Bernie’s Brother, Larry Sanders, at the DNC

You Won’t Believe What Hillary Ordered the DNC to do to Bernie’s Brother!

It all went down after the DNC, when Larry Sanders stopped the whole show to cast his vote for his brother, and reports are Hillary was FURIOUS.

Or, no… that’s some bullshit.

What did you think the payoff for this clickbait headline would be? That Hillary ordered him kicked out of the party? You’ve likely seen a lot of headlines like this in the past year. You may well have clicked on many of them. Today I’d like to talk to you about how bullshit managed to infect this primary, and continues to consume our politics.

The art of a headline like this is simple: I took someone beloved (Larry Sanders, who spoke so movingly at the DNC on behalf of his brother) and I combined it with a large dose of schadenfreude — the pleasure we take in other peoples’ suffering. Or in this case, maybe the better word is cynicism: the pleasure we take in believing the worst about people. There are many, many people in the world who want to be told bad things about Hillary Clinton — particularly underhanded nasty things that victimize the progressive left — and that is a desire that’s easy to manipulate.

I could have also gone with the headline, “You Won’t Believe What Trump Ordered the RNC to do to the Khan Family!”

The art of good headline writing and image selection in order to get someone to click and go to a website is usually called “clickbaiting,” but I think we should call it “bullshit curation.” And this primary, the bullshit curators made a massive cottage industry out of your desire to read nasty things about Hillary Clinton. So much so that people still believe things that are patently untrue.

Let’s start with USUncut.com. Why does this website exist? Years ago, it was a tax advocacy group working against austerity measures. But last year, its founders left the organization according to their Linkedin profiles. There’s no “about” section on the site. No masthead. No statement of purpose. A critical tenet of journalism is that you have to know who the journalists are — that they are real people whose agenda you can measure. You know who owns Fox News. You know who reports for it. You are able to draw conclusions about their agenda based on what you know about them.

Sites like USUncut, however, have unclear ownership and unclear loyalties. And apart from this guy, its bullshit curators don’t seem to have any social media footprint — no Facebook or Twitter presence. Maybe they are real journalists who have managed to avoid having a byline in any publication prior to USUncut. Maybe they are real people who have never made a Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn profile — or who keep those profiles secret.

Or maybe they’re freelance writers hired by a click farm to gin up the most salacious headlines possible atop rehashed versions of other peoples’ stories. Under the terms of “fair use,” journalism commenting on someone else’s story is protected use of that person’s story, so the game here is simple:

A) Real news source breaks story
B) Write a story pulling a couple lines from the real news source and commenting on them, generally by slanting them in the direction your readers want to hear
C) Add the most outrageous headline you can come up with paired with an image that feeds the interpretation your readers are likely to have of that headline

Voila! You’ve taken someone else’s work and made a commentary piece that people are more likely to click on because the headline is sexier than the responsible original piece.

By way of example, let’s look at this story:

Did that actually happen? Do you know? Don’t google it. Do you know if the DNC committee rejected an amendment to eliminate superdelegates? If you’re like me, you likely saw this headline half a dozen times on friends’ news feeds. Maybe more. You likely have lodged in your head that superdelegates are going to continue as they were this primary, no change, because the evil DNC and Hitlery Klingon blocked any reform or change.

But that’s not what happened. Both campaigns worked together and compromised and have formed an ongoing committee to change the rules.

Could there be any headline less sexy than “ongoing committee to change the rules is formed”?

But there is no follow up to this headline on USUncut. We got the bullshit, but none of the fact. (UPDATE! I was totally wrong! I SUCK! Here was their follow on piece which I searched for and could not find.)

You probably also saw headlines like this:

Remember that one? The DNC blocked Sanders’s platform. Not just a block, a sneaky torpedo attack!

Well, wait a minute. Did they? Is this a story the conservative, mainstream media ignored? Here’s famously conservative rag, The Nation, on how Sanders and his minority on the platform committee achieved multiple major victories in writing the platform. Victories that Sanders then recited in his speech at the DNC. Did they get everything? No. Was it super political? Yes. Did they win on more fronts than they lost? Yes. There’s a lot of nuance there. Terrible for clickbait. And yet, the perception that the DNC threw all of Sanders’ proposals out was so real going into the convention that many of his own supporters thought he wasn’t telling the truth when he said they’d created the most progressive platform in the Democratic Party’s history. There weren’t any follow up stories on sites like US Uncut setting the record straight, except one citing the inclusion of a $15 Minimum Wage (if you’ll recall, multiple sites ran stories about how Clinton’s people had killed the $15 Minimum Wage in the committee as well). Like the Dude, the bullshit abides.

