Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Taking on the fake news industrial complex

If there’s one thing most (reasonable) people agree on it's that post-truth is the new norm. The resulting uproar about ‘fake news’ is about more than just subjective narratives, because in a digitally interconnected world, stories spread with the force of not one or two or three media outlets, but via thousands if not millions of retweets, shares, posts, and comments.

 
My conference badge, should you choose
to believe it
Against this backdrop emerged last weekend's Misinfocon, an event that brought together journalists, technologists, software developers, academics, advocates, investors, a counterintelligence expert working for the Department of Defense, and even a bona fide fake news site creator (more on that coming up) at MIT’s Media Lab. In addition to support from a variety of journalism organizations and tech companies, the event received funding from the charitable foundation established by Craig “Craigslist” Newmark, whose classifieds free-for-all site ended up, quite unintentionally, removing the revenue stream that once subsidized the entire newspaper, i.e. the classifieds ads.

“There’s a lot of emotion around the topic of information right now”, said Jeanne Brooks,  one of the event’s organizers. “And there’s a lot of mistrust in media, right or wrong, and we have to design to support a deeper understanding of facts”, Brooks continued. “We have extremes to overcome.”

First up in getting to an understanding of the landscape was Claire Wardle of First Draft News, one of several Google-backed initiatives to assist with fact-checking, verification, and stemming the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation online.


Let’s start with some all important definitions, courtesy of First Draft News, because there are several nuances to take into consideration in order to analyze the situation at hand.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

A taxonomy of fake news content, courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

And while we may think the fake news industrial complex --  and yes there is one -- is ‘all about the Benjamins', the crew at First Draft News did an impressive job of mapping out the full range of motivations involved, many of which have little if anything to do with dollars.

The "Ps" of fake news, courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

It’s also easy to place the blame on the Internet, for democratizing the flow of information by all but eliminating the costs of having global reach with a picture, post, or story, but of course that’s like blaming a knife for being good at slicing a tomato and also for often being implicated in killing people.

Nevertheless, twenty plus years into the consumer Internet the full ecosystem has developed, with legitimate information flowing through the same pipes as misinformation and disinformation, and increasingly automated advertising systems enabling b.s. to become a business model. We’re not just talking “…and you’ll never guess what happened next” clickbait, but intentionally misleading, and often malicious information, and the more ridiculous the better, if better is measured in clicks, as clicks mean the ability to serve ad impressions to s/he who has clicked. As but one example, from such a universe was born Pizzagate, a particularly quacky conspiracy theory implicated high ranking individuals in the Democratic party a pedophile ring run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. Think of the story and its millions upon millions of shares on social platforms as a click factory that not only furthers partisan causes but creates a digital advertising jackpot for those central to the story’s dissemination.

And on this note, one of the most intriguing people I encountered at Misinfocon was a former fake news site publisher. Yes, former. I won’t mention him by name as after being outed he had angry citizens showing up at his house and even received threats against himself and his family. If you had to pick the publisher of a fake news site out of a roomful of people chances are you would not pick this guy. Unassuming, fairly quiet, maybe around 40, with a full time job and 2 kids, he told our breakout group he would typically spend 1 to 2 hours per night posting stories that were deliberately designed to incite rage and in turn bring in dollars by way of his Google Ad Words account. Did I mention he’s a self-described liberal? Well he is. That’s who was running a vehemently anti-Democrat site that pulled in 100 million views and about $200,000 in ad revenue over the course of its short existence. “It was an addiction”, he said. “Watching my analytics page in real time after I posted a story was my fix."  

But how did he do it? There are millions of blogs and sites out there and most of them get very little traffic. “I studied the audience deeply”, he revealed, going to the sites of the likes of Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, and learning the keywords and the hot button topics. “I could often identify trends in advance, and anything anti-institutional tended to be a winner.”

We often think of Twitter as being the linchpin in making things go viral online when this fake newsman said he rarely got any traction on Twitter. “Too many educated, left wing elites and journalists."  He feasted instead on the buffet that is Facebook groups, particularly those with large memberships of white males over the age of 55. “Fake Facebook accounts are the bread and butter of spreading fake news”, he pointed out, with the irony not being lost on most of us in this particular breakout group that Facebook initially differentiated itself from its arch competitor MySpace by insisting that people use their real identity

It turns out that with a carefully crafted Facebook persona one can plant the kinds of stories that speak to people’s fears and biases and the audience takes care of the rest: sharing, re-posting, and fanning the flames of outrage. “I didn’t need to buy a spam farm or bots. I created my own, with 2 Facebook accounts with pictures of fake people with their fake kids.”

That’s crowdsourced distribution for you. 

The party did eventually end, though, and Google closed down his account. Of course there are hundreds of other ad platforms to work with, and he tried some of those in the aftermath of his Google ban, but he never came close to making the kind of money he did via Google.

By this time you’re probably wondering what the forces of sanity can do against the forces of click-based commerce hiding behind the cloak of news reporting, and I’m happy to report that there are several initiatives at work, such as:






On a systemic level there are also issues to be broached with the platforms that benefit from user-generated content, content discoverability, and its monetization – namely Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the Google-owned YouTube. Bear in mind that the platforms benefit greatly from surges in traffic, regardless of their origin. Facebook gets to say we serve 1.8 billion people globally, YouTube gets to say that billions of hours of video are viewed per day on its platform, and both share in the ad revenue generated by the traffic to their sites.

Pieces of the solution might take the form of funded research and fellowships and sponsored initiatives in such fields as journalism and media literacy, but, as one conference attendee close to the issue put it, “Mark Zuckerberg would happily contribute tens of millions of dollars to media literacy programs tomorrow, but that is not the answer. It takes the onus off of him and Facebook. What’s really needed is something that dampens virality and the incentive system.” And as we learned from our fake news making friend earlier in this post those incentives can be darn attractive.

Sample idea wall from Misinfocon
But what comes from a weekend of impassioned debate and a frenzy of ideas captured on pink post-it notes? A totally reasonable question, and you can learn about the plans and action items that came out of Misinfocon by clicking here