On fake news

I want to talk about Fake News.

Maybe you’ve heard a little bit about the whole fake news fracas. Maybe you heard that the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year. Maybe you’ve heard a late night talk-show host lament the proliferation of falsehood as the conduit by which Donald Trump made his way to the White House. Maybe you read about Jestin Coler, a Los Angeles suburbanite who runs a fake news organization from his home. Or maybe you heard of Google’s attempts to curb fake news by refusing to allow them access to their ad network, or Facebook’s ‘attempts’ to make you think they care, too.

What they want you to think it’s about

A lot of the discussion here tends to focus on those disseminating this misinformation. This makes a lot of sense and it’s an important conversation to have: a lot of people probably don’t know much about how the journalistic sausage is made, though it’s worth knowing.

The short answer is that there is very little original fake news — there are only maybe a couple dozen sites creating it. Some of the difference comes from commenters on forums and other news sources, but the majority comes from sites that copy each other’s content and amplify it — at which point it usually winds up on Facebook, so distant from the source that a reader could never verify it.

Some of this content comes from Russia, and some of it comes from people trying to point out how absurd the fake news complex is (and wind up being a part of it), and some of it comes from people who believe that if you fall for fake news, you deserve to fall for it, and the whole thing is some weird Darwinian experiment.

Weird though it may be, I’m sort of surprised that the last of these hasn’t really come up in our common discussion, because I think that this is where the real heart of the matter is.

The difference between ten years ago and today

Ever since anonymity has existed on the Internet, there have been lies. This is not news. You have run into these lies on New York Times comments sections, on .blogger.com sites, in Facebook statuses, on Twitter. They have been self-contained — to followers, to friends, to (inexplicably) comments section readers.

But if you have watched TV, listened to a podcast, used a smartphone or run a Google search, you have encountered an advertisement for a website builder. You know. Squarespace. Wix. Wordpress. Joomla (well maybe you haven’t heard of that one). And here’s the thing about websites — they’re not closed. They can be linked to, read, posted, copied, accessed, reposted, shared.

And suddenly the lies can spread.

Because it used to be that to find a wide audience, you needed money, credibility, and accountability. Think New York Times. Think Washington Post. Or alternately, you needed some sort of tech skills to set up some platform for yourself — and even then your site wound up looking like some Web 0.5 monstrosity. Think visitor counters. Think spinning graphics. Think page-wide background images.

But nowadays you can call up GoDaddy or Hover or BlueHost or whoever and grab a domain that echoes professionalism, and for $34.99/year and Wordpress’s famous 5-minute installation, you can be on your way.

And how we fall for it

So that’s where the lies are coming from. But here’s the other side of the equation: huge numbers of people who are accustomed to monied, credible, accountable news sources, coming across news sources which lack money/credibility/accountability but which feign it remarkably well. Like, picture this: suddenly the New York Times pivots to only creating content that you agree with absolutely. Hell yeah you’ll repost that.

I mean, you do tend to repeat everything you heard on from Stephen Colbert or John Oliver. I do, anyway, and it’s basically the same thing.

The point being this: the proliferation of fake news is not a function of how many people are creating it; it’s a function of how many people are reading it.

Fake news is growing to satisfy a demand. The consumer is driving it — because the consumer is wildly unprepared for the Internet. The consumer is living in the world of ten years ago, when trolling was new and only the powerful had a voice.

Consider this: how would you determine whether news is true? Is there a website for that? Is there some kind of Google-fu you could pull out of a hat? Could the sort of person who still types full questions (with punctuation) into Google answer that question?

Which is to say

Fake news is a question of Internet literacy. It’s a matter of people who know how to use the Internet, people who know how to search and access information; and people who have fallen into patterns built by those who construct their domain on serving people information with the greatest ease.

This is emphatically not the fault of the user. Sites like Facebook and Google are very, very good at (and there are some folks making a lot of money for) curating content in such a way that you stay within their ecosystem. Lots of folks wind up being taken advantage of — and worse, taught that they are privileged for being so taken for a ride.

So what can we do?

Be us an individual or an organization?

Promoting resources that teach people how to verify information on the Internet would be a good start. The granddaddy of all these is good ol’ Snopes, which has been around almost as long as the Internet itself has (again, because people have been lying on the Internet forever). Alternately go check out Politifact.com or FactCheck.org, or at least go read their great article on how to spot fake news.

Practice Googling stuff whenever you run into a problem. This might seem commonsense to you, like duh. But Google has gotten leaps and bounds better at serving you up answers in the past couple of years. And it’s almost guaranteed that someone has had the same question as you before.

Here a hard one: stop fucking sharing stuff on Facebook. Just stop sharing. Use a news aggregator (curated by a human who knows what he’s fucking doing). Use Google to find a good news aggregator. Better yet, just try to visit a different site every day of the week for your news. See how different media organizations approach… whatever Trump has done today.

But Facebook’s news algorithm is a proven echo chamber with a poor track record for truth; and anyway, the more you share, the more Facebook knows about you — and the easier you’ll be to shove around if it comes to that.

Look. This isn’t easy. It’s not the sort of change anyone can just wake up to. And it requires the sort of vigilance that leaves you drained at the end of the week, reaching for a second or third or fourth beer on a Monday night. But it’s the sort of change that this country increasingly needs. There is a brilliant America — a sterling example of democracy and freedom — somewhere down there. But we’re gonna have to dig it out first.

This essay was originally posted here. Hey hey hey come check me out yo