(And for those unhappy that I’ve only provided usuncut examples, see below for an update!)

Bullshit curation is dangerous. Unless you are constantly reading minute to minute news, and from multiple sources, it is quite easy for these explosive headlines to stick in the consciousness and become truth. Don’t believe me? Look at what has happened to the right wing in this country. They have been in a curated bullshit echo chamber for a decade, and now live in a fundamentally different reality than the rest of us, where crime goes down in the real world, but up in theirs; the Earth gets hotter in the real world, yet never changes in theirs; presidents are born in Hawaii in the real world, but are provably from Kenya in theirs.

Why do the curators do it? Well, the answer seems very clear: the better and more cynical the headline and image pairing, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more revenue from the dozens of ads that appear on each page:

There is real value to owning a site that can reliably drive hundreds of thousands of people to look at an article. By becoming a well-liked curator of bullshit, you get even more viewership for your bullshit, which means the bullshit has to keep coming — and in more refined form.

By the end of the primary, there were many sites delivering the bullshit equivalent of pure-grade heroin.

So, why have I told you all this? Because I’d like to challenge you to look at news in a different way. Here are some rules:

  • Only believe primary sources. If you can hear a candidate saying it, the candidate said it. Don’t believe anyone’s description of what the candidate meant. Judge for yourself. Listen to the words. That means:
  • Don’t believe anything your friends say. Seriously, your friends don’t know anything. Unless they were there personally and heard it themselves, why are you taking their opinion as truth?
  • Don’t believe stories about a “guy who heard” the candidate say something. My friends in the military are awash in stories about terrible things Clinton supposedly said to her security details. None of these stories has ever been confirmed. Similarly, don’t believe the things people heard Trump said once to a guy in a car.
  • Read well-sourced journalism that relies on primary sources.
  • Judge the words and actions of the candidates yourself. Should you judge Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for the things they say? Yes. Should you decide whether you believe them? Yes. Should you read up on policies they enacted and judge them for those policies? Yes. But very importantly: should you judge them based on policies people tell you they actually believe in, but have never said they do nor have ever acted on? No. That is called a conspiracy theory.

If you are on the progressive left, you are generally suspicious (I am guessing) of people trying to sell you things. The corporate media is a great example of this — they lie, many of us believe, to keep up viewership and sell ad time.

It is, therefore, astonishing to me that the bullshit curators had such a powerful influence on the progressive left this cycle. Why did they write these salacious headlines? Who do they work for? It certainly seems like they’re out to make a quick buck. Why aren’t you more suspicious of anonymous people on the Internet telling you things than you are of Jake Tapper? It’s time to grow a little more suspicious of Internet headlines, folks.

Remember, only you can prevent bullshit.

UPDATE: Several people have QUITE RIGHTLY called me out for only focusing on USUncut. I find them immensely irritating and so I focused on them. But by no means does that mean they’re the only offender. They’re probably not even the worst offender. You can find many other sites that have used this tactic — and sites that have used knee-jerk defensiveness on Hillary’s behalf to drive clicks. The phenomenon I’m talking about is in no way limited to sites that supported Bernie, and I should have been clearer about that. The right wing has sites doing this, the middle does, the left does. If someone is passionate on a subject, there are sites manipulating that passion to drive clicks.

Why, here’s a great example from today, August 9th! Occupydemocrats.com has curated this magnificent piece of bullshit:

You’ll note the headline is at the bottom under the ads. The article is here: http://occupydemocrats.com/2016/08/09/just-fbi-set-investigate-trumps-assassination-threat-clinton/ and most assuredly does not in any way confirm that the FBI is “set” to do anything of the sort. But Trump’s 2nd amendment quote was a big story today and the bullshit curators were fast in action!

Thanks to many folks for recommends and for the feedback — even the harsh kind. Being critical is important! Question everything!

FINAL UPDATE: Here’s a follow up piece about how this piece was received and some scary-ass lessons learned.