The real fake news
An interview with BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman on what we can learn from Macedonia in the battle against fake news
What happens when people lose trust in society? This is the big question at the heart of debates around fake news, the phenomenon of the entirely false yet epidemic content that has been credited with helping Donald Trump win the US election. Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s Toronto-based media editor and one of the world’s leading experts in fake news and other online misinformation, describes a loss of trust as “a profound and powerful unmooring for people.”
In November last year, Silverman published a piece on the unlikely origin of the mostly pro-Trump fake news stories that had been going viral during the US election campaign: Macedonia. Many of the more than 100 sites were run by teenagers and young men who had no political agenda. They were simply trying to earn a living.
Silverman recently visited Macedonia, and when we spoke ahead of his appearance at Storyology this year, this Balkan nation of just 2.1 million people had become a surprisingly useful place to start trying to understand the driving forces behind fake news, the influences of economic inequality, and a growing distrust of media, government and giant communication networks worldwide.
Before the election, Silverman says, “I was off in a little corner doing this stuff and having a small impact in journalism among a small community of people.” Then, four days after his Macedonia fake-news scoop, Donald Trump wins the US election and, in Silverman’s words, “this area of online misinformation … becomes one of the biggest topics in the world.”
A month later, BuzzFeed appointed Silverman as its first media editor. In a Fortune piece about the newly created role, editor-in-chief Ben Smith declared that Silverman had been preparing to cover fake news, “for quite some time — maybe his whole life.” It’s only a mild overstatement.
In 2004, Silverman started a blog, Regret the Error, that collected and analysed the corrections published in newspapers. It was picked up as a column at the Poynter institute, and was later turned into a book. He then wrote The Verification Handbook and, while a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, started Emergent.info, “a real-time rumor tracker.”
Now, Silverman is working on a series digging deeper into the Macedonia story, and how the country helps explain the origin and spread of fake news. Why was this industry so popular in Macedonia, of all places, and not the US? Because the amount of money someone can earn for made-up stories on Facebook goes further in a place where the average monthly income is about US$400, Silverman says. “They can earn that in a day on one story that does well on Facebook.”
Silverman describes the content on the Macedonian sites, often copy-and-pasted versions of anything that was performing well on Facebook, as “this perfect economic expression” of what was working on social media. “When it came to the political news of the time, the more misleading and partisan it was, the better it was performing — and the more likely it was for these Macedonian teens to find it.”
Financial incentive is key to Silverman’s understanding of fake news, which he defines as online misinformation that is completely false, created to deceive and economically motivated. If online misinformation is being created for ideological reasons it’s propaganda. At least, that’s the definition he used for the past couple of years.
Then Trump and his supporters grabbed hold of it and “performed a jiujitsu move”. The term got legs. To that side, fake news now means “anything they don’t like and anything critical of [Trump]”.
“I still use the term fake news for that specific type. But I’m also really aware that when I say it, people could interpret it in so many different ways that at some point I’m going to have to give up on it.”
Silverman believes that Trump’s attack on the media has been one of his most effective and dangerous messages. Here again, Macedonia has lessons to teach. Over the past decade, Macedonia’s government (which lost power in June this year) exerted so much pressure on media critical of its actions, and gave so much support to pro-government media, that, “the attitude of the average citizen there is that it’s all bullshit. The government is bullshit and the media’s bullshit.”
That could be taking hold in the US. “I’m worried about that trend towards delegitimising legitimate journalism,” Silverman said. “Part of that is through delegitimising organisations that do it, and part of it is trying to create an equivalency between actual real journalism and people that present themselves as journalists but are actually just supporters of a given candidate or a given party.”
“That’s a thing that I didn’t expect to be concerned about that at this point in time.”
He worries that Facebook and Google’s efforts to battle fake news, including tweaking their algorithms or encouraging users to flag it, cannot stop the flood. “The capacity for people to produce this stuff is unlimited and these platforms are so big that they can’t actually fully police them.”
Facebook boasts 2 billion monthly users, many of whom log on daily. Silverman says that Facebook’s reach is unprecedented and therefore hard to comprehend or know how to manage. While there is often social unrest when new forms of communication are introduced, “There’s just nothing in history that has that many people on a communications platform,” he says.
“The amount of data that’s there and the amount of people that are on it — I think it’s actually beyond human understanding.”
Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand it, Silverman believes. The CEO’s recent tour of every US state has sparked rumours of a presidential run, but Silverman thinks this has more to do with trying to figure out how people are using Facebook. The election, he says, shook Zuckerberg and a lot of people at Facebook, “Because they believed that they were building a platform that was connecting more people, and that there was a very clear overall societal benefit. The idea that it played a role in spreading misinformation and was actually the place that the misinformation targeted really shook them.”
In addition to the relationship between the press and the government, one of the ideas that emerges from this interview with Silverman is that the online spaces where we chat, play, debate with and learn from each other have emerged as their own important entity when it comes to maintaining a person’s trust in society.
Part of the “profound and powerful unmooring” Silverman describes when people feel they have nowhere trustworthy and independent they can rely on is that they will turn inward and ignore the world around them. It then becomes easier for malevolent forces to degrade institutions.
So what can journalists do? First, they can recognize their own biases: the stories they report, and those they don’t. What they include and who they speak to. They can also use fake news to gain insight into people’s hopes and fears. Finally, we need armies of journalists covering fake news to counter the armies producing it. And not just fake news, but the viral content’s hosts, social media and search engines: “All of us need to be constantly building our skills in the ares of understanding networks — understanding the size and scale of something like Google or Facebook.”
“Those are great areas for discovering stories, but they’re also essential for us to represent what’s actually going on in the world.”