America's Relationship With the Truth Is Broken

InfoWars' fake news—that Texas mass-murderer Devin Kelly was part of Antifa—has one purpose: to incite fear and hatred. And in an increasingly fascist regime, more people are believing him.
Written by

Was the Texas church shooter an antifa member who vowed to start a civil war??????? No the fuck he was not, my friends, and Snopes is here to explain this to you, a person who in the year 2017 might actually be fooled into thinking “Your News Wire” is a real website because truly and honestly this nonsense showed up on Google News results a few days ago.

Infowars, your smelly brother-in-law’s favorite conspiracy farm, was peddling the same crap - claiming that the ex-military domestic abuser who on Sunday killed 26 churchgoing Texans, more than half of them children, was actually a left-wing, atheist anti-fascist with a vendetta against conservative Christians. That’s “what they’re not telling you,” according to the site, home to noted rusty tea kettle Alex Jones, a man beloved by the aforementioned smelly brothers-in-law of America for his ability to yell and lie at the same time. Breitbart, the right-wing fear factory headed by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, also picked up the spooky atheist talking point and got in some whining about Chelsea Handler, too. Because that’s the content your olfactorily offensive extended family craves, I guess.       

Concentric circles of spin. This is what fake news looks like in the wild: a handful of websites—without a major news affiliation, none of which regularly interacts with or link to or from any news outlet you’ve ever heard of—reporting some kind of faux-bombshell that “they,” whoever “they” are, are too scared, too corporate, or too left wing to cover.

Yes, there are issues that mainstream media is historically bad at covering thoughtfully (see: abortion). Yes, there are times when reputable news outlets under-cover or ignore stories because of external or internal pressure. It happens.

But thousands of American news agencies and publications, and tens of thousands of journalists and reporters and editors, are not all conspiring together to hide the real truth about Devin Kelly’s membership in some rogue antifa group. It is simply not the case that scores of media professionals, cowardly to the core, shied away from reporting about Kelly’s leftwing extremism. Because he was not a left-wing extremist. He was something far more terrifying.

He was the kind of regular, family-abusing, misogynist white guy who usually ends up executing a single-shooter mass murder in this here land of the free. This combination of qualities and behaviors is absolutely under-identified in the mainstream media as the likeliest profile of a mass-murdering single-shooter, and there are definitely dots that many members of the media are not connecting in favor of hand-wringing about “mental health” after one of these incidents, but I can promise you that we didn’t all have a big meeting about how the unified commie reporters of America were going to hide Devin Kelly’s political affiliation from your dad.           

I can type this at you until I’m blue in the fingers—and if you’re reading this column, you probably don’t really need to hear it—but I’m not sure it really matters, anyway. America’s relationship with the truth is broken. Or maybe it never had a relationship to the truth. I don’t know. What I do know is that these days I feel about as low as I’ve ever felt about the state of things.          

We have all the information we need about who commits mass shootings, what they commit mass shootings with, and how they get their deadly weapons. We have had this information for years. We will do nothing with it. Our elected officials on the left and the right will repeatedly fail or refuse to do anything whatsoever to reduce mass gun violence, no matter how mad the reasonable public gets about it. No matter how many babies get shot up in churches and schools. I cannot see a way to change. I feel awful about it.        

I feel awful about it because I see a clear connection between real “fake news”—the kind of shit peddled by Your News Wire and Infowars and 4chan message board trolls and other groups that have managed to worm their way into the political-social media landscape—and America’s ongoing failure to do fuck-all about gun violence. Fake news proliferates in part because we are hungry for information—not facts, not science, not reality—just any information, however unreliable, that reinforces our worldview, or the way we want things to be instead of how they are. The social-media industry exploits this desire to be emotionally right—rather than factually right—because that is how capitalism works, and Facebook and Twitter are businesses, not public utilities. This happens on both the right and the left, of course, but it’s more dangerous coming from people who want fewer gun regulations than from people who want more. It’s more dangerous coming from people who want to reduce access to mental health care than from people who don’t. It’s more dangerous coming from people who want to jail immigrant children than from those who don’t.

