Leith Planner, Caitlin, wonders where fake news comes from and why we share it?
The internet is notoriously good at spreading misinformation. It can spark witch hunts and bring the wrath of millions of strangers down on innocent people. It can motivate people to donate thousands to bogus charity cases.
Fake news used to be mildly annoying or perhaps embarrassing if you fell for it. But recently, a fraught US election has exposed the extent to which false news may influence public opinion. Facebook has come under fire for surfacing and driving traffic to it. Google has clamped down on publishing fake news listings in its paid search results. But countless fake stories continue to be churned out every day; someone on your Facebook feed is probably sharing one of them right now.
Why is fake news a problem?
The thing that makes the internet so amazing — its democracy and meritocracy — is what makes fake news so dangerous. There is less of a clear distinction between professional journalism and rumour-mongering. Social media is fast becoming people’s primary source of news gathering, which means that false stories have plenty of opportunity to reach huge audiences.
Where does fake news come from?
Aggregators: Sites that take information from more reliable sources and rewrite/ spin them with inflammatory headlines. This is a way of baiting people, since their aim is to incite outrage by presenting an interpretation of the facts without any contextual detail. Often the news originates with trolls and is recycled by ‘viral’ news websites.
AdWords fraud: Fake news sites bid on keywords or search queries to place links to their articles in Google’s paid search listings. For example, a search for “final election numbers” recently presented a top result from a blog announcing (prematurely and erroneously) that Trump had won both the popular and electoral college votes.
Satirical news: Websites like The Onion and Private Eye purposefully publish false information to comment on actual events. These stories are sometimes taken at face value and shared or rewritten as news, thereby perpetuating misinformation. It’s a shame that satire is lumped in with aggregators, since (at least in the Onion’s case), it’s often very insightful and funny.
Content recommendation companies: two of the most visible clickbait peddlers are Outbrain and Taboola. At the bottom of a news article, you might have noticed a list of sponsored stories with thumbnail images and headlines like “after losing 70lbs, Susan Boyle is actually gorgeous!” — these are clickbait peddlers.
Side note: Many reputable news sites like Time and the Telegraph use content recommendation because it drives ad revenue. If these publications were to write sponsored content, they’d be in danger of compromising their journalistic integrity, which would alienate audiences more than these invasive, irrelevant ads already do. It’s lose-lose situation but it’s a sad reality that many mainstream publications face.
Bots and click farms: Google and Facebook have both committed to tackling false news because their news feeds and search results often promote the spread of misinformation. They may simply pick up on activity, such as a surge in likes or shares, that originate from trolls, bots or click farms. Any group wishing to push an agenda (as demonstrated in the recent election) can manipulate algorithms to gain more visibility on these platforms.
8 things to look for
Although fake news comes in all shapes and sizes, there are a few commonalities:
1/ Strange domain names e.g. whydon’tyoutrythis.com
2/ Unusual domain extensions or subdomains e.g. abcnews.com.co or tv.infowars.com
3/ ALL CAPS or partly capitalised headlines (looking at you, Daily Mail)
4/ Lack of coverage from elsewhere e.g. if the only sites reporting the story are affiliated, that’s a warning sign
5/ Intrusive ads on the pages and long page-load times due to a large number of ads
6/ Terrible web design or pagination e.g. a multi page articles that requires 10 clicks to read a couple of paragraphs
7/ A lack of author or source attribution, which makes it hard to fact check any provocative statements
8/ Your response: If you feel instantly outraged by something you read, it’s worth double checking the source to make sure that the information is legitimate
What you can do
Recognising fake news, and avoiding reading, sharing or commenting on it, is one of the best ways to fight it. These stories rely on knee-jerk reactions, but if you take a few extra minutes to assess the source, you can avoid being a part of the fake news cycle. You can even call them out on it, as Politifact has pledged to do. This issue will only get more and more important. Companies like Google and Facebook, which already have a lot of influence over what information we access, will come under increasing pressure not to abuse that power. Respected journalists will continue to report the facts, but they rely on readers to be discerning about what they read and share. So, even if you’re tempted, don’t click on the bait.