(I wrote this article for my English class, but in light of the terrorfying Pizzagate shooting, I wanted to share it here. Fake news is dangerous, but together we can stop its widespread dissemination. Keep reading to learn why fake news is spread, and what you can do to stop it.)
I to consider myself a bit of an expert on online news, blogging, publishing, etc. I work for an outreach content company, which publishes content to popular blogs and websites. My company represents some household-name brands and businesses, and it’s my job to create newsy articles that reference our clients as experts, and those articles are published on third party sites which I can’t name because I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.
What matters is that sometimes readers don’t know when they’re being advertised too; and, although I don’t write fake news, my job is an example of content that’s used to elicit click-through that drives traffic to our client’s webpages. Because my articles are informative and honest, this isn’t a bad thing. But driving traffic and click-through is the point of fake news too. It’s designed to trick you into clicking on advertising. If that doesn’t upset you, consider that it’s also causing widespread hysteria, disease outbreak, and it’s undermining our politics. There’s hope because together we have the power to stop fake news, and once you learn the motivations of its authors you’re going to want to fight.
Fake News Affects Us All
Despite my professional background, I’m no expert at spotting fake news, hoax videos, or hyperpartisan blogs posing as legitimate news sites. Even the most discerning among us fall victim to faux-news. Earlier this month, Fox News host Sean Hannity falsely reported that President Obama and the first lady deleted a series of tweets endorsing Hillary Clinton. Hannity, a household name political commentator, fell victim to fake news. And, this isn’t solely a republican issue. Plenty of democrats and Independents have fallen victim to fake news hoaxes too. Last March, a false story claiming Elizabeth Warren endorsed Bernie Sanders for president was shared at least 700,000 times. No surprise, it was completely falsified information.
The fake news problem isn’t politically centric; in fact, most fake news is bipartisan. It’s meant to captivate everyone, such as in 2014 when NationalReport.net shared Ebola reports and added to mounting fears and widespread hysterics. The Ebola outbreak wasn’t so much an outbreak as it was a few quarantined people across the country, but NationalReport.net claimed one-in-five Americans would contract the virus by 2016. Because of outrageous and untrue claims, Ebola went from a minor crisis to a major one. Arguably, many of National Report’s followers probably understood it was satire; however, the site looks legitimate enough to confuse people and therein lies the problem. Fake news sites are rarely labeled as such, which can be confusing. National Report even labels itself “America’s #1 Independent News Source.”
Satire isn’t Fake News… Well, not exactly…
I’m definitely not condemning all satire. A bit of satirical hysteria is humorous; it has its positive benefits for society, media, and even journalism. So many of us are fans of The Onion, the farcical news publication responsible for countless readable and harmlessly hilarious gems, like the story and accompanying video: “Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation with Wish for Unlimited Wishes.” It’s realistic enough to trick us for a moment, but too outrageous to remain believable for long. That’s the kind of satire I triumph; however, the amount of traffic these pieces garner has inspired the worst among us to deliberately create fake news stories that are intended to harm.
Fake Healthcare News Has a Death Toll
In most cases, political and healthcare fake news is the most damaging. The impact of fake news on our political processes is alarming, but health-related fake news can physically harm people, which makes it extremely dangerous. The ongoing anti-vaccination movement is a perfect example of fake news influencing people’s health. No matter where you stand on the vaccination issue, you can acknowledge that misinformation is rampantly spread, and the health and safety of your children aren’t the author’s true motivation.
In 1998, Lancet published an oft-referenced study that asserted vaccines could be connected to autism. PBS’s award-winning program NOVA addressed this connection in a piece titled, “The Autism-Vaccine Myth,” which reports that the study was retracted in 2010. Yes, the study so often referenced by anti-vaxxers was debunked years ago, and found to have “serious flaws” and “apparently falsified data.” Moreover, it involved only 12 participants, which is so small a concentration group that the conclusions can hardly be considered concrete; yet, anti-vaxxers subsist despite outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the Disneyland California measles outbreak. The CDC practically begged parents to vaccinate their children, especially before travel, when measles reached a 20-year high in 2014.
American parents are reasonable, so what’s behind this decline in vaccinations? Meghan Moran, PhD, associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society, led a study that analyzed 480 anti-vaccination websites and promoted the study’s findings on November 3rd, 2015 at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting. Researchers discovered that more than two-thirds of the scientific information these websites presented was falsified, and 3 in 10 avoided referencing science altogether; instead, they used personal stories and anecdotes to emotionally sway their audience. It’s hard to argue with a crying mother convinced that vaccinations caused her child’s autism; however, consider the irrefutable true stories of parents on trial for refusing to vaccinate their children who later died of preventable diseases, such as the Canadian couple whose 19-month-old died of bacterial meningitis and who faces charges for neglect.
