It's perhaps one of the most important and pitched battles of our time: The battle to control information and sway public opinion. What can you believe? Who's telling the truth? What's real? Trust in the national media breaks along partisan lines. According to the latest survey: just 11 percent of Republicans now trust national news organizations, down from last year. Over the same period, Democrats' trust has gone up, to 34 percent. Trust in social sites like Facebook and Twitter is in the single digits for all political persuasions; a reflection that the web is a free-for-all, where news is faked, and popular sites are subject to manipulation or censorship. We investigate efforts to control: The Sum of All Knowledge.
As a Donald Trump supporter, Andrew Torba felt like odd man out in California's Silicon Valley home of prominent tech firms like Apple, Facebook and Google. Last year he was outraged when he attended this campaign rally in San Jose and saw violent anti-Trump protesters attacking Trump supporters.
Sharyl: Did you post these feelings online?
Andrew Torba: Yes.
Sharyl: On what?
Torba: On Facebook, on Twitter, I wrote a blog about it. And immediately, without getting into any of the issues or anything, I was automatically labeled a racist, a bigot, etc. Venture capitalists, people that I respected and had worked with on a very close level, just wrote me off completely and blacklisted me completely.
Torba is now living in self-imposed exile in Texas fighting what he sees as growing control of information online. He's started his own version of Twitter called 'Gab'
Sharyl: What was the idea behind it?
Torba: The idea behind it is that news, information and communication is really monopolized on the internet by a select group of people, about four or five leaders in one of the most progressive cities in the world with some of the most progressive workers in the world. And what I saw happening as a conservative in Silicon Valley was an agenda being pushed and the conservative side and conservative ideas being suppressed.
It's not only conservatives like Torba who believe there's an epic struggle underway to control information. Liberals and nonpartisans also complain of censorship, bias and fake news. We're steeped in the most intense propaganda wars since World War Two.
Archive Film: The sign of a great fighter in the ring is, can he get up from the floor after being knocked down. London does this every morning.
That's when the Nazis and the Allies fought for their citizens' hearts and minds, devising propaganda campaigns to demoralize the enemy. Today's battleground in the information wars TV and the web. Islamic extremist terrorists openly recruit online.
ISIS video: We are men honored with Islam who climbed its peaks to Jihad answering the call to unite under one flag.
And U.S. officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited state-controlled TV news to discredit Hillary Clinton.
Russian TV: Polls nationwide show that the majority of Americans don't trust Hillary Clinton.
Covert warfare is also widely being waged by US political and corporate actors.
Sharyl: When people get online every day and take part in social media or do searches for news, what is it you think they don't know?
Matthew Brown: I don't think they know they're being manipulated.
Matthew Brown is a data analyst who pierces the secrecy behind paid efforts to influence online.
Sharyl: What areas of the internet are used to shape and manipulate opinions.
Brown: Everywhere social. Everywhere social means specific Facebook pages, but it also means the comment sections in every major newspaper.
Brown began investigating after his health insurance costs tripled and he commented about it on the Obamacare Facebook page. He got bombarded, he says, by digital activists disguised as ordinary people.
Brown: Digital activists are paid employees; their purpose is to attack anyone who's posting something contrary to the view the page owner wants expressed.
Brown decided to use analysis software to crunch the numbers. He evaluated 226,000 pro-Obamacare posts made by 40,000 Facebook profiles. What he found was remarkable.
Brown: 60 percent of all the posts were made from 100 profiles, posting between the hours of 9 and 5 Pacific Time.
Sharyl: Which means what?
Brown: They were paid to post.
Brown says it's rampant on social media. One popular tool: "zombie profiles" that make automated "robo" posts.
Brown: A zombie post is a fake, purchased or rented Facebook profile that's expressing the views of an organization as if it was his or her own. But, when in reality, the comment being expressed is done on software and written by generally one or two people. So, the zombie posts will go out on a schedule and then they are supported by zombie likes.
Sharyl: Is there any reason to believe Republicans don't do the same thing, and corporations as well?
Brown: There's no reason to believe that everybody's not doing it.
Even the government is in the game. Leaked emails show the feds seeking persona management software to allow 10 personas per user. They talk of creating an army of fake social media profiles maintained by actors gaming to hide their true location, and using tricks to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.
