The term “fake news” has recently come back into vogue, to refer to the false news stories that circulated freely on social media and most likely contributed to the cruel technicality that occurred on Election Day. This is not the first time “fake news” has been a major topic of conversation, however. The term was also routinely used for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in their heyday, as well as The Onion. The comparison may seem unfair, given that contemporary fake news spreads malicious lies — like the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation ring at a pizza parlor — while the old brand of fake news spread jokes. But I think there is more in common here than most liberals would feel comfortable admitting.
Like contemporary fake news, the fake news of yore served primarily to form in-groups. For liberals, the retreat to The Daily Show was motivated by a justified sense that the mainstream media was no longer trustworthy given how easily the Bush Administration had manipulated them. Only a news report wrapped in overt liberal outrage and exasperation could be trusted. This is of course a variation on the perpetual right-wing theme of “media bias,” which in this case was actually based in reality rather than on paranoid conspiracy theories. But The Daily Show by and large didn’t give us facts unavailable elsewhere — indeed, it was almost totally parasitical on the mainstream media it was skewering. What it actually gave us was a certain attitude, a sense of being “in the know,” of realizing how wrong Bush & Co. and their toadies in the media were. And they really were wrong! But The Daily Show didn’t give us tools for clearly articulating why or building an alternative. Maybe that’s not the job of a comedy show, but then it’s also not the job of a comedy show to be your primary news source.
I would also advance a potentially more controversial point: like Daily Show-style fake news, contemporary fake news isn’t meant to be taken literally and it probably mostly isn’t. As a point of evidence, I note that only one idiot showed up at the pizza parlor looking for child molestors. Given the thousands of people who read and shared the story, you would expect the place to be inundated with concerned citizens if people were taking it literally. I assume that the conservatives themselves regard the “self-investigator” as a naive idiot. They know these stories are bullshit, but they don’t care because there is a deeper truth at work. “Democrats want to corrupt our children” — that part is true whether or not Hillary Clinton literally rapes children, and the important thing is that that basic message gets across.
If you’re having trouble believing this, think about your own attitude toward the meme that Trump is having sex with Ivanka. Do you literally believe this? Do you ever have a strong opinion one way or the other? Or are you happy to help the meme circulate because it fits with the message that Trump is gross and beyond the pale? I don’t want to draw a false equivalency here or shame people for joking about that — though there is something pretty ugly about such joking, which would probably be hard to maintain if we really thought about it literally as something that had happened, and was maybe even still happening, in real life — but just to give you a sense of the attitudes at work and suggest that conservatives, as fellow human beings, are capable of holding similar attitudes toward questionable stories that reinforce a narrative they want to promote.
This parallel would be a matter of purely historical curiosity if Hillary Clinton had not run a Daily Show campaign: pointing and laughing at Donald Trump’s obvious wrongness without ever clearly articulating an alternative. That kind of worked on liberals, but it was just as ineffective at reaching conservatives as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were. Now we’re learning that fake news was to blame for that, but let’s give the conservatives some credit: they knew the fake news was fake. They just hated Hillary so much they didn’t care. And for not realizing that was the case and continuing to reach out to conservatives to the detriment of mobilizing her base, I kind of hate Hillary too.