Hi, I Made Fake News
A tweet of Trump discussing children’s toys over Twitter DM went viral, and now everything and nothing is real
Last week, Late-afternoon on Tuesday, I tweeted a series of screenshots. They depicted a conversation that I had with our president-elect over Twitter DM.
This conversation never happened. I edited the images together as a gag. Within minutes people had responded, pointing out that I screwed up the blocked screen and Trump’s actual following count. I figured the jig was up, pinned the tweet to the top of my profile, and went to bed.
By the next morning the tweet had blown up. At the end of the week it had 55 thousand retweets. And despite how clearly (and poorly) faked it was, many people still thought it was real.
Pretending to DM Trump is hardly a new joke on Twitter. It’s gone viral at least twice before, once when Trump was in the primaries and again during the general election. In both of these cases the screenshots were shopped. Famous parody accounts have spoofed on the format. It’s always been a joke. It’s never been real.
So why do we keep falling for it?
You may think that Trump’s use of Twitter is careless and impulsive, but that’s not exactly true. He may have a reputation for tweeting whatever he’s thinking, but he otherwise tightly controls his presence on the site. The small collection of accounts that he follows has evolved over 2016, but it has always numbered below 50. He manages his timeline like a much sought-after piece of prime real-estate. It’s the front page of Trump World and he takes that very seriously.
He also has over 17 million followers. He is being tweeted at, retweeted, quote retweeted, tagged in photos, or casually @ed literally every second of the day. There’s no way he has notifications turned on for random mentions. He may occasionally scroll through his replies and choose something to signal boost via retweeting, but this is increasingly rare. By and large, Trump’s Twitter is him speaking to the crowd, not rubbing elbows inside of it.
But some people want to believe that Trump can be tricked into following any old schmuck that uses the right hashtags. Some people want to believe that he’s just some dope that somehow, without really trying, has bullshitted his way into the presidency. But neither case is true, and the progressives who oppose him need to accept this sooner than later.
In the last several weeks a lot has been said about fake news. A popular take has been that the sheer speed and volume of fake news stories shared on social media had an unprecedented role in deciding the election. I want to push back on this idea. Different outlets have been publishing sensationalist, less-than-true stories in order to sell copies since the dawn of print media. In the late-19th/early-20th century they called it yellow journalism, and after that there were tabloids, and after that attention-grabbing radio and TV stories designed to bump ratings. The internet only accelerated what has been going on long before.
But over the last few election cycles this kind of content has become increasingly politicized. This trend didn’t start on the internet, it started on 24-hour cable news stations like FOX and MSNBC. The difference this cycle is that the barriers to entry are now so low that almost anyone with an internet connection can have a crack at exploiting rumors for profit. This is what scares establishment media types more than anything, not that people are spreading bullshit but that they are no longer in control of what bullshit gets spread.
The depressing reality is that there is no easy solution to fake news on social media, just like there was no solution to dishonest cable news pundits. Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter can’t actively police their entire user base (nor do they want to). The most they will do is flag “disputed” stories and play whack-a-mole with the sites that publish them — as if that will stop anyone from seeking out and consuming this stuff.
People believe what they already want to believe, and they want news that already agrees with how they feel. It isn’t new and it isn’t going away. It’s why people repeatedly buy into bad fakes of Trump reading twitter DMs from random strangers, but it’s also why people buy into the bonkers story of John Podesta using a pizzeria to hide his child-sex ring. The difference is that one is a joke and the other is a dangerous conspiracy theory, but after a few thousand shares the original intent tends to get lost.
What really interests me about Twitter’s reaction to my tweet isn’t that so many people believed it, but that Trump’s opponents and supporters saw two different things. Those who already hate Trump took it as further evidence of his stupidity, but those who love him saw a man of the people who would take some time out of his day to talk to a regular person on Twitter. To them the joke is that in order to Make America Great Again he might also Make Bionicle Great Again. Each group saw what they wanted to see, and then they passed it on.