“President Trump Mocked Prime Minister Trudeau for Celebrating Thanksgiving Six Weeks Early” is among some of the “fake news” headlines you might read on your phone. Absurd headlines and news stories have been circling the Internet for sometime now, causing a fake news crisis.
David Carroll, associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York City, said that several simultaneous, interrelated conditions have led to the “fake news” hysteria.
“Firstly, market failures in the attention economy driven by misaligned incentives of the digital advertising ecosystem have devastated local newsrooms and pressured national outlets to overproduce content to make up for falling ad revenue in the form of pricing,” Carroll explained in an exclusive interview with the Plainsman Press.
Carroll says that during the past two years, Google and Facebook have captured the digital advertising market from online news producers.
“The adtech industry and the platforms have made it incredibly easy for anyone in the world to cheaply target anyone else for ads and deploy websites that convince enough people to load them to collect the ad revenue,” Carroll said. “So before we even consider the political aspects of the crisis, there is a complex economic crisis to understand and confront.”
Carroll explains that there’s an overlap between the economic and political crises.
“That can be best illustrated by teens from Veles, Macedonia who have discovered that American’s ad tracking cookies earn the highest revenue on the ad exchanges,” he adds. “Europeans have strict privacy laws so their tracking cookies are worth far less on the exchanges even though they are attractive demographics to advertisers. The Macedonian fraudsters set up fake websites and target Americans to earn the highest ad rates on ad exchanges, such as Google’s AdSense. Once they realized that political topics attract some of the highest engagements, they exploit an economic incentive to manufacture falsified stories to attract clicks from Facebook so people load their pages and to collect their monthly revenue from Google,” Carroll says.
There are also domestic hoaxers who build fake sites for profit rather than political ideology, according to Carroll.
“In fact, using adtech forensics in websites that reveal Google AdSense account IDs, operators have been discovered that produce hyperpartisan and hoax news to target both ends of the political spectrum, truly an equal opportunity business model,” Carroll said. “There are also hyperpartisan outlets that do have an ideological intent to produce and disseminate what can best be described as propaganda, or at least, slanted news production. In these instances, the profit motive is not the underlying intent of the publisher. Breitbart, for instance, has lost more than 3,700 advertisers to consumer protests for its content. Wealthy donors keep it afloat (Robert and Rebakah Mercer).”
Carroll continues, “Finally, we know that foreign state actors use ‘cut-outs’ to produce propaganda online that targets across the political spectrum of America to foment division and sow chaos.”
During recent hearings in Congress, lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified about an information operation that reached hundreds of millions of unwitting Americans.
“Disentangling all of these economic and political motivations across domestic and international operators is extremely difficult,” said Carroll. “It helps to attempt to apply the terms “misinformation” distinct from “disinformation” rather than the catch-all term “Fake News,” which has itself been co-opted by the president to refer to unflattering reporting rather than its usage immediately after the election, referring to fake news sites that serve as a business model of scamming people with clickbait. We should probably call these sites junk news sites.”
Social media has played into the fake news problem, according to Carroll.
“By radically disrupting the distribution model, the big platforms of Facebook and Google not only mostly captured the advertising revenue from newspapers and magazines, but also changed the way people consume news,” Carroll explains. “Instead of visiting home pages where human editors arrange news, increasingly people get their news interspersed between content created by friends and family. By presenting all content as equal in the news feed or search results, the publishers are devalued and de-branded and flattened.”
Political views and the use of social media also affect fake news, according to Carroll.
“People share news on social media to express their own political identity,” said Carroll, “and to present their worldview to their peers. In this interaction model, the authority of human editors cedes to algorithms determining placement of news while people start to trust their peers and family members with news selection more than experts and professionals.”
There are several ways that fake news can be spotted and avoided.
“Illegitimate news sites peddling misinformation or disinformation look and feel like junk news because they are literally cobbled together on the cheap,” Carroll said. “Looking at the quality of the ads on the page is one signal of quality. If the ads seem terrible, it’s likely that the operator has been banned from premium ad exchanges and monetizes their pages with bottom-feeder adtech. Always look for bylines and check the masthead in the “about” page. Once you try to verify the identity of the author or operator of a site and you hit dead-ends, that’s a sure-fire signal of junk news. Often, headlines are written to be incendiary on junk news sites to attract the clicks and score the ad impressions. But when you read the body of the article, the details usually do not support the basis of the headline.”
Carroll lists other ways to spot fake news, such as doing reverse image searches of the header image which can often reveal the original source. Junk news operators steal content from more legitimate sites and then sensationalize the content to attract attention and ad impressions.
“Trust in media is at an all-time low,” Carroll concludes, “and citizens have become increasingly polarized.”