By Tom Baxter
Did you hear that Michelle Bachman got high out in Colorado and was stopped for driving under the influence? How about the liberal economist Paul Krugman filing for bankruptcy? And did you know Sarah Palin has taken an on-air job with Al Jazeera?
Stories like these are almost unbelievable, which means they are, just barely, believable. None of these stories are true, but they’ve fooled quite a few people who have passed them along as fact in social media. They’re the product of a satirical website which produces faux news.
Typically, satire is pitched broadly enough to let the audience in on the joke. But this recent variant sails right up to the edges of plausibility, playing on our low expectations for the behavior of any public figure. The joke, such as it is, is on those who allow their personal biases to sucker them into the faux story.
Here, someone heavily invested in the value of facts might be tempted to preach. Faux news contributes to the more general blurring of the lines between fact and opinion, encouraging people to believe only what they’re inclined to. But these are satirical sites, after all, and entitled to irreverence in whatever way its creators define it.
The problem is that faux is becoming more generally employed as a tactic in our information-driven world.
Earlier this year, the National Republican Campaign Committee drew a Federal Election Commission complaint for a series of websites which appeared to be fundraising websites for Democratic House members. Unless they read the fine print, contributors to these “faux Democratic sites” might not have known their money was actually going to defeat the candidates in question.
Under public pressure, the NRCC changed the sites to make their purpose more clear. But now they’re back with a new batch of “faux news” sites aimed at more than 20 Democratic members of Congress, including the perennially embattled U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
Under a banner that says “Augusta Update” and a headline that says “Barrow called out for broken campaign promises,” the page is a pretty straight-forward campaign tract, only thinly disguised as news. As faux goes, this effort looks pretty cheesy, but it’s set up like a lot of news sites.
Campaign ads that take on the trappings of news broadcasts have been around for a while, but what’s different about faux is that it can be inserted into the internet in a unobtrusive way which makes it easier to get past the filters of jaded voters. The idea, probably, isn’t to completely pull the wool over the voters’ eyes, but to keep the more persuadable voters strung along long enough to get the message across. Faux is just a foot in the door.
“We believe this is the most effective way to present information to leave a lasting impact on the voters,” said NRCC communications director Andrea Bozek.
To the extent this may be true, it’s because the public has grown increasingly wary of all the standard tropes of political advertising, as they will quickly become savvy to faux news.
But this unabashed reliance on an approach which in its context is misleading raises some questions about the upcoming election. With maps pretty much written to order in all the red states and no evidence at all to suggest Democrats are even close to taking back the House, Republicans don’t really have to go far out of the box, or risk further damage to their reputation, to do well in Congressional elections this fall. Why would you ever go faux, if you don’t have to?