I could be wrong, but I predict that ‘Fake News’ is going to be this year’s Cabbage Patch Kid – the trendy present you’ll get this holiday season, and then toss under the bed to be forgotten by February.
To be sure, I welcome the discussion about the legitimacy of news stories. It’s a positive thing to examine whether a news source or reporter or story concerns itself with Proof and Truth. But that’s not what I think is going on at present.
Let’s start with a little background.
The number of stories about ‘Fake News’ has exploded in recent weeks, but it seems a lot of different things are getting lumped into that category:
- American internet click-bait entrepreneurs seeking to profit off of folks with partisan biases
- Foreign entrepreneurs doing the same
- Websites that fail to rigorously fact check stories in service of their own biases or agendas
- Parody sites
So let’s look at each category and then figure out what we should do about them.
American Click Baitrepreneurs – NPR recently tracked down the creator of The Denver Guardian, a site that was pushing this headline: “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” You might have seen this in your feed. I certainly saw it multiple times in mine. NPR’s team did some digging, and uncovered the owner of the site, Jestin Coler, CEO of a company called – get this – Disinfomedia. The article details an interview with Coler and how he makes as much as tens of thousands of dollars a month creating false, click-bait stories to lure people into clicking and sharing them. He’s not the only one making bank off of lazy readers; there is a proven profit model that is driving others into the market.
Foreign Click Baitrepreneurs – It isn’t just American citizens capitalizing on click bait. Buzzfeed reported in-depth on efforts centered in Macedonia to take advantage of gullible American internet users as well. Linking their fake news sites to Facebook pages, these profiteers get tens of thousands of shares on their articles, generating significant ad revenue. For all the credibility Buzzfeed usually carries, they seem to have made an effort to get to the heart of this story, citing Macedonian media as well as The Guardian. For the foreign site operators, it seems that the politics and problems these stories traffic in aren’t nearly as important as the profits to be made. In places with significant tech savvy and depressed economic situations, we can probably expect to find more sites cropping up.
Fact Check Failures – Not to pick on one site (I’m totally picking on one site), but this Daily Kos tweet illustrates exactly what I mean by Fact Check Failures.
No time to chill on climate change; North Pole heats up to 36 degrees above normal https://t.co/UReegCTi0z
— Daily Kos (@dailykos) November 25, 2016
The responses to The Daily Kos fear mongering about global warming’s effects on the Arctic – where no penguins live – were brutal, and remain below the tweet which has not been deleted. A bonus (and bogus) photoshop job image attached to the tweet received even more mockery. Daily Kos is seriously in pursuit of an agenda, one that seems to take precedence over factual representations. One can’t be faulted for asking ‘If they photoshop images to bolster their point, how rigorous are they in checking the facts they report?’ And make no mistake, this isn’t merely a habit of the left. Sites such as Breitbart and Gateway Pundit are just as guilty; sometimes passing on the unsourced click-bait stories, sometimes crafting inaccurate or misleading headlines to attract attention to a story that doesn’t support that headline.
Parody Sites – Most people recognize The Onion as a satire site by now. Babylon Bee is not being taken as seriously as it was in the beginning. But there are sites that skirt the line between satire and fake, and you can usually tell by how difficult it is to find their ‘satire’ disclaimer. At Free Radical Network, we were warning people two years ago about this phenomenon. Still, it might take people a few times of getting burned to become skeptical.
So given all these sites and their potential to make mischief, what do you do about it? Jim Geraghty despairs of a good way to fight them, but I think it’s possible to make headway.
Second, develop the ethics of a skeptic. I know, it’s not as sexy as making a partisan fake-news list or complaining that ‘something must be done’ about it. And trust me, I can speak from experience that some people won’t like having their bubbles burst.
Do it anyway.
- Refuse to share stories based solely on the headlines, or that you haven’t checked out.
- Refuse to share stories that don’t hold up to scrutiny. If it sounds too good to be true…
- When you can debunk a story, do so. You don’t have to get into an argument. Merely dropping a link into a discussion helps educate people.
- Acknowledge that some people LIKE their fake news. (This one is especially directed towards myself.) You don’t have to make it your crusade to fix everyone’s news feeds. Just stand for truth when you can.
- Learn patience. Sometimes sources rush to be first, rather than right. Realize you don’t have to weigh in on every event as it happens. You can wait for more complete or better information.
The greatest asset that most of us in politics have at our disposal is our credibility. If you develop the reputation for being consumed with the truth, over and above your own biases, and debunking myths where you find them, it will go a long way towards convincing people to believe in you and in the causes you support. It will also earn respect from people who disagree with you politically. They will know that you put a pursuit of the truth above your agenda, and will be more open to engaging in serious discussion and negotiation with you.
It won’t make you rich the way click-bait can, but it will build a rich reputation for being a champion of the truth.