Why Fake News Looks Like Real News

Websites and content have evolved over time to become delightful, valuable experiences on the internet. It’s all about making people comfortable and making it easy for people to find want they need. This sounds like a pretty good thing! But there is a fiend who is also evolving…

Fake news.

During and after the election, fake news caused a stir. People reacted to fake news as if it were real. Sometimes fake news looks and feels a lot like real news.

This is the Denver Guardian, famous for proliferating the fake news article about an apparent murder-suicide connected to Hillary Clinton. (Image Credit: The Denver Post)

The Denver Guardian greets visitors with a headline, an image, a subtitle, and even the weather. It gives off the vibe of a small, but authentic, town newspaper. The black and white colors are minimalist, classic, and professional. Look! They’re hiring! They even have social media accounts, to give it that social proof edge. And they have a reassuring “About Us” as Denver’s “oldest news source and one of the longest running daily newspapers published in the United States.”

Visually appealing layouts are part of how we decide to trust a site. When malicious content looks the same, it doesn’t spark alarms to go off or bells to ring in our heads. It takes a lot more.

There was a time when fake news had a shoddy visual setup and a good portion of visitors did get the slight feeling that something was off. But with the proliferation of news claiming to be satirical and buzz articles that take the truth and twist it, more and more of these fake news companies are realizing how to get consumers to feel they’re in the right place. They follow the influence of large corporations like Google and Amazon who invest time and money into designing a good user experience.

User experience(or UX) is about creating easy, seamless, and intuitive experiences for people. To create a good one, a UX designer takes from the fields of psychology, visual design, and sociology, to name a few. They focus on the feelings a user has with a product, process, or service at every touch point. It’s why we enjoy using certain websites on the internet and why we completely hate it when others are hard to use or feel useless.

That used to be the case for many fake news sites on the internet. They were easy to catch, but like everything on the internet they’ve evolved, and taken a dark UX approach to recreating the feeling of real, trusted sites. Let’s take a closer look into how one of these fake news sites, DenverGuardian.com, incorporated user experience in their execution.

Understanding Users

The first interaction that visitors have with these kinds of websites are well thought out. In NPR’s interview with Jestin Coler, founder and CEO of Disinfomedia (which DenverGuardian.com is a part of), Coler mentions that “our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire.”

Instead of posting it and hoping for the best, Coler and his group discussed how visitors would run across it first. They considered more than the visuals of the website. It took some thinking, learning, and discovery about their consumer to begin creating a user experience that worked for a specific group of people. He felt comfortable that he knew what this specific group of people wanted and manipulated it, through channels and visuals.

Using Bias

Manipulating people using psychology is unethical, and yet, commonplace in ads and media. For the Denver Guardian, Coler exploited what he knew about his audience. By creating news that confirmed what Coler felt Trump group and forum users were looking for, Coler appealed to Confirmation Bias, the inclination to collect and prefer information that confirms our own opinions, hypotheses, and beliefs in favor of information that contradicts it. For emotionally or politically charged issues, confirmation bias can be compelling.

Biases can be learned or developed. Anyone can fall under the influence of a bias, not just the specific group Coler targeted. The fact is that he chose to appeal to these groups by preying on their opinions and beliefs. It’s how he manipulated them into spreading faux news. Using bias is a dark UX technique, which ethical user experiences avoid.

Creating Trust in the User Interface

Once the Denver Guardian pulled visitors in, creating a credible, authentic website became the name of the game. The user interface(UI) I described earlier — with social media links, company information, and weather — is a large part of why people believe some fake news stories. The UI itself is a set that comes from Wordpress, a blogging and website template platform. The message it conveys is clean and professional, providing no reason why a visitor should feel they’re reading fake news.

Coler took care to create a site that closely resembled a local news site. He might have looked around to see what the site structure looks like and what kinds of elements would be on the home page.

“The idea was to make the sites look as legit as possible so the home page is going to be local news and local forecast, local sports, some obituaries and things of that nature, and then the actual fake news stories were going to be buried off the home page.”
-Jestin Coler, We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned

Our friend, Bias, comes back into play here. Because the overall look and feel of the website are pleasing to the eye, visitors attribute the actual content on the site with the same feelings they have for the UI: clean, professional, authentic. As people, we need to make thousands of decisions on how we feel about others, products, and processes. We’ve developed a pretty lousy “shortcut” for deciding whether something is good or bad: If part of the whole is beautiful, and we think beauty is good, then the whole is also good. This is the Halo Effect, and it’s part of the reason Denver Guardian visitors fell for the lie.

Showing Social Proof

Coler hoped the article would go viral. We’re influenced by our friends and their likes and interests. When the Denver Guardian’s article FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide appeared in Facebook timelines and Twitter streams, readers had another reason to believe the farce. The more likes, tweets, shares, and retweets the article gained, the more readers were encouraged to accept the “news” and find it credible.

Some lighter fake news fare. This tweet claims to have 42,535 retweets. How’s that for social proof?

Many of us receive news from social media, arguably part of the problem. Facebook has been in the middle of the fake news issue, accused of allowing it to rise to the top of timelines and outperform real news in some cases. We like to trust the people in our inner circles, and as we watch news spread and discussed on social media, it binds with our biases which makes it easy to swallow.

“I mean, this is probably going to be my last run in the fake-news biz, but I can promise you that it’s not going to go away. It’s even going to grow bigger and it’s going to be harder to identify as it kind of evolves through these steps.”
-Jestin Coler, We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned

Fighting Fake News

User experience is still a relatively new thing for fake news companies. It may not even be deliberate. They’re bound to make mistakes and trip up. When you click on a link to an article, don’t take it at face value. Explore the site. Go deep into the navigation. Like in real life, a lie unravels on the web.

It’ll be easier to spot things that don’t really make sense. A title might seem weird to you or you’ll notice that authors are anonymous. It’s the nuances that make user experience amazing. It’s the nuances that will be glossed over by fake news sites, who have better things to do than review their entire website for missing profile pictures. The hope is that you’ll land on the page, no alarms and bells will go off, and the lie will spread. Take a moment to look around. The walls might be cardboard.

Anything look weird?

By building for their audiences and taking into account how psychology affects our decisions, fake news sources like the Denver Guardian get people to buy in. They’re evolving, like many others, to consider the consumer and their user experience. We can’t keep people from creating decent user experiences for unethical reasons. It’s up to us as readers to try to get past our biases and not believe everything at first glance.

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