Over the past few weeks, there’s been growing concern over what’s being called “fake news.” The term describes articles about real people that are designed to look like they come from real news sources but which lack any element of truth.
These sorts of stories have become extremely popular, especially on Facebook.
The algorithms of the world’s largest social network have proved particularly easy to game for people who want to drive traffic by telling people what they want to hear—even if it’s not true.
In the three months leading up to the presidential election in the United States, a fake story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump received more engagement on Facebook than any real news about the presidential election.
The popularity of stories like this on Facebook has led many commentators to argue that these fake stories like this helped tilt the race for Trump.
Last week, Facebook announced that it had formed a partnership with third-party fact-checkers to fight against fake news (the move comes just weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the idea that it has a fake news problem was “crazy”).
But while the social media giant may be able to slow the spread of fake news on its network, there’s little it can do to change users’ perceptions.
The real question isn’t what can be done to stop the spread of fake news; it’s why fake news has been so successful at convincing otherwise reasonable people to believe the unbelievable.
Part of the answer to that question lies with the mainstream media itself. Fake news is not a new phenomenon: for decades you could find it in grocery store checkout isles. Yet, no one took the headlines about Bat Boy seriously or, at least, no one took people who did seriously.
So why do people now believe the modern equivalent?
Many major news outlets use programmatic ad services, like Taboolah, Outbrain and Revcontent, that regularly push fake news and other poor-quality content.
By running these ads alongside their own content, news organizations have diminished their own credibility and made it harder for readers to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. It’s so bad that the an ad for a fake news story appeared in a New York Times editorial decrying fake news.
That’s not the only problem.
Much of the fake news finger-pointing has come from pundits searching for a way to explain their failure to accurately gauge the mood of the U.S. public in the run-up to the presidential election.
But these very pundits have helped diminish trust in the media organizations they work for.
It’s not that all commentators and editorialists are bad. But even many of the best news sources now employ partisans who shout fact-free talking points on TV, or columnists who cherry pick facts to suit their ideology.
The work put out by these pundits may not be fake, but it regularly flirts with dishonesty. The biggest problem is that sort of punditry is everywhere, at both legacy and new media organizations.
In an era where media outlets face declining budgets, replacing reporting with opinion is an easy way to cut costs while filling space or time. Real journalism can be expensive. Opinions are cheap.
Instead the cost is in credibility.
In an increasingly diverse media landscape people look for brands, not bylines. An opinion piece that plays fast and loose with the facts reflects poorly on the reporters who contribute to that organization.
Many online outlets have also served to undermine the distinction between reporting and opinion. Others, like the Daily Mail, publish a mixture of hoaxes and facts and, all too often, other news outlets republish those hoaxes, further undermining their own credibility.
Russia’s state-owned propaganda outlets, RT and Sputnik, along with a army of Kremlin-funded tolls do a similar job – putting out a mixture of straight news, slanted stories, half truths and outright lies in a deliberate attempt to sow confusion and mistrust.
Couple that with the sheer amount of information we see every day and it’s easy to see why people fall for fake news.
The world is not be any more complicated than it used to be, but we are more aware of just how complicated it is. That has people reaching for narratives, overarching stories to help them make sense of what’s going on and reduce the complexity.
When people are reaching for those narratives, but don’t know who to trust, fake news can seem believable, even comforting.
In an echo chamber, it reaffirms the narratives its readers want to believe. It turns opposing politicians into caricatures and their favorite politicians into heroes and by playing to the biases of its readers, it can even seem less biased than the truth.