The problem with fake news stories? People want to believe them
We may call them fake, but some people beg to differ because the stories confirm their own opinions and views
These are strange days for the media business. You could argue that it’s actually been a strange couple of years as the sector grapples with coming up with some semblance of a workable new business model for the traditional players as newcomers run around as fast as they can to make hay while the sun is shining. Yet I don’t recall as much focus on a single issue – and huge confusion and unease as a result – as we’ve seen with fake news in recent weeks, especially in light of Donald Trump’s victory in the US election the other week. It was the fake news wot won it, so to speak.
Since Trump’s win, we’ve seen some interesting reports about the people behind some of these sites creating the stories. Aside from the kids in Veles in Macedonia making mad money from making up news stories, we also have these two dudes in an Airbnb gaff in California ramping up the content. There are probably more. Hell, there have probably been loads more since those stories appeared. I reckon you could sell tickets for a Fake News Summit at this stage.
What’s striking about these reports – and Terrence McCoy’s reporting in the Washington Post piece above mentions this a few times – is the immediate and postive feedback from readers of these fake news stories. This is what they want to believe. The gist of these stories is what they believe to be true. The facts which have always stood in the way of the veractity of these views and opinions have been cast to one side. The facts are for losers. Suddenly, you have websites broadcasting the news and views you firmly believe and the stories look the exact same as anything you’ll find in the lamestream media. No wonder you’re happy to spread the good news on Facebook or Twitter or wherever. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are for.
You can see this trajectory in full effect in Sapna Maheshwari’s analysis about how a tweet about buses in Austin, Texas turned into a storm about organised protests against Trump. In this case, it turned out that a stupid, lazy, misinformed, half-assed, tossed-off tweet – one of those stupid tweets which turn up in your social media timeline every day and which most of us just sigh at – was amplified and mis-alligned into a story which a huge number of people wanted to believe. Or, as Maheshwari puts it, “false information can also arise from misinformed social media posts by regular people that are seized on and spread through a hyperpartisan blogosphere.”
“Misinformed social media posts” and “hyperpartisan blogosphere” doesn’t begin and end with US politics, mind, or even the facists, racists and post-truthers on the alt-right. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen stories on Irish social media outlets about polticians and businessmen which are plainly untrue and false. These stories would have this publication sued to within an inch of its life if they were republished here. Yet they gain oxegen and traction on social media because they back up what many people want to believe about these politicians and businessmen. Like the fake news stories about the pope endorsing Trump or that People magazine quote from 1988, they fit the narrative and therefore get circulated far and wide.
It’s worth remembering that the story about the pope initially appeared on a satirical news site but that didn’t stop it gaining momentum, which makes you realise there are probably people who believe the clearly made-up stories they read on sites like The Onion or Waterford Whispers News. It doesn’t help, as Charlie Brooker found out with The National Anthem from Black Mirror, that made-up stories often turn up later in the real world.
The problem, then, is more than just about what those dudes in California or Macedonia are doing to make a buck. Sure, it’s awful and terrible and yadda-yadda-yadda, but it’s not the reason why fake news has become such a hot issue. The problem has to do with wanting to believe something because it suits your worldview or outlook rather than accepting the credence brought about clearly defined and proven facts. The former is far more palatable and easy to digest than the latter.
Add in the ease with which social media allows these views to be percolated and distributed and you’ve a problem which is not going to be solved by people supporting the reliable media organisations in a time when they need that kind of direct support most. The number of people who’ll do this are outnumbered by those who don’t and never will trust these organisations to deliver the truth because the truth doesn’t suit them. They want a different kind of truth, hence the lean towards fake news stories.
It all comes back yet again to a disconnect. We know from election and referendum results worldwide this year that there’s a huge constituency of people out there who have been turned off by mainstream politics and are there in enough numbers in the right places to cause seismic change when they do decide to vote for an outlier like Trump. Many of these people too have also turned away from the traditional sources of news and information for a number of reasons, including a lack of trust about what they read to an often justifiable belief about underlying conflicts of interest pushing the news agenda in certain outets.
All of this means that there is now a sizeable number of people who are happy to circulate the news stories which appear backing up their particular worldview regardless of their veracity. Remember too that we’re more inclined to believe our friends and not question them about the veracity of what they’re saying so these stories gather even more momentum as they enter the social media whirlpool. The bottom line is all involved don’t think the stories they’re sharing are fake. Changing this state of affairs is going to take a lot more than subscribing to the New York Times or chastising Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook’s role in spreading the fakery.