November (Not April) Fools!

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Fake news is in the actual news lately and it’s about time people started paying attention. It can be especially harmful when major influencers repeat these stories, as people tend to absorb information quickly before moving on to the next story. Once planted in the mind of a 21st century media consumer, falsehoods are not easily supplanted with facts, especially when the story falls in line with a person’s already pre-conceived mindset. We need to hold our sources accountable when they get things wrong.

A week before the election, FOX News pundit and talk radio celebrity Sean Hannity was live on his radio show that boasts an audience of 12.5 million listeners when he received an email linking to The Gateway Pundit website and wondered aloud if what he was reading was true.

“It says that Michelle Obama had deleted Hillary tweets from her timeline.” Then presumably he asked one of his staff, “Did you ever check that out?”

He moved on but later brought it up again and was reading some sort of communiqué on air when an unknown female voice chimed in: “Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren have both unfollowed Hillary Clinton, as well as scrubbing their timeline of tweets about her.”

Of course, none of it was true. And Hannity even tweeted out an apology and recognized the story as fake later that day. But that hadn’t stopped at least a dozen outlets from reporting it and countless people sharing it on social media. The Gateway Pundit post alone about was shared on Facebook 6970 times and on Twitter 4608 times. Incidentally, it’s still on their website. No update, no retraction, no mention that it’s a complete fabrication. In fact, of the 5 sites I visited that reported it, only one had added an update noting that the story was false.

This activity is not surprising at all. These politically inflammatory sites and their social media acolytes often engage in spreading wild mistruths which one site picks up from another. Then on to another and another.

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Too many people get their news from sources like this.

Remember the Weekly World News supermarket tabloid? These are its digital equivalent. While there are likely several hundred, if not thousands of these sites of every persuasion and genre, one type recently came up relevant to the U.S. election season.

 

Buzzfeed News recently ran a story [Warning: biased headline ahead] about a slew of pro-Trump sites being run by young men in Veles, Macedonia simply for cash-for-clicks profit. Accuracy doesn’t matter, as long as people are clicking through from a Facebook post to the actual website. According to the article:

“Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the U.S. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try to generate traffic.”

It’s not just Macedonian teens using this model. Plenty of U.S. based sites operate using the same methodology. Which is why we see several versions of the same fake story several times over the course of a 12-36 hour period of any bit of news being “Breaking”.

And this is by no means limited to the political news genre, that’s just the obviously hot commodity of 2016. Young adults making money from these sites also report that personal health websites also are generating a lot of revenue from users in the U.S. One 16-year-old that Buzzfeed spoke to claimed that he and his partner run a lucrative health website. “They launched the site in early 2016 and it’s now averaging 1 million page views a month.”

Another young man who gave up on his political site because he didn’t launch it early enough in the campaign season says he abandoned it, “in order to focus on another, more successful site he says that’s focused on health and well-being.” The article continues, “He estimated there are ‘thousands’ of health-related sites being run out of Veles.”

Fake health news is just as damaging as fake political news, so let this be a warning if you have “liked” a lot of health related sites on Facebook; make sure you are taking time to check your facts.

Over the past week many have posited that Facebook itself is largely responsible for the spread of fake news as a lot of it is widely disseminated though their platform. Mark Zuckerberg has been wildly denying that the sharing of fake news on his website contributes in any way to influencing people’s opinions. This stands in stark contrast to Facebook’s message to advertisers that its platform is greatly responsible for influencing many people’s purchasing habits. But that’s another story.

There are lots of reasons why major news outlets can fall victim to fake news. First and foremost is the immediacy of news. It really is instantaneous. Within 90 seconds of anything happening anywhere in the world, someone could send out a tweet about it. While the notion of being the first source to report on a story is nothing new—EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!—what we have observed in the past 10 years with the rise of social media is that news is much more time-sensitive as outlets are competing with thousands of other sources, rather than just the rival news paper or TV network.

Combined with the drive to be the first to report is the fact we are living in a click economy, and large news institutions are competing for those clicks with many sites that have no concern for truth whatsoever. That the scions of journalism are losing this battle is very telling about the American people and is too large an issue for this particular post.

It’s important that when sources we trust get things grossly wrong, they are held accountable. They need to admit when they have made a mistake. When Sean Hannity tweeted out an apology for helping to boost that fake story, he was doing the responsible thing. We need to demand this more.

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