We launched “What was Fake” in May 2014 in response to what seemed, at the time, like an epidemic of urban legends and Internet pranks: light-hearted, silly things, for the most part, like new flavors of Oreos and babies with absurd names.
Since then, those sorts of rumors and pranks haven’t slowed down, exactly, but the pace and tenor of fake news has changed. Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research, it’s now often as simple as clicking around for an “about” or “disclaimer” page. And where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.
There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.
As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.
Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
Had I written this column as normal this week, I probably would have included, say, this widely shared post on Before It’s News that claimed an Alaska judge called for Obama’s arrest. But Quattrociocchi has found (and this is perhaps intuitive) that the sort of readers who would unskeptically share such a far-fetched story site are exactly the readers who will not be convinced by The Washington Post’s debunking.
To me, at least, that represents a very weird moment in Internet discourse — an issue I also addressed earlier this week. At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?
“What Was Fake” has had a good run, but the nature of Internet misinformation has changed — so as the year winds up, we’re going to change, as well. Thanks for reading over the past year and a half! And remember: If in doubt about a news item on an unfamiliar source, please click the “about” or “disclaimer” tab.
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