Foundation. He enjoyed the sports talk personality Colin Cowherd and wasn’t above checking out what @WhiteHouse had to say. Over time, though, he began collecting users who associated themselves almost exclusively with Donald Trump, alt-right white nationalism, or both. Many of them had similar handles: “Deplorable Aaron,” “Deplorable Vet,” “Johnny Deplorable.” As a diagnostic system it wasn’t perfect; I couldn’t replicate a dummy Facebook account, where the most mendacious garbage tends to mushroom. Still, Flynn Jr. used the medium regularly, and followed enough people to yield a good sample size for my experiment.
I began lingering on Phil Dick’s Twitter feed and kept at it over the course of a couple weeks. At the same time I scaled back on the information I gathered from mainstream outlets or my own social media feeds. If there is such a thing as a parallel information universe I had at least one foot planted firmly in it. One thing I learned is that a lot of people have low tolerance for serious articles published in respectable publications. So I thought it best to present my findings in the form of a clickbait listicle. Without further ado, the five craziest things you’ll learn when all you read is fake news.
Pizzagate Isn’t Dead
The John Podesta-is-running-a-child-sex-trafficking-organization-out-of-a pizzeria conspiracy theory ricocheted from 4chan to reddit to fake news sites then back to social media throughout October and November. But only after real bullets were fired at the pizzeria on December 4 did mainstream news outlets begin thoroughly debunking the story. Michael Flynn Jr. wasn’t having it. “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it,” he tweeted. Within a few days, Flynn Jr. was formally relieved of his duties on the Trump transition, and most of us in the pro journalism orbit moved on. But in the world of bizarro news, tens of thousands of pizzagate truthers were just warming up, convinced that our lack of interest was proof of a cover-up.
Over the course of a couple days after I set up my feed, alt-right standard-bearer Mike Cernovich (183,000 followers, of which Flynn Jr. and @HighCastlePhil were two) went on a tweetstorm positing that liberal organ Salon was wrapped up in a “money-laundering mechanism for pedophiles.” Cernovich posted screenshots of several recent (non-fake) confessional-style articles published on the site with titles like “I’m a Pedophile But Not a Monster.” Cernovich was trawling for evidence that liberal media pizzagate deniers were sympathetic toward child abusers. He was in turn widely derided by journalists, which, he said, only proved his point. “Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, and Upworthy already attacking (weak) me for this investigation. This means we are on point. Investigate Salon.”
Eager to learn more, I read a piece by a blogger named Aaron Kesel that Cernovich had been retweeting. Published on www.wearechange.org, it was titled “‘Virtuous Pedophiles’– Mike Cernovich Reveals Salon’s Dirty Secret.” Now Keseltoo started connecting dots between the Salon articles and Pizzagate, begging his readers to “FOCUS ON THE REAL EVIDENCE,” like “declassified FBI pedophile symbols.” “Then tell me how places like Comet Ping Pong Pizza were not possible pedophile meeting places or places to network given their symbols for pedophiles?”
By then I was in deep. Kesel also linked to some YouTube footage about old pedophilia scandals, which is how I eventually stumbled upon a former TheStreet.com writer named David Seaman who has refashioned himself into a Pizzagate authority. A December 6 video homed in on CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who had urged Flynn Jr. to knock it off via direct Twitter message. Seaman said his hackles were raised by Tapper’s interest in quashing the story, combined with the presence of his name in certain of the leaked John Podesta emails, plus—gasp!—an interview Tapper’s wife had given in which she identified Comet Ping-Pong as one of her favorite restaurants to take the children. “Do you have something you want to tell us here, Jake?” Seaman asked, on camera. No, he didn't, because it was all baloney—Tapper was just trying to stand up for the truth. But at last count, the video had racked up more than 239,000 views. No way to know if Flynn Jr. watched the video, but for @highcastlephil, the path to Seaman’s videos was marked like an airplane runway at night.
Aleppo Is Free
As the sex-fixated of the alt-rightists continued to research the link between the Pizzagate politicians and their MSM abettors, a different clique of foreign policy mavens focused on terrorism.
