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It’s Christmas Day. While everyone else is sat at home drinking eggnog and watching Die Hard, I’m in the fancy office of a popular clickbait farm. It’s a converted warehouse littered with MacBooks, freebies sent from companies desperate for their product to be plugged, and the pingpong tables, game consoles, and bar you’ll find in every office that wants you to be there as much as possible.
There are four writers on the evening shift today, and we’re all swigging Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. Everyone’s a bit agitated because it’s Christmas Day, and not enough people are reading our atrocious 300-word blog posts with titles like “5 Things You Won’t Believe About Kanye West, Number 4 Will Really Shock You” because, unlike us, they’re spending the holidays with people they love and have forgotten about reading trash online.
The work in our content mill (situated, ironically enough, in an old mill) is not for the faint-hearted. Each writer has to produce eight articles a day, five days a week. If you don’t get decent traffic, you’ll be summoned to the shiny boardroom and told, “Look, it’s not good enough. If you can’t do the job, we’ll get people who can.” This happens routinely. Things get very tense.
“Fuck it, let’s make it up.”
The number of visitors to the website is displayed, in real time, on large screens. Our industrial content machine runs incessantly and stops for nothing or nobody, a new lashed-together article is published every 10 minutes, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s a revolving door of editorial garbage. If you’ve ever wondered why so many companies resort to false and misleading titles and asked, “Why don’t they just write something with some merit?”—it’s because if you write something honestly, you won’t get as many precious clicks. And if there aren’t enough clicks, writers like me are out of a job.
Because it’s Christmas Day, the digits on the wall are getting dangerously low. The advertisers won’t like this, our boss will say.
“Fuck it, let’s make it up,” a colleague splutters. A salacious piece of fiction about a man’s love life soon materializes. It is published, causing the figures to shoot up at the speed of an electrical jolt. It went super viral and the next day was being covered by mainstream news outlets all over the world, which at the time, I’ve got to be honest, I found mildly amusing.
I’ve been a freelance writer for years. During that time, I’ve put my all into decent work that has appeared under my byline. But despite researching and writing and fact-checking and interviewing for an incalculable number of hours, my freelance work just doesn’t raise enough money to live in a big city. In order to make my freelance work financially viable, I spend half my time writing things that are worthwhile, and the other half prostituting myself out in the name of fake news.
I know it’s shameful. For every article I’ve written that is worthy of an audience, I’ve produced five that make me feel like stabbing myself in the eye with a large pointed instrument. I can’t look at them now. At the time, I rationalized all this by telling myself that my fake news was a drop in the ocean and wouldn’t make a difference. That I was just doing this to get by, that it was enabling me financially so I could write about issues I found important.
Looking back, that was a pompous contradiction. But, hey, it helped me look at myself in the mirror in the morning.
There are very obvious reasons why sites propagate fake news, including political gain or to further a hateful agenda. But a major motivator is also advertising, which is pervasive, powerful, and controls a large amount of the media content that populates our news feeds. Clickbait sites want as many eyeballs as possible, because they get paid for each display ad on the page next to the story. But commercial sponsors and advertisers can distort editorial in much more pernicious ways — and this has been going on for as long as we have had a public media.
A major music magazine asked me to interview a commercial EDM DJ and review a rave he was lending his name to. The publicists insisted on Relentlessly describing the rave as “underground,” despite the fact that it had a big fat commercial sponsor in the form of an energy drink, which isn’t exactly Spiral Tribe, is it?
I went. The event was a cattle market with no room to dance, a hostile atmosphere, and 80 percent of the revelers were incessantly documenting the scene for social media. I contacted the editor and asked him if this was a sponsored piece of content. He replied, “No — just write an honest review.”
This wealthy man had an army of PR professionals aggressively patrolling his interests and his brand.
Before I filed, I was repeatedly harangued by the publicity agents who wanted to see the article before it was submitted; that’s an absolute no for any self-respecting journalist, because they are basically asking for copy approval. I was repeatedly reminded what I had to include and how it should be written, and they helpfully offered to look at my article and “make suggestions.” Again: No, fuck off.
