In the past few months, fake news has dominated real news cycles. It has tainted the perceived legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election, and most recently, the phrase “alternative facts” has been tossed around as a euphemism for obvious falsehoods. Has fake news had its fifteen minutes of fame – or is it here to stay?
In reality, fake news is an old phenomenon. Benjamin Franklin contributed a story to a Boston newspaper in 1782, in which he detailed how the American militia had discovered bags of hundreds of human scalps, allegedly meant for King George of Britain by Native Americans. The public was enraged by their brutality, and the piece was brought up once again during the War of 1812 to rally Americans against the British soldiers and the natives.
Franklin’s story was lurid and memorable. It was also entirely false.
With a single article, he demonstrated the power of the press in influencing the public opinion. Over two centuries later, the media has maintained its important role in informing the public of the events affecting the world around them. However, for every rigorously fact-checked article from a reputable news source, there seem to be ten times as many stories riddled with lies.
The technology available today makes it easy to spread fake news to readers. The public – many of whom are media-illiterate – make it even easier. Building a website that mimics a reputable news source is relatively simple, and in the face of a shocking headline, most people don’t take note of a domain name that is slightly off or a logo that is different, but close enough to pass off as the real thing.
Jestin Coler, owner of Disinformedia, which controls several fake news sites, got into the business in 2013 to show how easy it was to make up blatantly fictional stories and sell them to the public. He told NPR in an interview late last year that fake news skyrocketed during the recent election season – anyone with a computer and an imagination could have capitalized on the shock value of sensational headlines and put out fake content that people were dying to read and share. In fact, some sources have found that these stories outperformed legitimate news in the months before the election.
But what’s the driving motivation behind the faceless individuals who distribute fake news?
As it turns out, the business of fake news can be surprisingly lucrative. The revenue fake news generates comes entirely from ad services, such as Google AdSense. Putting the article on Facebook can accumulate hundreds of thousands of views – lower estimates of total revenue from these websites range from $3,000 to $5,000 a month, although articles that go viral can rake in up to $10,000 a day. Companies like Google and Facebook have been slow to address the situation, in part because they profit from viral content on their websites.
However, both have recently begun taking steps to stop websites from proliferating fake news. Google has permanently banned almost 200 websites from using AdSense. Meanwhile, Facebook has once again updated its largely automated “Trending Topics” feature – it will only designate certain topics as trending if multiple publishers have posted stories on that topic and if enough people are engaging in the content. This way, a single article can’t be listed unless it is corroborated by other sources.
As Google and Facebook have a long way to go in making significant progress, a more immediate solution is for the public to learn how to sort good content from bad content. There are a few quick ways to get a good sense of the legitimacy of a news source, including checking the domain and URL of a website, reading the “About Us” section, and skimming the comments. Even a couple of minutes checking these standard features can filter out the vast majority of fake news sources.
The bottom line? Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.