Fake News: What It Is, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do About It

This post was originally intended to be a follow up on our post on taxes, how they work, and how the tax burden is distributed. We were going to discuss corporate taxes and the President-elect’s tax plans. However since then his plans have changed a bit. We’ve also received some requests for info on “fake news.” So we’re putting taxes on hold and going deep into the world of fake news. We’ll talk about what it is, why it matters, and what you can do personally about it. Let’s go!

The Intro

Fakes news is exactly what it sounds like: the publication of false information as news. We’ve had tabloids at the supermarket for decades though, so what makes fake news such a big deal?

Unlike with tabloids, fake news sites imitate real news sites, sometimes even copying the branding and layout of other legitimate news sites. Here’s ABC News and their fake version for example:

The Real ABC News
The Fake ABC News

I hate to say it, but the fake version looks better. Fake news of today is also different now because of the power of social media. A fake story can reach across the globe almost instantaneously. How powerful has fake news grown? Buzzfeed analyzed the social interwebs and found that between August and November of this year, the top twenty fake/propaganda news stories about the election were shared 8,711,000 times online while the top twenty news stories from legitimate media outlets generated only 7,367,000 shares. That’s over a million more shares!

It’s a brave new world, and we’re digging in.

The Meat

Ok, There’s Lots of Fake News, Who Cares?

TLDR: You do. Because it affects elections and public policy, which affects your life and the lives of the people you love!

Some fake news is satire and driven by humor, like The Onion or The Borowitz Report, while others are purely about pageviews and profits. The fake news organizations we’re worried about though originate overseas and seek to impact elections and drive political action or inaction. That’s a pretty different goal in comparison to fake news like the National Enquirer’s latest story on Jay-Z and Beyonce’s billion dollar divorce.

As an example, the Internet Research Agency, based in Russia, first set out to distribute and amplify pro-Putin propaganda. They failed and had to pivot. This was accomplished by coordinated groups publishing fake articles on fake news websites, commenting heavily and strategically, and posting/supporting posts on social media. Their new, more achievable goal was to make online media feel unreliable and the truth harder to find.

Why bother? Well, grassroots organizing becomes much more difficult in such an environment. Since people don’t know what to believe, they go back to consuming news from state-controlled or influenceable outlets. Incumbents become more protected and powerful. This new model was wildly successful in Russia and was then exported to France, Germany, and the United States.

In the United States, fake news inarguably led to added negative sentiment against Hillary Clinton. This is a bit surprising as she was the incumbent and Donald Trump was the outsider. Tying this to Russian operatives is independent research completed by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot, confirmed by research from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the RAND Corporation, and reported on by the Washington Post. We don’t know why Russian operatives were creating fake news smearing Hillary Clinton. Maybe it was the historic tension between Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, or perhaps some unknown dealings with President-elect Trump made him a more desirable POTUS for the Kremlin. Even still, some of the activity was certainly from apolitical profiteers here and abroad, who realized that anti-Hillary content was more popular and were simply pursuing of cold, hard cash. Either way, Russia’s involvement is undeniable. Regardless of your political affiliation, the impact of fake news on the election of the POTUS and thus the shaping of American politics is definitely sufficient reason to care.

An Example of Fake News in Action

A great example of fake news is a story with the headline “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead” that appeared on a website for a publication called the Denver Guardian, which is entirely fake.

The city where the alleged murder took place doesn’t even exist, the quote in the story is from a non-existent person, and the owner of the Denver Guardian even admitted it was fake. The publisher, Jestin Cohler, is a registered Democrat who owns many fake news sites and claims he runs satirical news sites to expose the far right’s strong confirmation bias and blatant disregard for facts. Talk about catching a tiger by the tail.

Not an perfectly on point image, but who doesn’t love Calvin and Hobbes?

The piece was shared over 500,000 times and ended up with more than 15,000,000 impressions. Add even a little bit of confirmation bias and false consensus effect from those suspicious of Hillary Clinton, and you can see how the needle moves.

In writing this piece, we Googled “examples of fake news” to share them with you. If you Google that phrase you’ll see results blasting fake news from the “mainstream media” and thereby shifting the conversation from what’s actually fake news to examples of mistakes or scandals from legitimate news outlets. We also visited some dark corners of the Internet — the comments sections of the fake news sites. We found some frighteningly strong anti-Semitism, racism, and Islamophobia. The anti-Semitism wrapped in anti-finance and anti-mainstream media clothing was the most surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, What Do We Do?

TLDR: Avoid fake news sites, consume and share news responsibly, call out fake news and propaganda, and be louder than the fakes.

Facebook and Google are beginning to accept some responsibility and a role in the battle against fake news, banning these organizations from benefitting from their valuable ad networks. That’s just a start. There are other ad networks that can be leveraged and other ways to spread content.

But you don’t have to wait for these companies to solve the problem for you! Here’s a list of ways to avoid fake news and support more real news:

  • Visit and pay for reliable news sources. We recommend NPR and the Economist.
  • Consume at least two different sources when possible, with one being from a different political viewpoint than yours. The recommended publications (NPR and the Economist) are considered liberal and centrist, respectively. For a taste of conservatism, we recommend The Wall Street Journal and Fox News. Seriously.
  • Avoid fake news sites. There’s a great Chrome plugin to help with that.
  • Questioning everything you read can be exhausting, but a more critical reading of content that aligns with your views will reduce the impact of confirmation bias.
  • 60% of people share articles without reading them. We know you would never do that, so just don’t let your friends be that person!

All that said, being a responsible news consumer isn’t enough. You’re obviously on top of it, you read Not So Small Talk. But what about everyone else? Calling out fake information in real life and online is actually a useful exercise and a public service. Yes, we are supporting you being a crazy online commenter, so long as it doesn’t impact the rest of your life. If you’re sharing a link to Snopes or a fact-checking website, those who value the truth will appreciate it!

The more we speak truth, the more the truth will be heard.

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