The money comes from ads, provided by the self-service ad technology of companies such as Google and Facebook. It is a business model that has changed little over the years, David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School and an expert in advertising tech, told us. “Anybody can make a site and put ads on it,” he said. “They can easily set up a business, create content, and once it is viral, it drives traffic to their site.”
In 2016, the churn of fake news was a daily onslaught of fabricated or exceedingly misleading news stories designed to elevate or demonize presidential candidates, mixed into the flow of true or mostly true stories about the election. The stories were designed to be believed and shared. On Facebook, they were seeded into conservative and liberal filter bubbles through hyperpartisan media organizations with enormous numbers of Facebook followers.
That alarming reach prompted critics to accuse Facebook, and to a much lesser extent Google, of influencing the elections by incentivizing fake political news — a charge that Facebook has denied. The attention was enough for the two companies to announce Monday that they were going to crack down on fake-news purveyors who use their services to make ad money.
If they are successful in stopping fake-news sites from profiting, Horner told us, the effect would be devastating for his revenue. But Horner seemed confident that he and others like him would be able to adapt to the changes. After all, he has been doing this for a long time.
There are a lot of variables that factor into exactly how much a viral hoax story can make for its creator. But if you take Facebook shares as an indirect indicator of how widely viewed some of these sites might be, you start to understand why, if optimized properly, fake-news sites targeting hyperpartisan audiences can be lucrative.
The fabricated story posted to a fictional Denver news outlet just before the election “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” got more than 500,000 shares on Facebook. “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” is not remotely true, but one fake-news website reeled in more than 100,000 shares with it. A copycat version of the hoax on Ending the Fed was even more popular, shared more than 900,000 times on Facebook, according to Facebook’s API.
Although hoax sites vary in sophistication, a quick tour of the usual suspects makes it clear that you don’t really have to put much thought into the design or functionality of the site — in other words, they can be cheaply made. Horner’s ABC News knockoff is much more rudimentary than the real thing, but looks roughly like a news site:
Others might be cluttered, filled with barely readable prose and, frankly, tough to look at. But a fake-news site does not need you to stay for long. They just need you to click, and they need a way to spread their work.
Facebook has been a crucial vehicle for the spread of these fake stories. But it did not hurt that political personalities connected to the Trump campaign were also sharing those stories as if they were real, creating even more of an incentive for fake-news writers to target that audience. “When political personalities have shared the fake-news story,” Carroll said, it expands the reach of that story, and it “validates the source” in the eyes of its potential audience, because “a prominent person has shared it.”
Carroll estimated that a fake-news share from within the Trump campaign could earn the lucky hoaxer as much as $10,000 in extra revenue, provided they have taken full advantage of the ad services available to them. That’s a “huge economic incentive to create stories that they want to distribute.”
So why are Google and Facebook just taking action against this use of their ad services now? Well, for one thing, those companies profit off the viral sites — legitimate or hoax — that use their services, too.
“Google has more of an incentive to make information reliable,” Carroll noted, because Google’s business is based on providing accurate information to people who are looking for it. Facebook, though, “is about attention, not so much intention.” It’s generally good for Facebook’s business when something goes viral on the site, even if it’s not true.
In short, each company could “lose revenue if it shuts down a huge number of fake sites,” he said. The announced crackdown on fake-news sites using the companies’ ad services, at least “show an initial willingness to sacrifice some of their own revenue” to address the growing problem of bad information in their networks.
There is also the question of how Facebook and Google will determine what is and is not in violation of their rules. Facebook has shown some reluctance in becoming the arbiter of truth. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has said that the company is not a “media company,” and he regularly resisted acknowledging its increasing responsibility in the greater media ecosystem online, instead sticking to its longtime assertion that Facebook is just a neutral platform for connecting people to others.
Given Facebook’s resistance, Carroll’s suggestion was this: a crowdsourced, open, list of fake-news sites, regularly updated and refined by consensus. If companies such as Google and Facebook agreed to abide by the list, it would provide a way for them to distinguish between “real” and “fake” sites — and identify the many sites that publish a mix of both — for the purposes of enforcing their own policies, without taking on the responsibility of deciding those categories for themselves. It would work similarly to the lists that drive some ad-blocking services.
Of course, there’s just one thing. “It’s uncharacteristic of them to adopt a crowdsourced model like this,” Carroll said.
And in the bigger picture, not all hoaxers are motivated by the money. Cutting off the revenue of those who make fake news to earn a living will not stop people from sharing stories that are untrue.