Fake news stories are a scourge. Something different from parody news folks such as The Onion, there are outfits out there that produce false news stories simply to get clickthroughs and generate advertising revenue. And it isn't just a couple of your Facebook friends and that weird uncle of yours that gets fooled by these things, even incredibly handsome and massively-intelligent writers such as myself are capable of getting completely misled into believing that a bullshit news story is real.
Facebook is generally seen as a key multiplier in this false force of non-news, which is probably what led the social media giant to declare war on fake news sites a year or so back. So how'd that go? Well, the results as analyzed over at Buzzfeed seems to suggest that Facebook has either lost this war it declared or is losing it badly enough that it might as well give it up.
To gauge Facebook’s progress in its fight, BuzzFeed News examined data across thousands of posts published to the fake news sites’ Facebook pages, and found decidedly mixed results. While average engagements (likes + shares + comments) per post fell from 972.7 in January 2015 to 434.78 in December 2015, they jumped to 827.8 in January 2016 and a whopping 1,304.7 in February.
Some of the posts on the fake news sites’ pages went extremely viral many months after Facebook announced its crackdown. In August, for instance, an Empire News story reporting that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sustained serious injuries in prison received more than 240,000 likes, 43,000 shares, and 28,000 comments on its Facebook page. The incident was pure fiction, but still spread like wildfire on the platform. An even less believable September post about a fatal gang war sparked by the “Blood” moon was shared over 22,000 times from the Facebook page of Huzlers, another fake news site.
So, how did this war go so wrong for Facebook? Well, to start, it relied heavily on user-submitted notifications that a link or site was a fake news site. Sounds great, as aggregating feedback has worked quite well in other arenas. For this, however, it was doomed from the start. The purpose of fake news sites is, after all, to fool people, and fooled people are obviously not reporting the links as fake. Even when a reader manages to determine eventually that a link was a fake news post at a later time, perhaps after sharing it and having comments proving it false, how many of those people then take steps to report the link? Not enough, clearly, as the fake news scourge marches on.
Another layer of the problem appears to be the faith and trust the general public puts into some famous people they are following, who have also been fooled with startling regularity.
Take D.L. Hughley, for example. The comedian, whose page is liked by more than 1.7 million people, showed up twice in the Huzlers logs. One fictitious Huzlers story he posted, about Magic Johnson donating blood, garnered more than 10,000 shares from his page. Hughley, who did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment, also shared four National Report links in 2015.
Radio stations also frequently post fake news. The Florida-based 93XFM was one of a number of radio stations BuzzFeed News discovered sharing Huzlers posts in 2015. Asked about one April post linking to a Huzlers story about a woman smoking PCP and chewing off her boyfriend’s penis, a 93XFM DJ named Sadie explained that fact-checking Facebook posts isn’t exactly a high priority.
In other words, people and organizations that the public assumes to be credible sources of information are sharing these fake news articles, and the public turns off their collective brains and assumes them to be true. After all, if we can't trust D.L. Hughley then, really, who can we trust? But when even major outlets such as the New York Times have included links in its posts to The National Report
, do we really
expect people to cast a wary eye towards such an established news peddler?
Well, we should, because the ultimate problem here are the equal parts of a polarized American public coupled with a terrifying level of credulity. Many of these fake news pieces contain headlines for stories that some people want
to believe, typically for ideological reasons. This is why a family party recently saw me trying to explain to my grandmother that, no, Michelle Obama probably does not in fact have a penis. That's a true story, friends, and it stemmed from a fake news article. The willingness to believe such a thing is extreme, certainly, but stories of the Boston Bomber getting beaten in prison fuel the same desire for such a story to be true.
The war is lost. Fake news goes on unabated. Long live Michelle Obama's penis.