In July 2017, a number of right-leaning news and opinion web sites simultaneously reposted a six-month-old online editorial piece implying that former United States President Barack Obama believes the country owes him a debt of gratitude for his eight years of service in the White House.
The reposted article is striking on various counts, not least for the fact that nowhere in it is President Obama quoted as saying such a thing. The false attribution has nevertheless been used as the headline in virtually every instance of the article’s aggregation, as exemplified in these blurbs found on Facebook:
The editorial itself, originally published on the notoriously hyperpartisan Conservative Daily Post on 16 December 2016, purported to challenge the favorable assessment Obama gave of his own administration’s accomplishments during one of the last press conferences held during his presidency.
Discerning readers will note that in lieu of a substantive critique, the author chose to further stoke the already existing anti-Obama sentiment of his audience by piling on epithets such as “delusional,” “stinks of entitlement,” and “blatantly disrespectful”:
Obama: The Country Deserves [sic] Me A Debt Of Gratitude For My Leadership
During Barack Obama’s final press conference Friday afternoon, he spent a majority of the time patting himself on the back.
Obama told a room full of reporters that after eight years of his presidency, the United States is stronger, in better shape, and more respected across the world than ever before.
“Almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago.”
Compiling a list of reasons why Barack Obama is a terrible president seems like a project for a book rather than a column, but I am sure many of you agree that Obama will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst presidents in American history.
We don’t even need to choose one failure of his – the list of catastrophic failures will forever place the United States in a bad position.
Our allies no long trust or respect us while our enemies no long fear us. Obama is right, he did accomplish all of that on his own.
It’s clear that he’s been a disaster for America on a scale that few other presidents can match. Just look at his record. What’s worse, his blatantly disrespectful attitude stinks of entitlement a [sic] delusional thinking; Obama literally thinks we owe him something for his “leadership”.
How does it make you feel to read that he thinks he will go down as one of the greatest presidents in our history?
Most tellingly, the author’s claim that Obama “literally thinks we owe him something” was conjured out of thin air. If the President had said or even implied any such thing, there is no evidence of it in the article, much less in the transcript of the December 2016 press conference.
So, what’s to be gained by fabricating such a statement and attributing it to the former president? We can think of at least two motivations: politics and money (though not necessarily in that order).
Some people, clearly, are ideologically motivated to share this kind of propaganda. For example, witness this true believer who converted the text into a YouTube video:
But others, such as the Serbia-based owner(s) of The Breaking News Today, and the Macedonia–based owners of USA Breaking News, Morning News, and Infowars Today (to cite just a few examples of foreign-owned web sites promulgating the Obama story), were likely in it for the advertising revenues.
The town of Veles, Macedonia, in particular, was known to be a hotbed of young pro-Trump fake news producers, according to a 15 February 2017 feature in Wired, many of whom have become extraordinarily wealthy grinding out propaganda for U.S. consumption:
In the final weeks of the U.S. presidential election, Veles attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. (The imminent criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton was a popular theme; another was the pope’s approval of Trump.) The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. An article in The New Yorker described how President Barack Obama himself spent a day in the final week of the campaign talking “almost obsessively” about Veles and its “digital gold rush.”
Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris [the pseudonym of one of such entrepreneur] earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.
One might suppose that Trump’s electoral victory would have been bad for business, but the U.S. market for pro-Trump fake news — even months-old pro-Trump fake news — is still booming, probably due to the constant storm of controversy surrounding his administration.
A sharp uptick in interest in the Obama “debt of gratitude” article leading to its aggregation by more pro-Trump sites occurred during a week in which it was announced that Donald Trump, Jr. had held a previously undisclosed meeting with a highly placed Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign, GOP legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare appeared to be tanking, and the president’s approval rating fell to 36 percent.
Coincidence? Possibly, but we suspect not.