Monday, February 20, 2017


So I came across the following on my social media feed.

Fake news as defined by the left and center:
A news story put out to intentionally deceive, that the author knows is wrong

Fake news as defined by the right:
Any news story that challenges my world view, or that I don't like.

Rather looks like the right is challenged in dealing with unpleasant realities.
Three guesses as to the political leanings of the author...

And it seems to me that this is what the discussion over "fake news" has devolved into - a partisan, and personal, sniping fest over who is more gullible. But that's not what the term was originally coined to describe.

Fake News, as it was encountered during the 2016 election cycle, is a form of advertising scam. I suppose that you could also call it fraud, but I'm unsure of a legal basis for that label. And it is, at heart, a form of clickbait, that, like most clickbait, is designed to take advantage of the way that online advertising is placed and that placement paid for. The goal is to drive pageviews, and thus, advertising revenue. Virality, not deception, is the primary goal.

What makes Fake News fake is not the veracity of the stories themselves, although many of them were made up out of whole cloth, or cobbled together by randomly lifting pieces of other items found on line. The fake aspect of Fake News derives from the fact that many of these sites were designed to look like legitimate, if small and/or local, news outlets. And this was designed to give the stories a certain level of credibility, again, to make them more likely to be shared. If I were to post something here on Nobody In Particular that claimed, due to some obscure 1920s law, that President Trump was guilty of some impeachable offense, it might garner some views. But, as it says on the tin, I'm Nobody In Particular, and few people are likely to take it as anything more than wishful thinking or a thought experiment on my part. But if that same piece were to show up on what people presume to be a reputable news site,, say, they might be more inclined to see it as something worth talking about, even if they were no more inclined to believe that it was accurate.

Given that virality is the goal, even people who click through to the page merely to pass along the URL with an incredulous comment serve the site owner's purposes - views, and the advertising revenue that comes from those views. The World Wide Web is a very big place, virtually speaking, and it's not worth most advertisers' time to verify each and every site where their ad might be seen. If people are going to a particular site, that's where they want to be, and their willingness to pay for the opportunity is what drove Fake News.

Much has been made of the fact that the American Right seemed to be highly susceptible to Fake News. This, in turn, fed a theory that Fake News, and the anti-Clinton animosity that it engendered, is was came between the former Secretary of State and the White House. But it's probably more accurate to say that anti-Clinton (and anti-Obama) animosity, and Republican desperation, that drove the Fake News cycle.
I would wager that this guy had it in for both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama long before he encountered Washington Star News. And note that this piece had generated 3 likes when I took this screenshot, but 36 comments. For everyone who clicked through before saying something, a website operator made a bit more money.
It's likely that as "Presidential Derangement Syndrome" (which is likely better named "Partisan Fear") cycles back to the American Left, we'll start to see a robust trade in Fake News designed to draw them in by appealing to the search for hope. And then it will be the Right's turn to cast their opponents as "reality challenged." And we'll see the same charge that the tern "Fake News" is being used as a cover for closed-mindedness.

People understand that even when the facts are the same, the framing of Who, What, When, Why and How can lead people to different conclusions as to the nature of the world around them.
In that sense, it's worth pointing out that a) people tend to be sensitive to items that they understand are biased (especially when that bias operates to the detriment of themselves or people they like), b) the modern media landscape is littered with items that people can and will seize upon as being biased and c) to the degree that people tend to understand their worldviews as both objective and self-evident, negative biases will often be seen as intentionally perverse. Openly anti-Obama stories from eight years ago weren't characterized as Fake News at the time simply because the term wasn't in widespread use. But I can recall stories from that time that openly questioned the former President's suitability for office that were called out as being hit pieces, rather than items of genuine newsworthiness.

Understanding what Fake News really is, as a concept, independent of the label attached to it, is important because it's not going to go anywhere. As long as there is an online advertising model that pays people for the number of people that view a page where an ad is placed, people will turn to clickbait to draw people in. And playing on the hopes of frightened people has always been an excellent way to do that.

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