In the age of pay-per-click, attention is money. Why do you care? If attention is money then engaging content creators have a huge role in generating content. Which means that they actually have a solid place in making news and things that look like news.
This is my world: the pay-per-click world. And I’m going to kick some sand back at the bullies in our sandbox.
Fake news is everywhere because it creates power and profit. If you can generate an emotionally appealing story (regardless of whether it’s true), you can generate a lot of money and influence. That’s the key to identifying fake news. You start by asking who benefits from the dispersion of the information and why they created it. That’s it! You start by asking why.
NOTE: This post is focused on fake news, not media bias. If you are interested in coverage on agenda-setting theory, ethics in journalism, or media bias, I have put some additional resources at the bottom of the article.
Start By Asking Why
Once you understand why fake news exists, it’s easier to spot the articles. The intent becomes clear when you sort them into categories. Claire Wardle, a news researcher who helps create guidelines to identify fake news has created several helpful categories.
- Poor Journalism
- To provoke or Punk
- Political influence
Looking through this list, you can see why this kind of content can be so compelling. It’s not interested in the truth. It is created to play on your emotions. Wardle summarizes, “Whether it’s the ‘rogue’ Twitter accounts that no one has been able to independently verify, the Trump executive order meme generator, users re-tweeting a post by Jill Stein’s parody account desperately wanting it to be real, or claiming Vice-President Pence has deleted a tweet condemning the Muslim ban when it was still sitting on his timeline from December, the Left is showing that it is just as human as the Right. When humans are angry and fearful, their critical thinking skills diminish.”
The 7 Types of Fake News
Since its founding in 2015, First Draft News, with the help of Google News Lab, combined the efforts of nine organizations, including Facebook, Twitter and the Open Society Foundation. Experts from the field discuss ethics with regard to publishing and sharing information online.
In September 2016, First Draft News began coordinating newsrooms, academic institutions and fact-checking organizations with the intention of combating misinformation online. They publish guides that address these issues. In one of these guides, Claire Wardle of First Draft News identifies seven types of fake news:
- Satire or parody (“no intention to cause harm but has potential to fool”)
- False connection (“when headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content”)
- Misleading content (“misleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual”)
- False context (“when genuine content is shared with false contextual information”)
- Imposter content (“when genuine sources are impersonated” with false, made-up sources)
- Manipulated content (“when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive”, as with a “doctored” photo)
- Fabricated content (“new content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm”)
Satire or Parody
This one actually has no intention to harm but, it can fool people. Who hasn’t seen a friend angrily repost an Onion article that claims “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway.”
Generally, these posts are harmless ways to comment on news and culture from a specific worldview. Also, it’s very, very American. You just have to be able to spot the difference between the joke and reality.
The caption, headline or some of the content doesn’t support the story. With these, the problem is twofold. First, they’re generally poor journalism. The bias has crept into the article to the degree that opinion has overruled truth. Second, they are often created to generate a profit. Emotion, conspiracy and tribalism make for a high amount of clicks.
For example, Anderson Cooper was recently forced to set the story straight after a meme of him standing waist deep in water kept circulating the internet. The image shows Cooper in low ground, surrounded by floodwater while his videographer is standing on higher ground. The meme, and the related Brietbart article (which I can’t link to because they finally took it down), tried to allege that Cooper was faking the level of flooding during Hurricane Florence. Even President Trump retweeted it.
However, the photo is from 2008. The circumstances surrounding the image were lifted out of context, which Cooper detailed fully during his program with actual footage of the original story.
Essentially, there wasn’t enough room for reporters on the highway. So, they were standing to the side of the road where the water was higher. He states this fact multiple times to explain why he is in waders and the camera pans back and forth as he talks.
So, while the image is a real image, it was being used in a false context to assert that Anderson Cooper was faking coverage during Hurricane Florence.
This relies the concept of “spin.” This can result from a combination of poor journalism, partisanship, political influence, or power. Essentially politics and public relations are masquerading as journalism. In these cases, journalists are falling sway by political pressures and power.
For example, the story of Trump sending his personal jet to transport U.S. troops home is popular with his fans. Sean Hannity even picked it up and gave it legs. The proof of the story was supposed to be a photo snapped at the time of the event.
The image is of a commercial plane which led several reporters to dig into the story. It turns out that “… the military paid to charter a plane from an airline that Trump no longer owned…” to pick up the servicemen in the story. You can view the record HERE.
The purpose behind this was to boost the image of the then-candidate Trump as pro-military. However, it’s misleading content that tries to connect dots without solid proof (and a record to the contrary.)