When people are racist and bloodthirsty, and they want to consume content that validates those qualities, fake news quenches that thirst. When people are homophobic and hateful, and they want to consume content that validates those qualities, fake news fills the void. When people are xenophobic and cruel, fake news makes up reasons for them to stay that way. Because it makes money for somebody, probably for a lot of somebodies. Domestic somebodies and foreign somebodies. They’re all profiting from the ignorance and apathy and disenfranchisement of the public. That in itself isn’t new, of course — it’s the bedrock of capitalism — but that doesn’t make it any less devastating.           

Two things must happen: We must get better at identifying and ignoring fake news, including the trickle-up iterations of it that make it to Trump- and Russia-friendly mainstream outlets like Fox and talk radio, and we must rebuke leaders who would take advantage of our worst impulses. Without these things, we’ll never take meaningful action, or elect people who will take meaningful action, on huge public issues like gun violence.

On the fake-news front, media literacy and enthusiasm for good reporting can win, easily. When you look at some of the fake news ads we now know were run on Facebook, they’re easy enough to identify. Rife with grammatical errors and originating from groups without a solid public footprint, the fakery becomes plain under a little scrutiny. And in general, the mainstream news outlets you’ve heard of—probably because you’ve heard they’re in dire financial straits—are trustworthy. Especially the daily newspapers. Broadcast gets a little trickier, not just because the nature of the medium encourages bleed-leads and fear-mongering hyperbole in order to stoke ratings fires, but because there’s a huge fake news farm, Sinclair Media, that actually does ship out pro-Trump, pro-Republican content to local stations. We have to stay on our toes, and dig deeper when something seems too good—too close to confirming our basest core beliefs.

But people have to want to do this. They have to be willing to read and believe reports that tell them things they don’t want to hear, things that complicate their lives and ask them to be more loving, more generous and more thoughtful instead of racist, or sexist, or homophobic. Repeated, reputable and reliable research shows that people don’t actually know or care much about policy, and instead tend to vote with their identity groups whether or not that means they’re actually voting against their own interests. (This is how you get white women voting Republican—we choose whiteness, or more aptly, racism—over womanhood, and screw ourselves over on everything from equal pay to reproductive rights in the process.) It’s no wonder that fake news plays so well with social media users—fake news tells us not just what we want to hear, but that we’re right about who we think we are, no matter how wrong that is.

For as low as I’ve been feeling about the state of things, I do feel that it’s possible we’re actually working on that second thing—rejecting leaders who exploit our worst impulses. Tuesday night, we saw big wins for progressive—not just big-D Democrat—candidates across the country. There were the big statewide wins in New Jersey and Virginia, but also some incredible victories and vindications at the local level. Danica Roem, a trans woman and journalist (!) who campaigned hard on local issues, won a seat in the Virginia Statehouse, taking it away from the man who’d sponsored the state’s transphobic “bathroom bill.” Charlotte, North Carolina, just elected Vi Lyles, the city’s first Black woman mayor. Ashley Bennett, a Democrat, took a New Jersey local seat from a man who’d mocked the Women’s March with a sexist Facebook post.

These wins give me a little hope—something that I’ve been struggling to find after the massacres in Las Vegas and Texas. I’m still not optimistic about gun control; I think there are some terrifying electoral prospects coming up that will pit the worst of us against the rest. I think there is still plenty of hate and ignorance going around, and plenty of fake news ready to reinforce it. But we can fight back: We can read more reputable sources, and we can rebuke leaders who feed on oppression and division. Read and rebuke, and give no quarter to fake news.      

Andrea Grimes is a feminist journalist and reluctant Texpat living in the Bay Area. She is the executive producer of Traitor Radio, a storytelling podcast for the resistance, and she holds a master’s degree in stand-up comedy from the University of Texas. (Seriously.) Her investigations and analyses have appeared in the Texas Observer, Rolling Stone, Rewire, Women’s Review of Books, Salon, Cosmo, Bitch, Ms., and Jezebel, among other publications. When she isn’t writing, recording, or yell-tweeting, she can be found refining her expertise in drinking Bloody Marys on sunny patios.
More by:
Andrea Grimes