The DJ’s personal publicist “prescreened” me for an hour before I could do the interview. Then he kept me waiting eight hours for the interview to start. And then he postponed it. Four times. I eventually managed to interview him on the phone instead. I filed. I did not write good things about the “underground rave.” I’m used to hassle from publicists and tried to be objective despite their bullshit.
And lo, when the article did come out, it didn’t look like my work at all. It was heavily edited. Whole paragraphs were added, my opinion subverted, and the final version even claimed — in words that seemed to come straight from the rep’s mouth — that this was the best event of the year.
His reps, evidently, had gotten to someone somewhere along the line. This wealthy man had an army of PR professionals aggressively patrolling his interests and his brand. And I later realized that this DJ buys so much advertising space that he effectively edits the magazine.
Collectively, my portfolio of fake news might sound pretty funny. At the time, my career seemed to have taken on a life of its own, and I was only really concerned about scraping together enough money to pay my rent. Now I look back and it’s a rogues’ gallery of crimes against journalism. I’m confessing, I suppose, in the hope that it inspires you to think more critically about what you read and how it might be trying to influence you. So here goes.
I have written completely fabricated experiences of being a medic delivering care in a war zone and the difficulties I’ve encountered as a middle-aged housewife (a piece about the emotional labor of the holidays went down well) and growing up as a Muslim. Media agencies (a bizarre name for them, because they are basically advertising companies) have to churn out so many articles that they need writers who can be all things at all times. The work is presented as journalism, when, in reality, it’s creative writing.
It was all fake. Fake. Fake. Fake.
Another job was for a religious community leader who liked to boast on Twitter about his writing prowess and the columns he had published in a big publication. The only problem was that he wasn’t a great writer, so he outsourced the work to the media agency, which would commission the writing for him. I couldn’t work out if he was too busy or too lazy.
It is hard starting from a blank page with very little direction and with the responsibility of writing in someone else’s voice. Not knowing where to begin, I regurgitated clichés I’d seen on a documentary about raves in the 1990s. “We need peace, love, unity, and respect,” I wrote. They didn’t seem to notice that it was inspired by rave culture and published it without changing a word.
During a period in which I was so broke that I climbed onto the roof of a nightclub to get in for free, I started to write pro-marijuana propaganda for a company that wanted it legalized. The company went to the length of setting up its own online magazines, hoping to disseminate enough articles that it could win over the public.
We wrote about weed day in and day out, extolling both real and exaggerated virtues of cannabis. The company told us to describe it as a miracle plant that could do all sorts of extraordinary things, including halting migraines, resolving insomnia, and, um, curing cancer. In other words, we published unfounded medical claims that we knew would be read by the public, including vulnerable people, even though we knew it was unfounded and misleading. After a while, our scientific claims became increasingly embellished. Guilt clouded my workday like pollen on a hot summer day.
It was all fake. Fake. Fake. Fake.
Inevitably, I find it hard to read news online these days because I can only see it through the lens of my experience. I find it hard to trust any of it, and there are only a handful of sites I will rely on for accurate reporting.
Misinformation and propaganda isn’t a new social phenomenon, but the internet means that it is easier, cheaper and potentially more damaging than ever before.
I realize that, given my editorial confessions, I’m not exactly on the moral high ground, but hear me out: Nothing will change until readers actively change their reading behavior online — by refusing to read or share news by disreputable sites or by paying for quality editorial that doesn’t rely on advertising. We all need to think critically about what we are reading. We need to think for ourselves.
Marketing companies will persist in using false and misleading media to manipulate people into consuming more.
All of us now know that the proliferation of social media and the transient way we share information allows fake news to do profound damage to our society.
Marketing companies will persist in using false and misleading media to manipulate people into consuming more, bad actors will not stop setting up fake-news farms to skew public discourse and tip political events in their favor, and the alt-right and Islamists alike will continue to use it to radicalize vulnerable people and indoctrinate them into an ideology of hate.
When I think of fake news, my mind drifts back to that miserable Christmas Day in that decrepit content factory, the heels of the officer manager click-clacking across the wooden floor of the empty newsroom. She thought we’d all be in high spirits now that we’d gotten the numbers up, and because it was Christmas Day, and because we were all drunk. But we all looked sullen and dejected, because the writers of fake news hate it as much as the readers do.