In this case, real information is “cherry-picked” to create a false narrative. These articles are usually very appealing to their audiences, especially ones that prefer niche information that aligns with their worldview.
I saw this recently with a story about the conflict in Nigeria between Muslims and Christians. Most of the headlines said, “The mainstream media ignored…” the massacre of Christians right after the New Zealand Mosque Shooter.
The truth is that the mainstream media had been reporting the story for months; it has been an ongoing conflict. I had heard it several times in world news reports. But it really doesn’t parallel the situation in New Zealand.
Religious affiliation is a secondary issue in the ongoing Nigerian herder-farmer conflict, which impartial experts consistently describe as being primarily a dispute over natural resources and land usage. Reports in the U.S. in March 2019 failed to properly explain the complexity of the conflict, and Breitbart’s article did not mention a major reported atrocity perpetrated against the mostly Muslim Fula people in February 2019.Snopes, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/nigeria-christians-muslims/
This is where the cherry-picking creates a false context. As Snopes details, “Breitbart also markedly failed to mention in their article the single largest atrocity recorded during February and March 2019, one in which members of the mainly Christian Adara ethnic group were alleged to have killed 130 members of the mainly Muslim Fula ethnic group.” While the situation is horrible and lives are being lost, the situation draws little comparison to the NZ mosque attack.
Christians are certainly murdered in Nigeria, and in some cases, they are murdered because they are Christian. But, despite Boko Haram’s murderous hostility to Christians, most of its victims have always been Muslim, not least because the insurgency takes place in a predominantly Muslim part of the country. (Boko Haram’s killing of such great numbers of Muslims, based on a wide definition of apostasy, is understood to be one of the reasons that the group split in 2016.) For what it is worth, data from the NST shows a decline in Boko Haram attacks on churches and an increase in attacks on mosques over time. Indeed, the smaller number of Christian deaths at the hands of Boko Haram likely reflects the fact that most of them have fled.Council of Foreign Relations
At its core, the articles are poor journalism. They are really opinion articles and would benefit from rebuttals with legitimate, contrasting points of view, fact-checking, and all the information.
These articles spoof real sites; they are not real news outlets. Their URLs look very similar to real organizations and they sometimes even use a copy of their logos. For the most part, they aim to generate money through pay-per-click revenue. Traffic to their website equals dollars in their pockets. So, it benefits them to look like another website and carry similar content.
Some examples are:
If you go to the Abcnews.com.co (but please don’t), you will see the ABC News logo. While it’s a low-quality site, it has fooled many people into thinking it is the actual ABC News site.
In the age of photoshop, and video altering techniques, manipulated content (sometimes called “deep fakes”) makes false stories seem more credible. For example, there is an image of a shark swimming on a highway that circulates every time a big storm hits a major city.
Shots of riots, crowds, rituals, statues and public figures have been altered and added to various stories as evidence of various conspiracy theories. One popular instance was an image of ICE, allegedly arresting people while they stood in line to vote. The image was manipulated to insert the ICE agent and the man in handcuffs into an existing image of voters waiting in line at the polls.
These are completely made-up stories. They are designed to deceive and do harm. While we cannot know the intentions behind every individual who runs one of these sites, they all aim to disrupt trust and create chaos.
Unlike parody sites, manipulated content is often laughing at the reader. The stories are deliberately false and aim to make fools of the public.
One notorious creator was the late Paul Horner. Before he died in 2017, he was the lead writer for The National Report. Then, he created The National Examiner, as well as, other imposter sites like cnn.com.de, cbsnews.com.co, and nbc.com.co.
For example, he once made up a story about paid protestors. His proof was a Craigslist ad that he openly admitted to creating. His stories ran to both sides of partisanship like when he targeted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) as saying she wanted gay conversion therapy in schools. She did not. It was a complete hoax.
Many of his comments about his work seem to indicate a nihilistic worldview and a prankster personality.
How to Spot the 7 Types of Fake News
“We all play a crucial part in this ecosystem. Every time we passively accept information without double-checking, or share a post, image or video before we’ve verified it, we’re adding to the noise and confusion. The ecosystem is now so polluted, we have to take responsibility for independently checking what we see online.”Claire Wardle
Whenever you see an enticing article, ask yourself who benefits from the spread of the information. Over time, you’ll start to see several characteristics common to fake news posts. Most notably, they play on your identity and emotions in an extreme way. When in doubt, don’t share a story if you can’t independently verify it. Wait for the situation to mature, and the actual truth to surface.