By Nancy Chan
Our 2016 U.S. presidential election caused a unique disturbance thanks to launching an unprecedented boom in fake news.
During the three months preceding election day, a Buzzfeed analysis found that bogus stories outperformed journalistic ones by garnering 8.7 million Facebook shares compared to news outlets’ 7.3 million shares.
The most shared fake news election story claimed Donald Trump had Pope Francis’ support. Other viral falsehoods involved Hillary Clinton selling weapons to Islamic State fighters and Clinton’s legal ineligibility for presidency.
These three share one source: Ending The Feds, a hyperpartisan fake news aggregator. As it turns out, a large swath of fake news invoke anti-Clinton sentiment, and not particularly because of pro-Trump supporters.
Pro-Trump stories were profitable. In Dec. 2016, BBC Magazine’s “The city getting rich from fake news” detailed how apolitical Macedonian teenagers saw the American presidency as a digital gold rush.
Many earned over $1000 in ad revenue a week from plagiarizing right-wing articles, then selling them to Facebook for sharing to conservative audiences.
They justified their actions because heftier earnings meant “expensive clothes and drinks” in a region where monthly wages of $371 are normal.
Fake news sharers and creators alike remain unapologetic.
Paul Horner, an Arizonian, has earned his living for over six years through writing fake news. He’s convinced hundreds of thousands of people online into thinking he was Banksy in 2013 and 2014.
In December 2016, Horner told the Washington Post that he thought Trump’s inauguration is “because of me.”
“His [Trump’s] followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything,” Horner said. “His campaign manager [Coren Lewandowski] posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact.”
The entire story was fabricated to become a Craigslist ad.
He justified his actions by saying he’s a satirist who enjoys “getting lumped in with The Onion.
His content, he insisted, takes time to manifest, unlike what he called other fake news sites: “BS sites” or “horrible sites.”
Even if time is money—and Horner’s not hurting, if he’s raking in $10,000 a month from operating 10 separate sites—people of his ilk put their own work hours on pedestals that showcase moral bankruptcy.
Proper satire stimulates thought, makes its identity obvious and is enjoyable. The Onion’s Google web description reads “A farcical newspaper featuring world, national and community news.”
A few of my Onion favorites have headlines like “Wealthy Teen Nearly Suffers Consequence” and “Top Theoretical Physicists, R&B Singers Meet To Debate Meaning Of Forever.”
Horner, on the other hand, is kidding himself when he relies on the impression of credibility. His sites have legitimate-sounding names such as the News Examiner or ABCnews.com.co.
There’s a reason why an Onion article about Mike Pence cutting conservation funds for adulterous elk actually seems probable if it weren’t for the publisher. It’s because truth is often stranger than fiction.
As Barack Obama once said, “As long as it’s on social media, people start believing it. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
Lines must be drawn, no matter how unlikely a given scenario seems.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned the hard way. He went from saying “More than 99 percent of the Facebook content you see is authentic” three days after Trump’s win to acknowledging Facebook’s “greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through.”
The Facebook Journalism Project was announced Jan. 11, 2017 to strengthen ties between Facebook and the news industry. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, partnerships with news outlets such as the Washington Post and Vox have been arranged.
Still, the project is a relatively tiny step.
We must be critical readers ourselves. After all, confirmation bias allowed many Democrats to believe Trump told People Magazine that Republicans are the dumbest voters in 1998 because he’s known for saying inflammatory things.
I’m not saying everyone should conduct thorough investigations every time questionable statements appear.
But the next time you read an article, read more carefully. Read past headlines and interesting parts—assess the publisher, presented information and your biases.
It pays to think better—to not be viewed as a walking ATM by those who want to take advantage of our suspicions or political affiliations.