Post No.: 0212
Especially amid the relatively new sectors of the media (namely online), but elsewhere too, the news is primarily about garnering eyeballs and clicks, about attracting attention and serving narrow self-interests – not necessarily about informing with the truth or representing impartial fairness. ‘Clickbait’ can get people to click on stories based on at-first-glance provocative headlines such as ‘Going to the Gym is Bad for You’, or curiosity gaps that play on the fear of missing out such as ‘You Won’t Believe Who…’ or ‘This Will Amaze You…’.
With so much trying to grab our attention nowadays – hyperbole and oversimplification is now the norm, and it’s also getting increasingly harder to distinguish, from first glance, what’s real news and what’s false, fabricated or fake news, or propaganda that’s used to serve a particular group/side/party’s own self-interests. Media stories from some outlets are often highly distorted, misleading, misrepresented or outright fabricated in order to generate or influence likes, shares and ultimately revenue or votes.
To clarify – false or fake news are stories in the guise of news reporting that peddle empirically unsupported information, principally through emotional appeals (e.g. fear and anger). It’s multifaceted but they’re not opinion pieces, honest mistakes, satire, parody or arguably spin forms of propaganda, although these too can fool masses of people with harmful consequences (some people claim to create fake stories to ridicule those who believe in them but that’s a dangerous game). They’re not stories that are merely accused of being ‘fake’ if one simply disagrees with them or wishes they weren’t true – there’s been an abuse of the term by some people even in very high places. Bad dogs! Claiming conspiracy theories or accusing things of being rigged are also tactics used by some for the same purpose.
Fake news is a danger to democracy but is also a product of it – everyone has a voice that can reach out to the entire world even if they spread lies or misinformation. Journalism or ‘journalism’ has been highly democratised ever since the advent of blogs (like this one, although this is not and has never claimed to be a journalism blog), video sites and other forms of social media on the web, which means it’s easier than ever for the truth to find its way out – but lies and BS also find it easier to propagate as a result too. Via social media, anyone can be a ‘journalist’ now but they’re not proper journalists who follow a (albeit currently voluntary in the UK at least) code of independence, verifiability and accountability. Anyone with the gear doesn’t need the idea (training and ethics) anymore.
Fabricating news to a side’s advantage isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s just a subset of propaganda – but online social media can make any story spread fast and wide like wildfire now. The Internet has made it far easier to spread because the creation and sharing of news has been opened to all, and since lies and BS can also last there potentially indefinitely, the lies and BS just builds and builds there. Search engines are set up to reward pages or adverts based on factors such as their popularity (number of backlinks) or who are the richest/highest bidders (pay-per-click) too – not the most impartial or truthful. Unofficial websites can even outrank official ones even when people are trying to search for the official sources! People also follow their own echo chambers and see things based on their own filter bubbles. The instruction ‘just Google it’ can thus sometimes be a bad piece of advice regarding issues like politics or faith in particular.
Money is chiefly made from fake news via advertisements on those pages or before/inbetween those videos – it’s typically primarily driven by the money and serving political interests. Attention means eyeballs, eyeballs mean advertising potential, and adverts and traffic, clicks or conversions on adverts mean revenue; and what grabs attention isn’t always truthful or unalloyed. Social media firms profit from all this activity on their platforms and services too, so they have a conflict of interest between curbing fake news and maximising their own profits. Profit maximisation, maximising shareholder value, political persuasion, attracting votes and ultimately serving self-interests can therefore conflict with serving the plain truth and nothing but the plain truth.
Nearly everybody who writes tweets or blog posts on the subject of political commentary and current affairs has a political goal or agenda (usually to persuade others to think in the same way) and everyone unavoidably has their own set of pre-existing and partial beliefs. This is generally fine because people should get involved in politics but often it’s not about any discussion and listening but mere influence and telling, and the lines between what are facts and what are opinions or agenda-based are blurred.
Many people are also too quick to trust in breaking stories, partly because many people like to be the first to hear about something important or the first to comment on or share something amongst their ingroup (people who have information to gossip about, and will gossip about it, have power in groups where the members like to receive juicy gossip). And then news shared by ingroup members tends to be more easily trusted at face value than information received elsewhere. Sometimes informal sources of information can seem more credible than formal sources too because it can give the impression that it’s raw insider information, plus things told with an air of exclusivity or secrecy, as if the wider public isn’t supposed to know it yet you happen to know it, tend to be more automatically trusted too (because it’s like confidential gossip again). Some people also have a bias to think that official sources are full of conspiracies and cover-ups (well if these people disagree with those particular accounts rather than have any proof that those accounts are lies).