First, a piece of alarming news began circulating on my feed. “Final Battle Brewing As Confirmed Terrorist Training Camps Within U.S. Protected, Arming for Jan 20,” read a tweet on December 13 from @bfraser747. I followed the link, which took me to an article by the same name on www.endingthefed.com, which itself pilfered the piece from www.conservativedailypost.com, and featured a map of 20 putative ISIS training grounds in the United States, mostly clustered around D.C. and the coasts. The sites have been called out by several prominent fake news policepeople, including Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman and Merrimack College’s Melissa Zimdars. Given the lack of any cited evidence in the post, this seems justified.
Later that day, something curious seemed to be taking place in Syria. @GeorgiaTeaParty, tweeting under the name “Deplorable Muslim,” and since suspended from Twitter, retweeted a tweet celebrating the “liberation of Aleppo from ‘US-backed’ terrorists.’” @_Makada_ joined in a little later. “Fake news media won’t report on massive celebrations due to Russia & Syria kicking ISIS out of #Aleppo! MSMS is supporting Al Qaeda & ISIS!” This didn’t sound anything like what the real/fake outlets like the New York Times were reporting. Earlier on I’d made the mistake of breaking character and listened to a snippet of public radio. According to what I heard from New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief Anne Barnard, appearing the next day on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” the mood in Aleppo, following Assad’s seizure, was far from jubilant.
I scanned my feed to determine who was right. Cernovich was mostly doing Pizzagate coverage but also recommended I return to www.wearechange.org, where a contributor named @LukeWeAreChange was narrating developments in Syria. Luke was filming himself at his desk, where he addressed the dichotomy head on. “With Assad having victory, the west and the mainstream media are freaking out in full hysteria,” he told his viewers. “A lot of biased information meant to emotionally manipulate you.” He pulled up a headline from the Times that reads “’Complete Meltdown of Humanity’: Civilians Die in Fight for Eastern Aleppo.” Then he pulled up a video of people massed in a dark area, shouting and appearing to celebrate. It came from the Twitter feed of Lizzie Phelan, a reporter for RT, the Russian state-run, U.S. cable channel. Luke pointed out, “You’re not getting this side of the story by the American mainstream media.”
There is in fact something to this last point. Much of the news coverage I encountered out of Aleppo emphasized the humanitarian crisis that Assad’s conquest seemed to portend for his enemies. But few lingered on the fact that much of the city’s citizenry wasn’t thrilled to be living under rebel rule, either. The problem with the feeds Flynn Jr. is accessing is that they swung wildly in the other direction, by trying to embarrass the western media and turn Assad into a good guy; by regurgitating the Vladimir Putin party line.
Indeed, my feed was totally saturated with Pro-Kremlin sentiment. Part of that seemed connected to the likely Russian hack of emails that weakened the Clinton campaign and were published on Wikileaks, an organization that seems to have the trust of the alt-right. Anti-ISIS sentiment was baked in, and many Tweeters were just parroting the nation’s most prominent Russophile, Donald J. Trump. In any event, Russian propaganda intersected with Trumpian propaganda to such an extent that I observed little skepticism of Putin or RT, his English-language mouthpiece. At one point user @neverRINOs retweeted an image of Bashar Al-Assad on RT, saying, “Western media has no credibility, morality.” Above it, he wrote, “FACT CHECK: TRUE.” As Cernovich tweeted, “Putin is a larger than life alpha male who loves his country and will fight to defend it. Why don’t you admire him? Brainwashing.”
Fake News Is Real News and Real News Is Fake News
Just as they appropriated the insult “deplorable” as a way to proudly self-identify, many of my new Twitter acquaintances used the “fake news” label to attack journalism they disagreed with. For the most part this manifested in Trump supporters jeering “fake news CNN” on Twitter. But some took it further. One website that intersected frequently with @highcastlephil’s interests was www.truthstreammedia.com, run by a young couple named Aaron and Melissa who specialized in paranoid YouTube videos.
In one November 29 video, Melissa argued that the attempt to police misinformation on the Internet was in fact a plot to silence dissenters. “The fake news psy-op,” as she called it, exhibited a “classic Hegelian problem-reaction solution.” Melissa explained. The black screen filled with block letters that read HEGELIAN DIALECTIC.
