The Fake News Mills of Macedonia and Other Liberal Panics
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
On November 4, 2016, Buzzfeed broke a news story with the headline “How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.” The article described how youths from Veles, a small city in Macedonia, were operating websites that featured fabricated and sensationalist stories about the U.S. presidential election. Typical headlines proclaimed “Hillary In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought’ and “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” The youths promoted such stories through Facebook and earned revenue through Google’s AdSense program when readers visited their advertisement-laden webpages.
This report of Macedonian teenagers flooding Facebook with false news quickly emerged as a story for its time. Numerous other publications reported on the Buzzfeed piece. NBC News and the United Kingdom’s Channel Four sent television crews to Veles to follow up on the story. Stephen Colbert ran the segment “Hey Macedonian Teens!” Journalist David Remnick described how Barack Obama had “talked almost obsessively” about the Buzzfeed article in the days preceding the election. As the Channel Four report concluded, with a dose of nightly-news melodrama: “Fakery dreamt up in Macedonia has shown U.S. democracy to be vulnerable. Nothing is as it seems anymore and, in this town, they call that a job well done.”
Much—arguably too much—has been written about “fake news” and the 2016 election, especially as former FBI director Robert Mueller continues his investigation into alleged Russian interference. As commentators like Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen have argued, the U.S. media’s portrayal of Russian troll farms grants outsized agency, sophistication, and novelty to the onslaught of fabricated news items in 2016. In a similar vein, this post approaches the story on Macedonia’s fake news mills as a “moral panic” (see Hall et al. 1978), one that was articulated through and about a liberal model of the rational public sphere. It thus explores how a story constructed about a postsocialist lifeworld served as an occasion to imagine liberalism under threat.
The drama of the story about youths in Veles unfolded as follows. First, the reports focused on a surprising antagonist, the trolling Macedonian teen, who was “unrepentant about any influence his stories may have had on swaying public opinion.” The image of this cunning, but amoral character recalled negative stereotypes of illicit economies and postsocialist transition. Second, the reports portrayed the digital infrastructures of Facebook and Google as granting the mischievous teens access to the U.S. public sphere. “So long as social media makes it easy for incorrect information to travel quickly across its networks,” one account reasoned, “and so long as ad networks make it possible to make money off getting people to look at stuff, this problem will be with us.” Thus empowered, the clever teens undermined the presumed rational basis of the public sphere. Their fake news stories were alleged to “dupe” voters—notice here an ideology that grants media a “hypodermic” (Spitulnik 1993, 296) power to influence consumers. Craig Silverman, the journalist who broke the Buzzfeed story, described the end effect as a “profound and powerful unmooring” that occurs when “people feel they have nowhere trustworthy and independent they can rely on,” making it “easier for malevolent forces to degrade institutions.” In short, the narrative on Macedonian teens presupposed a liberal version of the public sphere and presented it as endangered by an outside force: foreign Internet trolls had used the leaky infrastructure of Facebook and Google to infiltrate the U.S. public sphere and were profiting from the confusion they had sown.
Fake news websites do not so much violate the norms of U.S. publicity as expose them: fake news marks the eclipse of scripted style over news substance.
There is a deep irony to this framing of fake news as a problem. Of course, the model of a rational public sphere continues to exist as a normative ideal in the United States and many accept its moral persuasion as self-evident. On closer examination, though, the political sphere in the United States seems less organized by reasoned argument than by the logics of promotion and marketing. As Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein (2012) elaborate, “message,” or competitive efforts to advance candidates’ branded personae, now dominates electoral politics, with issues functioning as vehicles to articulate candidates’ image. Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak (2010) discuss a parallel trend within the news media. The demand for up-to-the-minute spectacle has imbued news items with a theatrical, scripted quality where, in their words, “the semiotic packaging of news content seems to have become more significant than the veracity and plurality of the news content itself” (Boyer and Yurchak 2010, 198).
From this perspective, fake news websites do not so much violate the norms of U.S. publicity as expose them: fake news marks the eclipse of scripted style over news substance. The focus on Macedonian teens therefore distracts from the structural conditions that facilitate fake news, that is, a newsmaking process in which the procedures of constructing the commodity value of news items are increasingly divorced from the techniques of authentication that affix truth status. As news platforms increasingly rely on agencies for raw copy and produce stories that summarize investigative reporting published elsewhere (see Boyer 2013), this separation of the “semiotic packaging” of news content from concerns about its “veracity” of news content is woven into the professional infrastructure of journalism.
When Buzzfeed opened the black box of sensational stories circulating on Facebook, they found not journalists (nor even pundits, hoaxers, or bots) but an absolute other: bored teenagers from a small postsocialist country. Yet the liberal panic over Macedonian teens mistook the symptom for the cause. In locating the roots of fake news among Macedonian teens, American dupes, and Facebook algorithms, the narrative on the youths from Veles portrayed an external threat to liberal publicity. It thereby obscured how fake news derives from and mimics deeper logics of the U.S. public sphere.
Boyer, Dominic. 2013. The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
_____, and Alexei Yurchak. 2010. “American Stiob: Or, What Late‐Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West.” Cultural Anthropology25, no. 2: 179–221.
Lempert, Michael, and Michael Silverstein. 2012. Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Spitulnik, Debra. 1993. “Anthropology and Mass Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology22: 293–315.
Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. New York: Holmes and Meier.