Most people like to think they know more than the general public, that the average person is gullible and blind yet one is not, and discovering such exclusive ingroup-shared information will reinforce that notion of illusory superiority – but then they ironically too easily trust in such novel information hence they’re the ones being gullible! However, if everyone is doing the same thing with their own sources of information, then, for everyone logically being part of the general public, maybe the public is indeed, in general, gullible and blind regarding many different beliefs?(!)
A personal view/opinion, unintentional BS or intentional lie can be posted and spread via social media to potentially everybody across the globe in an instant, and when something becomes popular, people can simply believe in it without checking it, simply because it’s believed by many others. Many people heuristically believe that popular beliefs have been already verified by those who already believe in them (the fallacy of ‘that many people surely cannot be wrong’), but everyone can be assuming that someone else has checked its veracity (a diffusion of responsibility to actually check things)! Therefore ‘popular’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘true’ (the ‘ad populum fallacy’). A voice is a very powerful thing, and for being so powerful, it can be dangerous as well as liberating. So share, but be careful, and even if a friend or trusted person forwards you an article – check or at least question its veracity yourself. Woof!
Much of what the public hears is what it wants to hear too nowadays because increased choice and competition amongst news outlets means that people can now tailor and get their news exclusively from sources that’ll merely confirm their particular (sometimes niche) biases and beliefs (filter bubbles and the echo chamber effect). In this ‘post-truth’ age, as some call it, anyone with even an extreme belief, an agenda and a large following can spread propaganda that appeals more to emotions than evidence or verification, and these can even turn, and strongly arguably have turned, the tide of important political elections and referenda.
Fake news and clickbaiting is an industry (it’s about the money again), and propaganda is far easier than ever to spread due to modern technology. Bots, spam, fake social media accounts using spoofed IP numbers, fake comments, etc. – fake news is all mixed amongst genuine news to make it even harder to detect. Fake news tends to be more controversial, bizarre and therefore novel, and so tends to attract more attention and therefore clicks and eyeballs than genuine news. Fake news can be created for the purpose of grabbing viral attention, which generates revenue from advertising, in order for the perpetrators to make what’s sometimes a lot of money very quickly (and then they might disappear quickly once they have, or continue if they don’t fear getting caught or punished for it – perhaps because their state is quietly endorsing it or turning a blind eye?)
And even when an article is labelled as potentially fake, people will actually end up reading it more(!) Some will entrench their views even more to defend that their stances are not backed by fake news (a backfire effect). Others may read them with the understanding that they might be fake, out of curiosity, but the more time people spend reading what’s fake, even if they know it’s fake, the less time they’re spending reading what’s genuine. You also cannot un-see what you’ve seen and it may prime your next thoughts, especially because such warnings won’t categorically state something is fake but could be fake. And since the most popular pages will get monetarily rewarded on social media too – it only encourages the production of even more reaction-seeking fake news. (This is why Facebook no longer flags articles as ‘disputed’ after that short experiment.) Some reputable news sources and blogs can therefore get crowded out in this market where the supply and demand of misleading information is winning in some areas.
False or fake news can also be intentionally used to crowd-out genuine and serious news stories. It’s also often used just to incite a reaction from others or for personal motives or goals (e.g. reports of fake deaths often spring up after major disasters, often to create fraudulent charity donation pages). It can even crop up when opportunists try to hijack a dreadful terror or disaster incident to serve their own ideological motives. So it’s hardly just governments who create, spread or endorse certain propaganda – ordinary citizens do it too.
Fake news can be extremely deadly, such as framing innocent people or using terrible images from an unrelated incident to incite hatred and revenge towards a certain group by claiming that this group committed those terrible acts – and people will tend to react, which shows that enough people will violently react to highly emotional images more than (waiting for) verified facts. Reverse image searches aren’t currently a routine thing that people do, even when the stakes are high.
Carefully checking the URL, formatting and spellings of the text, and seeing if other news sources are reporting the same story, are good tips but aren’t infallible so should be used in conjunction with other checking and furry critical thinking techniques. If you cannot, or cannot be bothered to, check out sources, the timelines and dates of claimed events to see if they make sense, the people and companies mentioned in a story, do reverse image searches, etc. then take anything that sounds novel, bizarre or controversial with a pinch of salt until/unless it can be independently verified.
Online social media giants will attempt to control and curb fake news on their own platforms but they face a conflict of interest between doing so and the fact that popular videos and posts generate a lot of money for them. They’ll also be accused of bias or curbing the freedom of speech when they select which specific items or accounts they block, be it due to their algorithms or human assessors. So every news consumer must still remain personally vigilant…