Shut down alt media
Faking “fake news” to cause public outcry
Online big brother censorship
Removal of free speech on the web
Set aside her grossly simplistic distillation of a concept that isn’t even technically Hegelian. Melissa’s general point is worth unpacking: Big business and big government were conspiring to silence alternative voices such as hers. “What a bait-and-switch,” she said. By late December, the convenient conflation of fake and real news was gaining left-wing exponents too. A week into the experiment, I came across a tweet from @DrJillStein: “#Fakenews is the liberal elites’ latest propaganda-and-smear campaign. Take in all information with a healthy skepticism. #WednesdayWisdom."
Hillary Clinton Murdered (At Least) Five People in 2016
At that point in the recent political news cycle when the media was most focused on Russian involvement in the John Podesta and Democratic National Committee email hacks, two responses tended to pop up in my feed. The first was to post memes and jokes blaming everything on the Russians. The second was to raise questions about an alleged scandal far graver than a little email hack.
“If liberals were really so interested in the truth, they’d investigate the unsolved murder of Seth Rich,” @HuxleyHill wrote on the morning of December 14. Rich was the young DNC staffer who was shot and killed in Washington, D.C. this summer after an apparent mugging attempt. I took @HuxleyHill’s advice and began poking around. Soon I discovered a pervasive theory that Rich was the source of the DNC leaks and was gunned down by Clinton’s lackeys in retribution.
Once again, Aaron and Melissa of TruthStreamMedia.com had a video for me: “Clinton Body Count +5 in Just 6 Weeks.” “[Julian] Assange has hinted strongly that it could have been a DNC staffer who leaked the WikiLeaks stuff,” intoned Aaron. “It’s possible that was Seth Rich.” (Both used to be affiliated with InfoWars, the platform of infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.) They went on to tick off several more ‘mysterious’ deaths. And their list didn’t even include former Clinton Foundation CEO Eric Braverman, who has been reported “missing” by bogus news stalwarts such as wwww.pmnightlynews.com and www.morningnewsusa.com. “They’re dropping dead,” Aaron said. As of this writing, the video has over 1.1 million views.
Sometimes Real News Is Stranger than Fake News
For the most part, the folks in Phil Dick’s twitter feed are not that interested in policy. While much of the “corporate media” was scrutinizing Donald Trump’s cartoonishly rich and well-connected cabinet appointees, Johnny Deplorable and the rest were posting racist memes about Michelle Obama. (And this was before Trump ally Carl Paladino posited that she should move to Africa and live with a gorilla.) Mainstream commentators suggested Trump’s working-class supporters would eventually feel betrayed by their candidate’s sudden lurch towards plutocracy. But judging by my sample size, the news from the #swamp wasn’t even coming across their computer screens.
All that said, real news did occasionally find its way into the feed. But it lived or died based on its partisan potential. Two non-invented stories in particular were shared widely. First came a Detroit News report that more ballots had been counted in some parts of the city than there were voters. (Only 782 of them, though, the Detroit Free Press later reported. Hardly enough to sway the election.) Second, more recently, was the news that a professor at Drexel University had sent out a possibly satirical tweet that seemed to endorse “white genocide.” Yet reports of Russian interference in the presidential election were denied or mocked as irrelevant. When former Illinois Republican Congressman Joe Walsh sent a tweet expressing concern over the hacks, one of the users I follow suggested he “shut the hell up, you insufferable moron.”
After a week, I’d seen enough, and stepped out of the echo chamber. Overall, I found plenty of evidence that, yeah, fake news is a poisonous influence on the supporters of Donald Trump. But I’m not sure all that much would change if the teenagers in Skopje knocked it off and shut down their bogus sites. Social media will continue to facilitate the distribution of odious memes and the bullying of dissenters. @HighCastlePhil & co. will scrutinize and pass along information that they think might yield a politically useful smoking gun, and ignore information that doesn’t. In that regard they’re no different from other partisans. But there is a distinction between wearing political blinders, as we all do, and actively embracing ludicrous untruths manufactured for the purpose of making money. The tragic irony of the new credulousness is that it badly exacerbates the tribalism and distrust that turned so many fake news adherents against “establishment” politicians and journalists in the first place.
With that in mind, I didn’t delete Phil’s account. I’ll keep it to remind myself every now and then what’s cooking over in the parallel disinformation universe. Until the corporate stooges at Twitter shut down my “fake” account, that is.
Author: Simon van Zuylen-Wood