Campaign 2016 brought higher stakes and a new name to internet efforts to manipulate public opinion: Fake News. Unsubstantiated rumors about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went viral. There was Pizzagate, which claimed Clinton associates were running a child sex ring from a pizza parlor. Trump was accused in a case of child rape. In October, President Obama unveiled a push to curate the news.
President Obama: We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.
The news media quickly joined the President's call. After a man motivated by Pizzagate rumors fired a gun in the pizza parlor, Clinton added her voice to the cause.
Hillary Clinton: It is now clear that so-called fake news can have real world consequences. This is not about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk, lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days to do their jobs, contribute to their communities. It's a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.
Facebook announced an initiative to stop fake news. The head of the left wing group Media Matters told donors the group played a critical role in forcing Facebook's hand. But the fix involved using fact checkers that many conservatives see as biased. Conservatives point to fake news in the mainstream media, like the false report claiming Trump had removed a bust of civil rights leader Martin Luther King from the White House.
President Trump: Zeke, from Time magazine, writes a story about, I took down, I would never do that, because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King. But this is how dishonest the media is.
Sharyl: What do you define as fake news?
Susan Glasser: Well, as a term, right? It's like any term and in fact now you see partisans of both parties appropriating and using this label merely to apply it to news that they don't like.
Susan Glasser was editor of the left-leaning Politico during the 2016 campaign.
Glasser: So what started out as a panic over fake news and what role it had in undermining Hillary Clinton's candidacy and promoting Donald Trump's candidacy, by the way is now a label that Donald Trump master marketer has seen is a powerful label so he's appropriated that and slapped that label on stories that he merely doesn't like.
President Trump: You are fake news.
Glasser: It's not that it didn't exist before, but Americans used to know the difference between the National Enquirer at the checkout counter and the New York Times.
Public suspicion and allegations of bias hound the most pervasive Internet players: Twitter, Google and Facebook.
Sourcefed Video: Google has actively been altering search recommendations in favor of.
During the presidential campaign, critics discovered a Google search for "Hillary Clinton indictment," typing in "IND," didn't suggest "indictment."
Sourcefed Video: When you type Hillary Clinton I-N-D into Bing or Yahoo, there are plenty of indictment based recommendations. When you type it into Google the top two recommended autocompletions are Hillary Clinton Indiana and Hillary Clinton India.
As it happens, Google's parent company, Alphabet, was a top Clinton donor. Its chief executive worked on the Clinton campaign. Last year, former Facebook insiders alleged they "routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers."
Sharyl: We hear from a lot of people that they don't trust Politico or Facebook or Google or whoever it might be that's trying to sort through the truth or the facts.
Glasser: We're looking at a crisis of faith in institutions. The media, being one set of institutions that is under assault. More broadly, political parties no longer have the trust and the faith.
Torba claims Twitter censors conservatives, but not liberals for similar behavior. On Gab anything goes, he says, as long as it's legal, not inciting violence, and not exposing information like credit cards.
Torba: What we're doing is instead of us playing big brother and you know curating content and deciding what is news and what isn't and what people should see and what they shouldn't, we are giving the power to you as a user so you can mute different words, trends, hashtags, phrases, topics, and users.
Because of Gab's anti-censorship policy, it's attracted plenty of detestable users. Some blogs call it Twitter for Racists and the Alt-Right's very own Twitter.
Torba: The media likes to label us as alt right or they've said, you know, Nazi twitter or the twitter for racists. I find it, you know, really funny because we have one of the most diverse starting teams of all time. So we have my co-founder who is a Turkish Kurd and he's also Muslim. We have our chief communications officer, who is based in Canada, who is an Indian and a practicing Hindu.
If there's ultimate truth in the debate over manipulation of information-- it may be found in asking not "What can you believe", but "who wants you to believe it, and why?"
Sharyl: Do you favor censoring information that someone has decided is untrue or may blatantly be untrue so that the public can't access it online?
Glasser: I don't. I think that would be a terrible mistake. We have to find a way for truth to regain its value in our public discourse I think, and that's not about stopping people from what is untrue. It's about finding ways to reinvigorate the conversation around which is true and to find out that which those are powerful don't want us to know.
Sharyl: What would your advice be to somebody who's taking part, either in social media or looking for information on the web?
Brown: My advice would be not to believe any of it. Take it all with a grain of salt.
Editor's note: representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter declined our interview requests.