Fake News Reporters are Richer than You
Deceptive health reports are created to alarm you; because, if a post alarms you, you’re more likely to share it. This puts more money in their pockets. They pray on your emotions for profits. The underlying subterfuge is to emotionally motivate you into clicking on their advertising. Consider that most anti-vaccination websites promote healthy eating and alternative medicines, and that their advertisers are likely to sell products that fall into the categories of holistic or organic. If you use a link on their website or click on an advertisement, they earn money for that click and if you purchase something they earn even more. This has made some fake news purveyors incredibly rich.
Digital Culture Correspondent Laura Sydell wrote the piece, “We Tracked down a Fake-News Creator in the Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned” for NPR’s All Tech Considered. Sydell and her group wondered why anyone would publish fake news, particularly an item printed on The Denver Guardian’s website, which according to Snopes.com, “…is simply a fake news web site masquerading as the online arm of a (non-existent) big city newspaper.”
The Denver Guardian falsified the article: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The story is entirely fabricated, yet was shared on Facebook more than half-a-million times. With help from a Berkeley-based engineer, NPR tracked down the site’s owner, Jestin Coler, in a California suburb, and he shed some light on the shocking and selfish motivations of fake news reporters.
“And as the stories spread,” reports Sydell, “Coler makes money from the ads on his websites.” He refused to admit his actual earnings, but considering he’s a “godfather of the industry,” it’s not a stretch to assume it’s a comfortable living. “…he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him.”
“The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction,” Color admits. He also says that he’s tried to write fake news for liberals, but they’re less likely to fall for it. He has found it’s more profitable to lie to conservatives.
Color seems to have lost his way, as he’s hardly made efforts to control or eliminate the spread of misinformation and seems only motivated to continue the practice despite insidious consequences. After publishing a story claiming that Colorado residents used their food stamps to buy marijuana, actual legislation was proposed in Colorado to prevent it from happening. If pursuing legislation based on the evidence of fake news isn’t a waste of taxpayer money, I don’t know what is.
Although he doesn’t defend his business, Color admits to owning a number of fake news sites and will continue to spread fake news despite how damaging and costly it can be to tax payers. He admits to being a registered democrat and has some reservations about the lies he disseminates, but insists that if he is to give up fake news reporting someone less ethical will take his place. In regards to journalism, I find it doubtful that there are practices less ethical than a democrat disseminating widely-shared lies that undermine his own party’s chances at a fair election process.
How Do We Stop Fake News?
It’s all incredibly upsetting and it doesn’t matter if you’re democrat, republican, or something else. It doesn’t matter if you’re anti-vax or pro. At the end of the day, we’re all being lied to, and that’s not okay. This is a bipartisan problem if ever there was one, and it will take a conjoined effort to stop fake news from spreading.
Is the solution to remove advertising? Will that slow fake news down? Google thinks it can help, which is why the search-giant has announced plans to restrict fake news sites from using their advertising network, AdSense. Unfortunately, Coler is undeterred by the AdSense crack down, and that gives me cause for worry. As a marketer, I know he has very little to fear losing Google’s AdSense revenue.
“There are literally hundreds of ad networks,” he warns. “Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google was cracking down – hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.”
Is it then a government issue? I’ve wondered if the government could intervene, if laws can protect us from lies, but satire is a form of protected speech especially when it’s aimed at politics or used to censure government. If our political leaders intervene on this pervasive media, how do we stop them from targeting legitimate news and media? Opinions may be attacked, and the government may infringe or amend our first amendment rights. The right to create editorials and publish opinions and bias is inalienable, so policing satire would be too slippery a slope. The government should not be the deciding factor on what is counterfeit and what is just biased or bad reporting.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World…
If you ask me, the solution is pretty simple. It’s up to us, as private citizens, to be proactive in the fight against fake news. We can police fake news ourselves by avoiding obscure websites, even if their credentials seem legitimate. Remember, the Denver Guardian claimed to be an offshoot of a larger newspaper. A quick search can help you determine if a news source is legitimate or not. If you’re lucky, the article will already be debunked by a fact checking site, such as Snopes.com or (my personal favorite) FactCheck.org.
Although fake news stories are often indistinguishable from real news stories, they almost always come with attention-grabbing headlines. These headlines are called click-bait, which are intentionally provocative to get your traffic and incentivize you to share. Don’t buy into the click-bait; instead, hold off on your emotional response until you’ve fully researched the article’s sources. If it’s legitimate and a topic you’re still passionate about, go ahead and share it. If not, report the content to Facebook. On Facebook, you can report fake news by clicking the menu in the upper right-hand corner of the post. It’s shaped like a “v.” From that menu, click “Report post,” and follow the instructions. Facebook won’t immediately remove the content, so you’ll want to leave a comment and let others know it’s fake. Include reference links, so people can follow-up on its legitimacy.
Never be afraid to speak up about fake news. Unfortunately, not everyone will like having their shared content challenged; however, you’re working for the greater good. The rampant dissemination of fake news is dangerous, but sharing it isn’t shameful. At some point, we’ve all fallen victim to fake news. Rather than shame friends and family for sharing it, appeal to their good nature and empathize with them. Place blame where it deserves: on the shoulders of its creators who don’t create fake news to help anyone but themselves.
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