November 18, 2016 at 6:00 AM
For years, I have rolled my eyes at news headlines on Facebook. Even respected mainstream news institutions were marketing their articles for clicks, shares and an ever-dwindling piece of the advertising-revenue pie.
But lately, some more questionable outlets have started appearing in feeds, mimicking the attention-starved style that bothered me when real news organizations used it. These other sources — with names such as 100percentfedup.com and Natural News — started showing up as citations in my students' papers and referenced as authoritative in classroom discussions, too. These days, as more and more people turn to Facebook to stay informed, it's hard to tell the difference between news and "news," especially when the "news" is posted by people you trust.
So this past Monday morning, I put together a resource for students in my media class, "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical 'News' Sources." I populated it using some notes I've been taking in recent weeks, a site that recently tricked me with a too-good-to-be-true story about Aaron Rodgers, my observations of websites I follow on Facebook relying more and more on hyperbole and outrage to drive traffic, suggestions and resources provided by my own Facebook friends (many of whom are also media and communication scholars) and emails from strangers who stumbled on the growing list. Shortly after creating it, I set it to be visible to the general public. My own Facebook friends were already asking to share it with other teachers or professors whom I didn't know.
And by coincidence, fake news was in the real news, too.
About the same time, I was alerted to and alarmed by reporting that the top Google News item about the winner of the popular vote in this month's election had come from a fake news site: 70news.wordpress.com. I can't tell if that site is trolling conservatives or the alt-right with fake news or creating fake news in twisted support of those ideologies. But it claimed, without any actual data or shred of truth, that Hillary Clinton had lost the popular vote when, in fact, she won it, and by a margin that's been steadily increasing as more votes are tallied. Immediately, I added this website to the list while hundreds of additional suggestions began flooding my email inbox and Facebook shares started racking up beyond anything I could have imagined. The last time I checked, which was Thursday evening, it had been shared about 25,000 times.
That a list of sources you should be skeptical of when you encounter their stories on social media would go viral on social media might be a sign that the problem goes deeper than just the fake news.
Nearly 40 percent of adults, and 100 percent of my class, get their news online. It's hard to tell how much fake news there is on Facebook, specifically, or across the Internet as a whole, but there is evidence that fake news drew more engagement on Facebook than real news did during the closing weeks of the election. I'm hesitant of claims saying without a doubt that this influenced the election — we need way more research on the topic — but I am sure it played a role in shaping and, especially, reinforcing political beliefs.
And I've noticed, with some concern, that the same techniques that get people to click on fake or overhyped stories are also being used to get people to read about my own list. It's routinely described in headlines as a "fake news list," but it's not just that — most of the sites on it don't publish intentionally false stories. Many publish news that exists in a liminal area — akin to "Truthiness" — or present their content on Facebook with a headline or description that poorly represents the actual article. I wanted to help my students navigate a cluttered, complicated and often overwhelming media environment by alerting them to be skeptical and rigorous at all times. It's not that I think every source or website listed was "bad." I love the Onion, for example, and believe it often serves an important political purpose. Nor was I calling sites out for political bias one way or the other, as I'm not inherently skeptical of political bias. I just want my students to read stories from sites on my list in conjunction with other news sources (as they should with all of the media they consume, ideally).
I'm not convinced that a majority of people who shared my list actually read my list, much as I'm not convinced that many people who share or comment on news articles posted to Facebook have actually read those articles. (One study found that nearly 60 percent of links posted to social media are never clicked; that tracked with the less scientific, informal poll I did of my 64 students.) For instance, people emailed me outraged that MSNBC was on the list but Fox News Channel wasn't. But in reality, MSNBC was not on the list at all. A fake version of the network was, specifically MSNBC.com.co. There are many more sites that could or should be included, and hundreds of suggestions (including the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe) currently awaiting evaluation in my inbox. But I'm honestly not sure whether I'll get to them or what the next iteration of this document will be. Clearly, we need solutions beyond the educational resource I gave to my students, and somewhat inadvertently, the world.
Obviously, fake news is a major problem. We need to make sure people have the tools to detect it, and we need to understand why people may purposefully share news they know to be fake — maybe they're being malicious, they think it's funny or it aligns with what they want to be true. And we definitely need to find ways to discourage the production of non-comedy, non-satire fake news. We need to do all of this while making sure that alternative voices and robust exchange of information are not stifled.
Fake news is cheap to produce — far cheaper than real news, for obvious reasons — and profitable. The profitability of these sites is precisely why Facebook and Google are looking for ways to prevent them from receiving advertising revenue. It's a "starve the beast" strategy, so to speak. But another reason fake (or unreliable, questionable, potentially misleading or "truthy") news has become such a huge problem is the growing distrust and flaws of our actual news media.
Studies show a significant portion of the population distrusts "the media." The level of distrust varies widely by news outlet and by reader, but in the aggregate, people no longer believe press reports the way they once did, especially if the news challenges their preexisting beliefs. Too many news organizations focus on short-term stories — horse-race election coverage, the daily twists of the stock market — and not enough deal consistently and seriously with issues that affect people's lives in a way that explores not only what's happening but also why and what can be done about it.
I teach my students about how daily newspapers are folding in communities across the country and foreign bureaus closing around the world. I teach them that the number of people working for newspapers has shrunk by 40 percent in the past 20 years thanks to concentration, conglomeration and greater emphasis on profits. I teach them why "If It Bleeds, It Leads" and other categories of newsworthiness are problematic. I teach them not only about political bias in the media but also about entertainment bias (a focus on celebrities and human-interest stories) and corporate bias (a focus on businesses and profits over workers and stagnant wages), an issue I am much more concerned with.
We are inundated with media — whether fake, real or somewhere in the middle — on an hourly basis. I'm not sure whether the best way to manage it all is with browser plug-ins, app filtering technologies or databases that can help people easily find information about the sources they are reading or watching. I don't yet know what kind of impact my Google document will have on the world — to say nothing of my 60-person "Introduction to Mass Communication" class. But I do know that while we think about fake news, we need to start thinking about how to make our actual news better, too.