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How Trump weaponized fake news — and changed the rules for fact checkers

Dylan Stableford
Senior Editor
PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Politifact)

All politicians are known to shade the truth to some degree. But President Trump’s propensity to mislead — from the campaign trail to the White House — has been head-spinning, even for seasoned political fact checkers.

“We had never seen that from a major, national-level politician before,” PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan told host Grant Burningham in a new episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Bots & Ballots.”

Drobnic Holan, who was part of the PolitiFact team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact checking of the 2008 presidential election, said Trump’s recent defense of his immigration policies is a prime example of how he is able to weaponize so-called fake news — and “stoke anger” among his base.

“He keeps repeating that Democrats were responsible for the separation of families at the border — that wasn’t true,” Drobnic Holan said. “It distracts the conversation from reality and addressing real problems in a constructive way. That’s a huge part of the negative consequences of political lying — you never get to the real issues because you’re too busy trying to establish what’s actually real.”

And when Trump does it, the distraction sucks up all the oxygen.

“The conversations that come from Donald Trump are the most distracting because he can take control of a whole media cycle — for a day, for a couple of days — by saying things that aren’t true,” she said.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Bots & Ballots” by Yahoo News

Fake news was around back in 2008, Drobnic Holan said, but it was mostly relegated to “chain emails.” In 2016, it was spread using social media platforms — primarily Facebook.

“We noticed what was going on on social media with a lot of hoaxes and conspiracy theories, but it wasn’t immediately clear it was so outsized,” she said.

This year, the U.S. government charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with interfering in the 2016 election process in a broad plot that involved the proliferation of disinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms.

PolitiFact is now working with social media companies, including Facebook, to identify and combat the spread of fake news on these platforms ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“It’s a very nuanced project,” Drobnic Holan said of the company’s work with Facebook. “It doesn’t censor anything. It asks people if they’re sure they want to share content that has been found to be false. But people can still share it.”

Facebook has also been training its algorithms to predict and detect fake news. In April, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before the members of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, telling lawmakers the company didn’t do enough to protect its users from fake news, foreign interference, hate speech and privacy intrusions.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” Zuckerberg testified. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

“I know Facebook gets a lot of grief for what happened during 2016, but I do think they are making a very concerted effort,” Drobnic Holan said. “Not all platforms are doing that. Some platforms just seem to be saying, ‘Well, it’s our users, and they can do what they want.’”

And that complacency — combined with the veracity of Trump’s fact-challenged assertions — has contributed to a surreal atmosphere online.

“Sometimes you go into these online spaces and it feels like an absolute circus,” Drobnic Holan said. “I think people are seeing the dark side of the internet.”

She added: “It is a strange, strange moment.”

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About “Bots & Ballots”: In the digital era, information and the social media platforms used to spread it have become weapons of choice for those seeking to short–circuit American democracy. Yahoo News’ new weekly podcast explores the intersection of politics and technology, as told by those in Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley trying to prevent a repeat of the infiltration of the 2016 presidential election.

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