In Clickbait We Trust
During the 2016 election, fake news spread through social media, especially Facebook, became more popular than “mainstream” stories written by actual journalists.
As a result, many people believed strange and incorrect things about the candidates. One fake news article prompted a man to walk into a Washington DC pizza restaurant and fire a rifle, thinking he was going to rescue children held for sexual exploitation by Hillary Clinton.
Other top-performing fake news headlines claimed that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton sold weapons to the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton was endorsed by the Islamic State, and 90’s icon/drag queen RuPaul accused Donald Trump of fondling her. Each of these fabrications had hundreds of thousands of social media engagements and earned thousands of dollars for their authors.
The vast majority of fake news articles targeted Clinton. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government was behind some of this propaganda – an effective operation against one of their critics.
Research indicates that people are horrible at distinguishing real news from fake. Even young people, who grew up with the Internet, display a pitiful capacity for critical thinking about what they see on the Internet.
A Gullible Public? Or Changing Rules?
When did people become so gullible? Fake news sources have been around since supermarket tabloids. The National Enquirer, for instance, originated in 1926.
Perhaps the shift from analog information sources to digital left us with fewer signals of quality. In the supermarket, the fake news tabloids have a different format than legitimate newspapers, are sold in a different location, and became familiar with time. On the Internet, however, anyone with a few dollars and some time can create a professional-looking news site, and then pay social media companies like Facebook to promote their stories alongside actual news organizations. No advanced skills are necessary to counterfeit the news.
It’s worth noting how the 1938 “War of the Worlds” panic occurred just as radio was emerging as a news delivery technology. Maybe as new media technologies emerge, the public is unaware of what signals distinguish fact from fiction. In the digital world, any such quality signal could be perfectly copied anyway. While making up the news, why not also give oneself an award for journalistic integrity?
Marketing May Save Us
This leaves us with the brand. One of the reasons corporations use brands is to communicate quality. You might feel confident buying a Toyota, but how would you feel about a car made by Proton? Your unfamiliarity with the brand would cause hesitation. Similarly, it’s safe to assume knock-off iPads sold on Ebay are poorer-quality devices than ones made by Apple Inc.
Brand names like The New York Times, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek may be our only clue that some level of journalistic integrity is being applied. ICANN is generally reliable at ensuring large corporations get to use their brands as domain names, so we can trust that bbc.com will retrieve a site from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Failures of Traditional Media
Despite their brands, traditional news organizations are in decline. Local newspapers are vanishing, and journalists regularly face layoffs. Note the recent layoffs at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Now, aggregators like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo provide a scrolling feed of other organizations’ news stories, and a market that once supported multiple, independent news organizations based on the reach of radio waves or delivery routes no longer exists. It’s hard to compete with virtually free worldwide distribution.
What’s lost is competition, independent perspective, and local feet on the ground.
With fewer reporters and resources available, mainstream news organizations seem to have responded by lowering the quality of their news. One infamous example is the media’s treatment of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Newspapers and networks with few onsite journalists reported false rumors about “snipers and armed mobs”, mass rapes at the Superdome, and “violent gangs” roaming the city.
Is it surprising people distrust the mainstream media?
Economics of fake news
Fake news is obviously cheaper and faster to produce than real journalism.
Consider foreign reporting. It costs a fortune for legitimate media organizations to station a single foreign correspondent in a foreign country.
Fake news writers, on the other hand, can simply make up a story. They’re done by lunchtime, having never left the comfort of home. Fake news writers can invent a story more sensational than the real news. They might even use the real news as the shred of truth that makes their fiction believable.
Both the legitimate and the fake news end up in millions of Facebook feeds. From there, people are more likely to click the sensational headline of the fake news site than the straightforward headline of the real journalists.
Both the legitimate and fake sites might earn the bulk of their revenue from ad views, but this is hardly enough to cover the cost of the foreign correspondent. Should anyone be surprised when the correspondent is laid off, and fake news becomes the only news?
Should We – Gasp! – Pay For News?
The Internet reduced the cost of distribution to nearly nothing. Yet, the costs of paying journalists and obtaining facts remain.
Even some mainstream news organizations seem to be lowering their standards, earning the distrust of their audiences, sullying their brands – which are now their most important assets, and catering to an opinion-driven style that is more the forte’ of the fake news writers. This can only be because there is not enough of a market for quality news.
Freethinkers seeking to be informed, rather than misinformed, may have to do something radical. They may have to pay for quality journalism. There may be no other way to pay the salaries of actual journalists.
The market for free information favors the lowest-cost producers, who churn out fiction every day.