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Fake news: Not just for conservatives any more

U.S. president Donald Trump hasn't banned vaccinations. But this fake news story plays to what readers already know about his ties to vaccination opponents. HOUSTONLEASDER.COM

Until recently, fake news was directed almost entirely at conservatives. For example, the widely circulated but entirely false report that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump.

Since Trump’s inauguration, however, fake news has started to be more bipartisan.

“Even as Democrats decry the false claims streaming regularly from the White House, they appear to have become more vulnerable to unsupported claims and conspiracy theories that flatter their own political prejudices,” political scientist Brendan Nyhan writes in The New York Times.

Nyhan attributes the shift to the transfer of power: ” … misperceptions often focus on the president and are most commonly held by members of the other party … research suggests that people embrace conspiracy beliefs as a way to cope with perceived threats to control.”

The trend has become clear in the last week or two. As with many fake news stories marketed to conservatives, these fake news stories marketed to liberals have their roots in things that exist in the real world: the Trump White House’s murky and controversial ties to Russia, Trump’s flirtation with vaccine skeptics and his conflict with states that oppose him, like California.

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READ: Fake news: The 2014 Parliament Hill attack went unreported

Trump ordered the Centers for Disease Control to take down vaccine-related material from their site.

Trump has met with vaccine skeptics, including disgraced ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield, and on Tuesday asked teachers about a rise in autism, which scientists say hasn’t happened. He has a record of connecting vaccination to autism (a link scientists reject):

At the same time, there are fears that climate data may disappear from U.S. federal sites, and Obama-era open data on the White House website has vanished.

So if Trump had ordered the CDC to take vaccination information off their website (as the fake news Houston Leader reported), we would have been shocked but not entirely surprised.

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As you may have guessed, that’s not what happened. “The MMR vaccine is very safe, and it is effective at preventing measles, mumps, and rubella,” the CDC site reassures readers. “Getting (the) MMR vaccine is much safer than getting measles, mumps or rubella.”

READ: How scientists are using big data to wage war on fake news

Trump has banned measles/mumps/rubella vaccinations.

This fake story took a harder edge.

” … The executive order will require all pediatric doctors to refuse the administration of MMR vaccinations in all of their patients under the age of 18 years old for the next 90 days or risk losing their medical license. Additionally, the executive order implements a mandatory freeze on all MMR vaccinations from pharmaceutical distributors to health care professionals during these 90-days.”

This is complete fiction, but, as the fabrication points out, would be consistent with Trump’s past statements:

” … Many are pleased by the executive order and point to the decision as yet another campaign trail promise delivered upon by President Trump. Throughout the past several years, Trump has been very vocal in his support for additional research into the possible correlation between childhood vaccinations and autism.”

READ: Fake news: Meet the alternate-reality version of the Quebec City shooting

Trump met secretly with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland last June.

Some effort went into this story published in the fake news website houstonleader.com (which now redirects to a movie promo site, of which more below.) It has names, dates, places, corroborative details and the plausible claim that Trump and Putin’s secret summit was on June 25 of last year, when the real Donald Trump was actually in Scotland. A secret side trip to Switzerland for some high-level secret diplomacy? Well, it’s possible.

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But Putin would have found it hard to attend. He was in China at the time, signing an energy deal. Next!

READ: Intentionally or not, big brands help fund fake news

Trump refused California’s request for federal funds to help deal with a dam emergency.

Almost 200,000 people did flee a dam spillway in danger of failure in California this week. Californians actually did reject Trump as a presidential candidate last November, and the state is in an ongoing conflict with the White House over immigration.

The Sacramento Dispatch, a fake news publication, quoted a White House ‘source’ as saying that “the President has no incentive in helping the state of California … The state very publicly supported Hillary Clinton throughout the election and the president views the state as being responsible for his loss in the popular vote, something he has had trouble with accepting.”

In reality, Trump quickly approved federal disaster aid for California this week.

Two men watch as water gushes from the Oroville Dam’s main spillway Wednesday, in Oroville, Calif. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

READ: Fake news or state news? It’s a false choice

In fake news news:

  • NATO calls Russian news site sputniknews.com part of a “Kremlin misinformation machine,” a charge their UK editor says is “extremely unfair,” the BBC reports. Among the site’s offerings: advertorial (‘What Makes Russian Weapons Stand Out‘) for Russian munitions maker Kalashnikov Concern. “Russian weapons are extremely reliable and efficient,” expert Igor Korotchenko told Sputnik. “If the Americans lift their sanctions against Russia, this would give an additional boost to Kalashnikov’s effort to enter the U.S. arms market.” Other headlines: #LockHerUp: Hillary Clinton Gradually Losing Veneer of Being ‘Too Big to Jail’, Damascus Dismisses HRW Allegations of Army’s Use of Chemical Weapons in Aleppo, and Trump Emerges Unscathed From ‘Brawl’ With Swedish Feminists.
  • Russian disinformation efforts escalated after their 2014 seizure of Crimea, Reuters reports.
  • Law professor and writer Rosa Brooks writes about the savage online abuse that was unleashed after a column she wrote in Foreign Policy was attacked and distorted by Breitbart and Infowars. We’ll spare you the details (she doesn’t). The experience ” … makes it more important than ever for the rest of us to keep asking hard questions and having uncomfortable conversations, no matter how many filthy and threatening emails and tweets we get,” she writes.
  • Disinfo Review, an EU-funded site, looks at aggressive trolling directed at Scandinavian reporters who cover Russian affairs. That story links to a story by Jessikka Aro, an investigative reporter for YIe, the Finnish public broadcaster. In 2014, she started to investigate pro-Russian trolls in Finland, and immediately became the target of a year-long campaign herself. The low point, she writes, was when she got a text message purporting to be from her father, who had died 20 years before. The New York Times wrote about Aro’s ordeal last May.
  • Wired reports on the fake news industry in dead-end Veles, Macedonia, profiling ‘Boris,’ a teenager who suddenly found himself making many times the national average income by becoming a fake news entrepreneur, cutting-and-pasting from American alt-right sites into his own. (Google tightened its ad policies in November, wrecking his business model.)
  • And Buzzfeed untangles a complicated tale involving viral marketing for the movie A Cure for Wellness, a ‘psychological horror thriller film’ which opens this week (trailer here), and its links to fake news sites. “At the core of the campaign is a network of five fake local news sites that are inserting promotional references to the film into hoaxes,” Craig Silverman writes. This phase of the marketing campaign seems to have ended, but fake news website Houston Leader now redirects to acureforwellness.com. (The movie’s site features a creepily rotating underwater woman who strangely resembles the drowning victim on this iconic First World War recruiting poster, minus the baby.)

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