This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.
On December 4th a man walked into a warehouse-sized pizza and Ping-Pong establishment in Washington D.C. armed with a rifle and fired it once. Nobody was harmed, though pizza patrons fled the business and the neighborhood was put on lock-down until the gunman was arrested. The New York Times revealed in a story the next day that the incident was spurred on by an online conspiracy theory propagated through fake news sites. Edgar M. Welch, the gunman, said he had entered Comet Ping Pong in order to investigate whether or not it was harboring a child-sex ring led by Hillary Clinton.
This is one of the first real-world, violent consequences of a phenomenon that has troubled journalists and fattened the wallets of a few savvy businessmen. Fabricated news stories have proliferated throughout social media this year, most of them related to the 2016 presidential election candidates. And the response fake news incites in online users, in addition to its profitability model, resembles another prospering online industry: pornography.
In Testo Junkie, author Paul Preciado calls the pornographic industry the mainspring of cyber-economy. The sex industry itself generates 16 billion dollars a year, most of it through online mediums. More than a million and a half porn sites are available for users to click on. Preciado describes the masturbatory logic behind the pornography industry:
The sex industry is not only the most profitable market on the Internet; it’s also the model of maximum profitability for the global cybernetic market (comparable only to financial speculation): minimum investment, direct sales of the product in real time in a unique fashion, the production of instant satisfaction for the consumer.
Filming pornography requires little effort. All that is necessary are two working bodies, Viagra for the male and birth control for the female, and a video camera. Pornography sales are transacted instantly to the online user. The user receives the product, grows aroused by its content, and masturbates to satisfaction. According to Preciado, “Every Internet portal is modeled on and organized according to this masturbatory logic of pornographic consumption.” (39)
Fake news is no exception. Like filming pornography, it takes minimal effort to fabricate a news story. According to the New York Times story “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income,’” fake news site writer Beqa Latsabidze’s process of writing a story was uncomplicated. He “often simply cut and pasted, sometimes massaging headlines but mostly just copying material from elsewhere.” Using other stories found online as elemental materials, Latsabidze would construct either misleading or false stories from his home computer in Tbilisi, Georgia. Then, he would write a flagrant headline to attract clicks. The result is something like these fake news headlines: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” and “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” Both pornography and fake news are easily constructed and easily transmitted into the home computers of people across the country for instant arousal and satisfaction.
Latsabidze’s process of using the elemental materials of widely shared political stories in order to fabricate a sensational fake news story mirrors the way in which pornography breaks down the individual into mere orifices and genitalia. While discussing Catherine MacKinnon’s view of men and masculine sexuality in the chapter “Pornography’s Temptation” in The Imaginary Domain, Drucilla Cornell describes the way pornography reduces the essence of a human being:
Pornography usually involves an abstraction or a reduction of the human being into its elemental body parts. There is no self there, only the body reduced to the genitals in a pictorial language of lust.
Visual pornography relies on specific body parts to sexually arouse the viewer: the penis, vagina, breasts, anus, and mouth. The actors’ individual selfhood is irrelevant. Pornography is an abstraction that does not depict two sentient beings having sex. Rather, it shows a penis fucking a vagina, or a penis fucking an anus. The genitalia are used as elemental materials solely for the purpose of inciting sexual arousal. The construction of fake news similarly reduces a story into elemental materials, but instead of genitalia, it relies primarily on buzzwords and political figures to incite emotional arousal. Examples include: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Clinton’s Emails, Pope Francis, and #BlackLivesMatter. These widely contentious cultural objects are used in conjunction with fabricated plots in order to construct a fake news story. With fake news, writers annihilate truth in an effort to create highly reactive content, much like how pornography destroys selfhood in order to arouse a viewer.
In both pornography and fake news, filmmakers and writers brush aside quality in favor of exaggerating what’s depicted for the sake of profit. In pornography, penises swell up to an extraordinary size and women pretend to yelp and moan. Porn stars position themselves for the gaze of the camera. Although realism is forsaken for creating the most arousing shot for the viewer, porn watchers buy into it and indulge in the product anyway. Concurrently, with fake news, real people are reported acting out in outlandish ways that affirm, or repulse, the political beliefs of the reader. Although the headline “Donald Trump Sent His Own Plane to Transport 200 Stranded Marines” is false, the story it conveys supports the politics of a Trump supporter, who would buy into the story and potentially share it on Facebook. A Clinton supporter may share the fake news story in anger, lambasting what they may believe is a cheap public relations stunt. In both theoretical cases, the writer used emotionally arousing subject matter to entice the reader to share the story, leading to profits for the site. According to the story on NPR, “We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned,” the largest fake news sites reportedly make $10,000 to $30,000 a month in profits. The pornography and fake news industries both follow this masturbatory logic: they bait an online user with exciting, exaggerated or false content and profit from their arousal.
A successful, truthful news story is one that triggers a reader’s emotions, and fake news takes that to a pornographic extreme. When Preciado describes the raw materials of masturbatory logic, he could be describing the emotions that a profitable story evokes:
Let us dare, then, to make the following hypothesis: the raw materials of today’s production process are excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure and feelings of self-satisfaction, omnipotent control, and total destruction.
A hyper-partisan, fake news story can re-affirm a reader’s political beliefs and incite a sense of self-satisfaction. Or, it could agitate a reader, and excite them. These raw materials of excitation, pleasure, and self-satisfaction that pertain to masturbatory logic are equally applicable to the fake news and pornography industries.
Fake news stories tamper with the emotions and subjectivity of readers and lead them into believing in fabricated events. Welch, the man who brought a rifle into the pizza parlor one Sunday in Washington D.C., was duped by fake news. But in his mind, Hillary Clinton really could have been leading a ring of child prostitutes under the guise of harmless pizza shops. Welch may have been the first man to act violently because he believed in a fabricated story, but the real-world consequences of fake news may reach farther than him. There is no way to account for all of the people who may have believed in false stories about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump when they walked into a voting booth on November 8th and cast their ballot for the President of the United States. Fabricated stories have the potential to lead people into dangerous acts, as it did with Welch, but the writers of these stories may not be concerned about that. What Latsabidze told the New York Times about his motivation for writing fake news is telling, and similar to what drives people to sell pornography:
“For me, this is all about income. Nothing more.”
Cornell, Drucilla. The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography & Sexual Harassment. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Higgins, Andrew, Mike Mcintire, and Gabriel J. X. “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York, NY: Feminist at the City U of New York, 2013. Print.
Silverman, Craig, and Jeremy Singer-Vine. “Most Americans Who See Fake News Believe It, New Survey Says.” BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed, 6 Dec. 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Sydell, Laura. “We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned.” NPR. NPR, 23 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.