At the peak of the campaign, with Donald Trump stoking fears that the election would be stolen, Cameron Harris saw a business opportunity. Like many a business opportunity, it involved discerning what people wanted and then giving it to them.
As he confessed this week to the New York Times, the 23-year-old Harris simply invented a news story. Its headline read “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” complete with a photograph of the allegedly pre-marked ballots, and once Harris posted it to his website, it went viral. People lapped it up as confirmation of the very thing that Trump had warned them about, everything that conservative politicians and media figures had spent years preparing them to believe about voter fraud.
Liberals had always responded to claims about voter fraud by pointing out that there was zero evidence to substantiate them, but here, finally, conservatives had the proof to shut those liberals up. Some six million people clicked on the figment of Harris’s imagination, making him a tidy ad-driven profit of more than $20,000 for five minutes’ work.
That story tells us something that is both obvious and controversial: Right-wing Americans are far more susceptible to fake news than their more liberal counterparts. Put more bluntly, conservatives are bigger suckers, and for confirmation of that claim I turn to two sources.
The first is the marketplace, the conservative’s ultimate arbiter of truth. If liberals and conservatives were equally susceptible to fake news, they would have roughly equivalent industries catering to that susceptibility. They do not. The fake-news industry, from Alex Jones and Infowars to Glenn Beck to Breitbart and Drudge, is overwhelmingly pitched to gratify the conservative need for validation and support. Fake-news purveyors from as far away as Macedonia have acknowledged that they work the conservative side of the aisle for the same reason that Willy Sutton robbed banks: Because that’s where the money is.
The next time you’re in a grocery-store checkout line, take a look at the granddaddy of the fake-news industry, National Enquirer. It has fully embraced the pro-Trump, fake-news ethos, shamelessly inventing stories that make Trump into a hero and his opponents into traitors. Whatever its other failings, it knows its market perfectly.
From an economic point of view, it makes perfect sense. For years, I was astonished by the obviously ludicrous stories that many conservatives would swap by email among themselves, and that would inevitably make their way into my inbox as “proof” of something or other. It was inevitable that sharpsters would recognize that market opportunity and scale it up from informal cottage industry to major profit center.
In the wake of his confession, Cameron has been fired from his job as aide to a Republican state legislator in Maryland. That’s a small justice, I suppose, but within the Republican Party the rewards that come with trafficking and trucking in fake news remain enormous.
Remember, the biggest fake-news story of the past decade is the claim that Barack Obama had been born overseas, had somehow faked his birth in Hawaii and was thus an illegitimate , unconstitutional president. The most prominent purveyor of that claim and many other fake news claims — “Ted Cruz’s Daddy Helped Kill JFK!” — has been Trump. In any other era, in any other party, any candidate who made such ludicrous claims so shamelessly would have been shamed off the ballot.
In this era, that man is about to be inaugurated as our new president.