Fake news has existed from the earliest days of journalism, long before Bat Boy became Hillary Clinton’s alien baby. In 1835, Richard A. Locke published a series of six fake articles about the discovery of life on the moon, now known as the Great Moon Hoax, in The Sun newspaper.
Sales of The Sun went through the roof.
Writing false news stories and calling them real is generally protected by the first (and 14th) amendment (though libel can be prosecuted, and harassment). A groundbreaking 1931 case here in Minnesota defined journalistic freedom for the decades to come. The Near v. Minnesota case, dealing with a small newspaper that attempted to report corruption in the Twin Cities, went all the way to the Supreme Court. It set a precedent for recognizing freedom of the press by disallowing prior restraint on publication.
(If you want to know the full story, read Minnesota Rag by Fred W. Friendly)
This isn’t satire we’re talking about. We all know The Onion, or the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report, as reliable sources of satire. The number of humor-free sites attempting to convince an audience of authenticity without any real truth or foundation in them has been growing. As has their audience.
At first these sites were easily identifiable. They were cheaply made and clearly unprofessional. But it was only a matter of time before duplicity got a makeover and began looking a lot more legitimate.
The Big Hoax
As outlined in the Select All article Can Facebook Solve Its Macedonian Fake-News Problem? the ability to generate income through ads has turned the social media platform into an even larger hub for fake news sites. The only point is to drive people toward these sites and capitalize on the traffic.
“The business model is not particularly different from any mainstream publisher’s social-media strategy in an era where more people look at Facebook than all news outlets combined: Build a Facebook page, gather a large following, and try to draw that audience off of Facebook and onto your site, where you’re serving the ads off of which you draw revenue.”
These sites get paid for every innocent click. But the problem doesn’t end with techies looking to make a quick buck on John Q public. It’s not surprising, either. The general populace is still very gullible. And, perhaps even tougher to get past, is the Backfire Effect: When people believe a story, even after it is disproved or corrected, it stays stuck in their brains as truth. The correction can even “backfire” and reinforce their initial beliefs.
If someone reads something that supports their beliefs, they won’t waver (and will often double down, becoming even more entrenched in their views) if that information turns out to be untrue.
In a study conducted by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of the University of Michigan and Georgia State University, people were given a fake article claiming that the U.S. had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When shown a second, true article reporting that the U.S. had indeed found nothing, the people leaning liberal accepted the information, while those leaning conservative refused to. In fact,
“After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before there actually were WMDs and their original beliefs were correct.”
Fake news thus has a much stronger sway on the opinions of the populace. These narrative scripts say it’s okay to believe what you do; they tell you what you want to hear and confirm that you were right all along, even when (or especially when) they’re completely false. As fake news spreads further and reaches more people, the implications are that at some point it won’t make any difference; whether real or fake these articles will become news and people will react accordingly.
F is for Fake
Facebook is starting to address the issue. Fake news sites are no longer allowed on its advertising network, for example. Google has made the same move. But it is still up to the individual to know the difference. You can’t always count on a third party. You have to know what to look for yourself; know when you can or can’t trust your source to ensure you’re not part of the problem.
By sharing fake news, users themselves become a fake news source.
Facebook’s inability to control its role as a (fake) news site is one thing, but users inability to differentiate between what is legitimate news and what’s not is another.
Here’s what you can do:
Always check the source of an article. If you see something that sounds a little crazy, or too good (or bad) to be true, go to the source site and see what else they’ve published. If their content is nothing but sensational clickbait, chances are the entire site is bunk. You can always keep an eye on fake news sites at Real or Satire or at Fake News Watch as well. If ever something looks suspect (or even if it’s something you just hope is or isn’t real), you can plug it in and check its authenticity.
Avoid the echo chamber. If legitimate news sites are reporting a sensational story, check and see if they are all citing the same source. Even sites you can trust make mistakes. Sometimes a story based on false information gains traction. For example, when Huffington Post jumped on a story that a rich banker left a 1% tip and a note saying “Get a real job.” It was later reported that the story had been exaggerated, and the picture of the receipt, the damning piece of evidence, had been Photoshopped.
It’s important to be careful with pictures. As made clear with the example above, a picture is worth a thousand words, or none at all. Check photos through sites like TinEye (which can also be added to your browser) to ensure they aren’t misrepresenting a story, being misused, or simply fake (further reading: Be responsible with the internet).
The internet is human
It can be hard to separate fact from fiction. It is of course easier to hit “like” and “share,” with a bit of vitriolic side commentary, and move on. It is easier not to care. Advertisers sure don’t. That’s your privilege. You can be duped into believing anything, if you want to be. You can make a quick buck for the clickbait sites running rampant on Facebook, if that’s what you want to do.
That is your right.
Because, contrary to popular belief, the internet is still run by people. Humans. You and me and everyone we know. Sure, there are algorithms that supplement the work that humans do, helping choose search results on Google for example, but it’s still regular ol’ biased humans pulling the strings.
As Wired reported in the article Repeat After Me: Humans Run the Internet, Not Algorithms from September 2016,
“[Humans] still play a role. They build the neural networks. They decide what data the neural nets train on. They still decide when to whitelist and blacklist. Neural nets work alongside so many other services.”
On a much smaller scale, we Facebook posters and Twitter tweeters are in charge of what is on the internet. What spreads. What starts “trending” and what gets shared across social media, email, and the water cooler at work. Fake news, as it spreads, takes on a life of it’s own.
But it’s life that we the people give to it. We are responsible.
When nothing changes, the public only becomes more entrenched in their (possibly false) beliefs, and unable to think critically or keep an open mind, complicit in the spread of fake news, falsehoods, and misinformation across the planet.
Remember, you are what you share.
Read this next: Want to fight fake news? Be responsible with the internet