The Web has made it increasingly easy for sites built overnight to find massive audiences with little or no effort. This is true for not only classic viral sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed but also for sites trafficking in completely fake news.
Consider “satire” news site National Report, which has successfully exploited today’s news ecosystem to draw tons of eyeballs to its bogus news coverage. Capitalizing on the ongoing fears about Ebola, National Report recently ran a serious-sounding story reporting that an entire Texas suburb had been quarantined after a entire family had been infected. Despite being completely fabricated, the story went viral, getting shared 339,837 times on Facebook, according to Emergent, which tracks how fake stories spread online. Commenters in the story’s thread were equally deceived.
While fake news is nothing new, as the “War of the Worlds” saga proved, the Web has made it much easier for it to spread — often much faster than the reports that debunk it. The risks here are compounded further with a story like Ebola, which already comes with its own host of uncertainties.
Emergent founder Craig Silverman said that this is why National Report, which Quantcast says gets 800,000 visitors a month, is a public menace. “They crossed the line with the Ebola story,” he said. “There’s a basic public safety and public information layer to that news, and they’re playing on people’s fears.”
But National Report sees it the opposite way. “We like to think we are doing a public service by introducing readers to misinformation,” said National Report publisher Allen Montgomery, who writes under a pseudonym. “As hard as it is to believe, National Report is often the first place people actually realize how easily they themselves are manipulated, and we hope that makes them better consumers of content.”
The social networks play a major role in how fast fake news spreads. Facebook and Twitter want to be platforms, not publishers, which is why they have unevenly edited the content users share on their networks. Facebook, for example, has experimented with a satire tag, which appears in front of story headlines from sites like The Onion. So far, however, that feature has been limited to stories that appear within Facebook’s “related articles” box, which limits both its overall utility and the number of people who see it. A more robust labeling system might have helped prevent National Report’s Ebola story from spreading so far.
This is one area where both National Report and its critics see eye-to-eye. “We have been able to infiltrate the media landscape with a loosely formed group of misfits, and that is a terrible reflection on the power of social media,” Montgomery said. “Any fool on a computer can now be a media mogul with absolutely no credentials.”
National Report’s logic is similar to that of so-called “white hat” hackers, who claim to ethically breach systems to show companies how vulnerable they are. It’s better to be hacked into by a benign hacker, the thinking goes, than a bad one.
But that argument doesn’t entirely hold up for National Report, which doesn’t make it clear to readers that they’re reading fake news. Couple that with a Huffington Post-inspired design, and it’s clear why so many readers have been tricked into believing and sharing National Report’s coverage. This stands in contrast with fake news platforms like Nipsys News, which clearly tells visitors when news is fake. More, National Report runs ads on its site (some of which are for major brands like Zipcar and Progressive), meaning that it’s actively making money from spreading false news.
“You can’t claim you’re educational if you don’t show an effort to tell people to know that they’re on a fake news website,” said Emergent’s Silverman. “They may say this is an educational effort, but all the education has come from the other people debunking their stuff.”
But National Report is only exploiting media loopholes that already exist, not creating entirely new ones. In reality, the site has placed itself the center of a media environment that actively facilitates the spread of misinformation. It’s really just a symptom of larger problems.
And the readers are certainly to blame as well. On the audience level, it’s a given today that readers don’t read stories nearly as often as much as they click on them. Publishers frequently exploit this tendency by writing stories with sensational headlines that they then caveat or undermine within the articles. National Report exploited it by assuming that many readers wouldn’t try to confirm the Ebola story elsewhere before sharing it.
But there’s also significant pressure on publishers themselves. Today, publishers are more incentivized to publish quickly than they are to get things right. After all, you can’t give a click back once you’ve gotten it. “Everyone knows that the earlier you can jump on something, the more likely you can capture some of that audience,” Silverman said. “News organizations work quickly so they can get a piece of the action.”