When we share or retweet a political post on social media, we think we are spreading awareness. We are really stating to our followers who we are. We promote the stories or memes that reflect our beliefs and thus find it difficult to doubt them - because doubting them threatens our identity.
But our sharing often boils down to repeating simple tropes.
"Hillary is a crook" was a key component of the Trump campaign's discourse. Every time the campaign depicted Hillary Clinton as a crook, the statement gained credence with Trump supporters who already believed the Democratic establishment was corrupt. Likewise, Trump's critics used the trope "Trump is a fascist," discussing all his actions in terms of his fascism, his nominees' fascism, or the right-wing electorate's fascism. The accuracy of the reports did not matter, because they were intended to characterize Trump or Clinton and their supporters as alien - so different from "us" that "we" cannot even try to understand "them."
Consider an article shared more than 500,000 times on Facebook: "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide," attributed to the DenverGuardian.com and republished in numerous legitimate news outlets. The article asserted that the person suspected of leaking Clinton's emails had killed himself and his wife.
The news was fake - there was no suicide; the person did not exist. While the article did not explicitly blame Clinton herself for the suicide, the implication was clear: The deaths were just more crimes associated with Clinton, because "Hillary is a crook."
There is also plenty of fake news out there for liberal consumption. (Snopes.com maintains an archive from which one can see the bipartisan spread of the fakery.)
On Inauguration Day, tweets circulated that Trump had "removed" references to "climate change" and "LGBT" from the White House website. In fact, the Obama administration's content had simply been moved to a new server and replaced with Trump administration content - individual words had not been surgically excised à la 1984.
The most effective fake news is edited video - because videos appear to show candidate Trump's exact words, so the viewer is convinced that Trump is making fascist statements. In edited videos circulated during the campaign, candidate Trump appears to say of Muslim immigrants, "I don't want them in our country." More complete clips illustrate how the original video was edited to intensify the anti-Muslim message and to eliminate supportive messages for the LGBT community, to fit the trope "Trump is a fascist."
My husband invited friends to compare the videos. The edited videos produced such strong aversion that our friends flatly refused to watch the unedited versions. It's hard to combat that aversion. It's much easier to simply follow the dominant tropes. Every new video or meme confirms what Trump's opponents already know - Trump is a fascist and he can't do anything positive because fascists don't do anything positive - spreading a kind of paranoid hysteria.
Paranoid rhetoric isn't new, nor is fake news. It's in civil rights-era rhetoric about black terrorism, in WWI propaganda about the Germans as Huns, in 1890s Arabic press campaigns against rural ignorance, in 17th-century descriptions of Salem witches.
Producers of news need viewers and listeners and readers. We can't count on them to protect us from disinformation. They will produce whatever it takes to earn subscribers or clicks on advertising links.
Each of us must consume information with the understanding that this news is not about truth. It is about money and power: earning money for media outlets and creating hysteria among targeted audiences so that we will act, vote, or organize in a particular way - with the result that we fear, mistrust, and despise one another.
Indira Gesink is a professor of history at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.