How Fake News Happens

For most of Tuesday, many left-leaning Internet users were convinced that they had just read a leaked version of the official inauguration poem for Donald Trump, and OMG can you believe how awful it is.

Let me specify that, technically speaking, the poem in question is actually better than most inauguration poems, in the sense that it scans and rhymes and is recognizable as poetry and is not lethally boring like most inauguration poems. It’s not exactly Kipling, mind you, but most of it isn’t quite doggerel.

It is horribly objectionable in its content, though, which is all about the personal aggrandizement of one Donald J. Trump.

Come out for the Domhnall, ye brave men and proud,
The scion of Torquil and best of MacLeod!
With purpose and strength he came down from his tower
To snatch from a tyrant his ill-gotten power.
Now the cry has gone up with a cheer from the crowd:
“Come out for the Domhnall, the best of MacLeod!”
When freedom is threatened by slavery’s chains
And voices are silenced as misery reigns,
We’ll come out for a leader whose courage is true
Whose virtues are solid and long overdue.
For, he’ll never forget us, we men of the crowd
Who elected the Domhnall, the best of MacLeod!

It carries on in this vein for quite a while.

Inauguration poems are a questionable institution in the first place, smacking a little too much of the pomp and circumstance of monarchy and the role of a political leader as some kind of national patron of the arts. This is mitigated by the custom of choosing poems that take as their subject not the president, but America itself, about which the poem expresses some kind of sentiment that seems vaguely positive while being mostly incomprehensible. To take a term not from literary criticism but from advertising, your typical inauguration poem is a “positive non-statement.”

An official poem that digresses from that tradition and lionizes the president personally would be real news. Fortunately, that’s not what this is. But the poem was promoted that way in an article in a British newspaper, the Independent, then picked up by a bunch of credulous American websites which reported as straight fact that this was going to be a feature of the official inauguration.

Meanwhile, for the past two months everybody on the left has been beside themselves about how terrible it is that Mark Zuckerberg could permit fake news to be spread on social media. A lot of those same people were busy yesterday tweeting out hot takes on the fake inauguration poem.

Maybe this is an opportunity to take a little look at how this kind of fake news actually happens, and how we ourselves are responsible for it.

What seems to have happened is that the poem was written by Trump supporter Joseph Charles McKenzie, a “celebrated American poet” nobody has ever heard of, from the Society of Classical Poets, which I have also never heard of. And “classical poetry” is the sort of thing I like.

At any rate, the real giveaway that the poem isn’t really for the inauguration is the way it makes such a big deal about Trump’s Scottish heritage. (“Domnhall” is the Gaelic form of “Donald,” and his mother was a MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, you see.) So the poet, McKenzie—are you sensing a pattern here?—sent it to the venerable Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman. And the Scots are, well, they’re known for their fierce national pride, as described here.

So naturally they just could not resist a poem about Trump that lauded his Scottish roots. But note the first sentence of the Scotsman report: “An American poet society has released a poem inspired by Scotland to mark Donald Trump’s inauguration this Friday.” It says nothing about this being an official part of the inauguration or being read at the ceremony. But glance over that sentence quickly, pick up the report, send it around to a few websites and out on social media—and suddenly this is the official inauguration poem.

The engine of this misinformation, obviously, is that this poem conforms to every single negative caricature about Trump: his braggadocio, his encouragement of his supporters’ uncritical adulation, his quasi-aristocratic pretensions, and his presumably retrograde, backward, old-fashioned literary tastes. (I disagree. I doubt our new president has much in the way of literary tastes or interests, one way or the other.) Plus, there’s a nice reference in the poem to feminists as “hapless old harridans,” which helps keep the “war on women” trope alive just a little bit longer.

This is exactly what we all suspected about “fake news” to begin with. It usually begins with some small basis in fact, which is then distorted by a sloppy reading of those facts, blown out of proportion with a clickbait headline, and then repeated by a crowd on social media who are eager to promote anything that confirms their ideological prejudices.

This truly is a bipartisan phenomenon. At about the same time the left was hyperventilating about the inauguration poem, you probably had someone on the right send you conclusive proof that the seft is paying people to protest against Trump—and paying them lavishly.

Tucker Carlson brought the supposed organizer of such a pay-to-protest organization onto his show, but he began the interview by revealing that he knew the whole thing to be a hoax. The guy then tries to brass it out, and what follows is about seven minutes of television that is—well, it may not be all that enlightening, but it’s pretty darned entertaining.

The key line is when the guy says, “I would assume that I wouldn’t be given airtime on a national stage unless I was legitimate.” That’s the question, isn’t it?

The point is that fake news will always be with us because it appeals to our partisan tribalism and our natural bias to want to see our assumptions confirmed. So it doesn’t really have much to do with algorithms or Mark Zuckerberg after all. It has to do with us, and it’s our own responsibility to resist the temptation of a factoid that is simply too good to check.

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