Anyone who doubts the value of local newspapers in the 21st century should consider this: They may be the only institution capable of stopping the spread of fake news online.
That’s because fake news is a local phenomenon, or rather, a rootless digital scourge masquerading as a homegrown local product. It then gets repackaged and distributed on the national level — ironically (but not coincidentally) replicating the lifecycle of real news.
The recent example of a controversial non-incident in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, serves to illustrate the whole process from beginning to end.
It all started with a bogus event on event listing site Eventbu, supposedly organized by “antifascists” or “antifa” activists — read crazy hard-left anarchists — of which there are plenty in real life. They said they were going to descend on the Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg and deface Confederate graves.
The fake demonstration listing was probably created by an alt-right provocateur, along the lines of several other fake antifascist outrages, in hopes of getting hard-right counter-protesters and maybe even some genuine “antifa” activists to show up.
Either way, it’s an easy win for the unknown rabble-rousers.
If the leftwing nutjobs show up, you can enjoy a good old-fashioned brawl. If they don’t, the right-wing nutjobs can claim they scared them un-American cowards off.
For the trick to succeed, however, you have to get more traction for the original bogus post, which is where the magic of the stupid internet comes into play.
A local right-wing Facebook page, Harrisburg100, picked up the Eventbu posting and ran with it. Soon, various local alt-right bloggers, YouTubers and other patriots were urging their followers to come protect the graves of Civil War soldiers from the flag-burning crazies.
Fun fact: There are no Confederate graves at Gettysburg!
In the end, the “antifa” grave-desecrators never showed, due to the fact they did not exist. The counter-protesters did show up, many of them naturally armed to the teeth. (One shot himself by accident.)
But that wasn’t the end of it. Noted alt-right publisher Breitbart also picked up the story, which carefully limited its reporting to — now real enough — alt-counter-protests, followed by Fox News.
The fact there was never a real antifa demonstration had ceased to matter, neatly demonstrating how fake news can transform itself into real news through the careful manipulation of the public.
One common thread runs through the whole sorry affair. The foundational fabrications and dupes needed to get the ball rolling were all local in scope — the bogus event listing and the Harrisburg-area Facebook group.
And that’s probably no coincidence.
Indeed, it seems much easier to create lies out of whole cloth at the local level than at the national level, simply because they are exposed to significantly less scrutiny, for longer, than state-level or national news. Further, provocateurs presumably know their own communities well (or if outsiders, have local contacts) and can, therefore, fabricate more plausible narratives to get people engaged with the lies.
Once the controversy is boiling, national news orgs can pick up the story without being accused of publishing fake news, since they are reporting on real reactions, just to fake events.
Because fake-news fabricators are apparently working at a local level, or at least wish to give that impression, local newspapers and online news orgs — with credibility based on their own, real knowledge of their communities — may be the only ones able to counteract the trend.
They are also the only ones likely to be monitoring local social-media activity with enough scrutiny to catch a bogus story when it’s still in its early stages.
Of course, there is no guarantee that questions directed to the person behind the original lie — followed by immediate publication online and on social media when the anonymous poster fails to respond — would necessarily slow the spread of the fake news. Or stop committed partisans from acting as if it were real.
But it’s hard to see anyone else even attempting the job.