People are making a big deal about fake news, and rightly so.
It’s some of the stuff you see on social media that sounds legit, or at least could be in an era that has featured some very strange news.
The roots of fake news lie in those hoaxes and urban legends that landed in our inbox. You know the ones: “Hi, I’m Bill Gates, and to show my appreciation….” or “My best friend swears this is true. He saw it happen the other day at….” Don’t get them anymore? That’s because they grew up and moved to Facebook and Twitter.
Today, they’re posts with headlines and photos letting us know that Hillary Clinton said this and Vladimir Putin did that, or that Tom Hanks is a registered Republican and Clint Eastwood a Democrat, or that Elton John will be performing at the Trump inauguration.
Sometimes, they’re just the product of Internet trolls, those people who eat baked beans cold from the can, never go out and sit up all night in their underwear churning out nonsense they hope goes viral. (The Elton John tidbit was actually from a member of the Trump transition team who was either woefully misinformed or intent on floating a trial balloon on BBC’s Hardtalk program, which immediately tweeted the item.) Just as often, though, they’re cooked up by young people who live in places like Bulgaria or the Caucasus and are intent solely on making money.
These people are not night-fly wackos.
They have real lives and real computer smarts. They set up websites with plausible URLs like cnn.com.co (I made that up, but it probably exists somewhere in the hope that people will go there thinking it’s cnn.com), and then populate these sites with ads that kick them a few cents for each click.
The idea is to get enough people to click through for the owners to make money. A great way to do this is by turning these sites into sources for fake news; with the right headline and photo posted on Facebook, a sufficient number of social media users will visit and perhaps even click on an ad, and then share the Facebook post with friends.
It’s all about traffic, traffic, traffic. And while in the old days, people with a head on their shoulders might worry about computer viruses lurking behind unfamiliar URLs, these sites are actually pretty safe – the last thing their purveyors want to do is frighten you. They want you back.
If there’s any victim, it’s truth.
IN WHAT was the craziest election cycle in modern times, we came to believe almost anything we saw, especially about Donald Trump.
Walls? A ban on outsiders of a certain religion? That was the mild stuff. How about a presidential candidate saying he might date his own daughter if it were legal? Making fun of someone with a disability? Crowing that he had little respect for soldiers who got themselves captured? Getting into a very public feud with the parents of a dead soldier? It was so unbelievable that after a while, we were willing to believe most anything.
And the fake news sites were ready, giving us headlines like “John Stewart defends Trump supporters: ‘They’re afraid of insurance premiums,’ not black people”; “Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS”; “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide”; and even “CNN: ‘Drunk Hillary’ beat sh*t out of Bill Clinton on election night.”
A few days ago, The New York Times published an article headlined “Inside a fake news sausage factory: ‘This is all about income.’” It featured 22-year-old Beqa Latsabidze of Tbilisi, in the Georgian Republic, who started a website pushing fake, but positive, news about Clinton. It was a dud.
“If his pro-Clinton site had taken off, [Latsabidze] said, he would have pressed on with that, but ‘people did not engage,’ so he focused on serving pro-Trump supporters instead. They, he quickly realized, were a far more receptive audience ‘because they are angry’ and ‘eager to read outrageous tales,’” the article stated. “‘For me, this is all about income....’” PROVING THAT we’re now ready to believe almost anything, CNN recently set off a small firestorm when, during a panel discussion with two journalists focusing on Trump, the alt-right and a recent gathering in Washington by white supremacists, it ran an on-screen banner called a chyron that said: “ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS WHETHER JEWS ARE PEOPLE.”
There were three... well, let’s call them misunderstandings: 1) Someone at CNN had taken a leap of faith in saying that Richard B. Spencer was referring to Jews when in fact he was referring to members of the media (although this specific statement came during a rant that, for the most part, was about Jews). 2) Someone saw the chyron and took umbrage at CNN for supposedly hosting a discussion about whether Jews are people; this person then posted a screenshot on social media. 3) The screenshot showed the face of Boston Globe reporter Matt Viser, one of the two journalists taking part in the discussion, and it was directly above the chyron.
At the end of the day, Viser wrote a reporter’s notebook-type article for the Globe headlined “I went on CNN. Little did I know I’d be mistaken as an alt-right leader.”
“Even though my title and affiliation with The Boston Globe were included,” he wrote, “at first glance, some thought I was the alt-right founder. And that I was questioning whether Jews are people. And that CNN was giving me a platform to air those views.... ‘You are an alt-right douchebag,’ someone wrote to me on Twitter.”
It was one of many tweets Viser would get, and it was one of the nicer ones. Talk about collateral damage....Beyond belief. Yet all so believable.