EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been working on this set of posts for a while, and with the election rolling out in about a month, it seems like a good time to kick out at least a couple pieces on this topic. A lot of what you’ll see here got developed and shaped into an updated version of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” Consider this a freebie preview during a time in which we’re all likely looking over our shoulders, trying to determine who’s trying to trick us and why. — VFF
The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.
If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:
- Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
- Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
- What can we do to stop its spread or at least mitigate its impact?
This is the start of a short series of posts discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post starts with the people who make the news that fakes out the world.
If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of your life asking the question, “What the heck is wrong with people?”
In most cases, I shake off my bewilderment and move on, but the one time I tend to ask that question with the most righteous indignation is when it comes to fake news. Sure, there are bigger problems in the world, but this is the one that really bugs me the most.
It’s like the story about two kinds of problems: The first kind is the guy who gets naked, rolls around in the snow and barks at the moon every night. The second kind is the same guy, doing the same thing, but he’s doing it on your lawn. The first type is bothersome, but the second type you really gotta deal with.
Fake news undercuts people’s belief in what it is that I do for a living.
The people who post this kind of content vary from people who have strong ideological positions they hope to propagandize to people who have no stake in what the readers believe or learn. Let’s look at who posts this stuff and why they do:
IDEOLOGUES WHO WANT TO ADVANCE AN IDEOLOGY
People who have a strong interest in a position on a given topic have an interest in “gaining ground” both in terms of having that position seen as more acceptable and having more people side with them. We tend to think of this as a political issue, mainly because of how the term “fake news” rattles around in the world of politics and the accusations of hacking and lying to shift a major U.S. election.
The truth, however, is that ideologies can be anything from a position on faith, science, health or anything else. When people want to have “their side” seen as right, they will often push the edge of the envelope to get other people to see things “their way.” That includes creating or sharing fake content.
In many cases, the fake news elements attach themselves to political parties or ideologies. The most famous argument currently under discussion (and likely will remain under discussion for decades to follow) is the degree to which Russian hackers (and other folks) spread misinformation to tilt the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Researchers found that people who were hyper-partisans on both end of the political spectrum tended to hit these fake stories more frequently than less-engaged people.
The people who read this stuff also often find the need to add to it, share it or in other ways create those fake news pieces. When unscrupulous people really believe in something and they want other people to believe it, there is little they won’t do to force the issue. Thus, we get some false stories that emphasize what people perceive to be “larger truths.”
PEOPLE LIKE MONEY
Many people who create fake news, especially the highly partisan content, do so with no real interest in our political system. A number of journalists and scholars investigated the people responsible for many of the fake news stories do it because those stories drive traffic to their sites and all those clicks add up to serious cash. CNN found that a town in Macedonia builds websites with the intent of inflaming U.S. partisans for cash. The ethical and ideological standards for their content producers start and stop with the almighty dollar:
The stories are political — and often wrong on the facts. But that doesn’t concern Mikhail.
“I don’t care, because the people are reading,” he said. “At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever learn in his entire life.”
A Washington Post writer tracked down two guys closer to home who were basically doing the same thing for the same reason. The owners of Liberty Writers News essentially build fake content because it makes them rich:
At a time of continuing discussion over the role that hyperpartisan websites, fake news and social media play in the divided America of 2016, LibertyWritersNews illustrates how websites can use Facebook to tap into a surging ideology, quickly go from nothing to influencing millions of people and make big profits in the process.
Six months ago, Wade and his business partner, Ben Goldman, were unemployed restaurant workers. Now they’re at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want people to start asking for loans.
For some writers of fake news, it starts as part of a rationalization and then just becomes a way of life. This story on the “Confessions of a Fake News Writer” provides some sense of the “cash before accuracy” movement in the world of fake news farms:
There are very obvious reasons why sites propagate fake news, including political gain or to further a hateful agenda. But a major motivator is also advertising, which is pervasive, powerful, and controls a large amount of the media content that populates our news feeds. Clickbait sites want as many eyeballs as possible, because they get paid for each display ad on the page next to the story. But commercial sponsors and advertisers can distort editorial in much more pernicious ways — and this has been going on for as long as we have had a public media.
Whether it was the snake-oil salesmen of the Old West or the Ponzi scheme hustlers of the financial world, people often see dupes around every corner and an opportunity to profit from them. As the line erroneously attributed to P.T. Barnum states, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And there is always someone looking to take advantage of them.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but some people just like being jerks. If they can be a jerk and get a lot of attention for it, all the better.
After the attack in Las Vegas, in which more a gunman killed more than 50 people and injured several hundred others, A social media post emerged in which a young man said he was desperately seeking information on his missing father:
As we outlined here at the time, the whole thing was a hoax. What was the reason the twerp who started this decided to use a national tragedy for his own amusement?
“I think you know why,” he replied. “For the retweets :)”
TOMORROW: Why do we believe this stuff?