Why Fake News won’t go away
There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about how we are living in a “post-truth” society. Especially after the recent leak of an unverified report released by Buzzfeed, detailing extremely salacious claims about Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia. The report itself as of now is technically fake news, it’s unverified and completely unproven, but that hasn’t stopped many people (including me) talking about it and reporting on it. This type of reporting isn’t about to go away and there is good reason for it.
The reasons for this is chiefly the result of the change in the way we consume news and how we value it as a product. The gradual decline of newspapers has been accompanied by a worrisome trend; people don’t expect to pay for journalism anymore. Almost all major news outlets now have at least some free access. In the top 10 US media publications in 2015, 9 of them are completely free to use without any paywall whatsoever. This by itself is not surprising at all, why pay for something if you can get it for free ? However, what this means for news publications is that their revenue, instead of being from sales or subscriptions, is now made through advertisements.
Under the sales or subscriptions model, the revenue of a media publisher is tied to the popularity of the newspaper as a whole, whilst under the advertisement model each article has a far more clear and direct link to the publications revenue. The more views and shares a specific article gets, the greater ad revenue that article will produce. When buying a newspaper, you’re likely not thinking of a specific article or report inside but instead are buying it because you value it as a publication as a whole. Whilst in the modern era each article is competing directly for clicks with the next one on your Twitter feed or Facebook timeline, it needs to be sensational to stand out and the quality of the piece hardly matters because if someone you know shares it you’ll probably read it regardless of where it came from.
This also isn't an alt-right phenomenon as it has been commonly described in articles in various mainstream news sites such as Politico and The Guardian. Whilst it is true that some alt-right publications may have embodied this philosophy rather liberally, plenty of far more respected publications are starting to follow a similar same path.
The Washington Post recently reported on an entirely fake story about how Russia had invaded the electricity grid. Whilst it is very unlikely that the Post actually believed it was fake, it is far less likely that the journalists, presented with such a sensational story, were willing to forgo the customary checks in order to be the first paper to report it . More importantly, the Post was richly rewarded for their creative writing. The article itself is still up on their website just with a small editors note admitting at the top. Even now they are still making ad revenue off the article. Marty Baron, the executive editor, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become.
It’s not like The Washington Post is the only paper willing to suspend any rational criticism in order to get the scoop. Recently The Independent, Fox News, Mashable, The New York Post, The Daily Mail and Variety all reported that CNN had broadcast 30 minutes of hardcore pornography. It is frankly beyond belief that all of these outlets blindly reported on something which is both completely ridiculous and incredibly easy to fact check. But who could blame them? The Independent who broke the story has a total of 52 thousand shares on the article on Facebook. Shamelessly, once the article was proved false they didn’t even admit to it being fake, they just changed the title from “CNN accidentally airs 30 minutes of non-stop hardcore porn” to “CNN denies airing 30 minutes of hardcore porn”.
Whilst fake news might be new, it won’t be going away anytime soon. As long as papers have to rely on page views and Facebook shares for their ad revenue, this will inspire sensationalism in journalism. And if you’re willing to bend the truth for views and exposure, you might as well disregard it all together.