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#FakeNews

June 2017
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Fake news . . . It’s the latest buzzword that has surfaced in the past year to capture our attention. And it appears there is a lot of #fakenews going on today, too. Wikipedia describes #fakenews as follows:

Fake news is a type of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via the traditional print, broadcasting news media, or via Internet-based social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention. As such, intentionally misleading and deceptive fake news is different from obviously satirical or parody articles or papers such as The Onion. Fake news often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news stories in order to increase readership and, in the case of internet-based stories, online sharing and Internet click revenue. In the latter case, profit is made in a similar fashion to sensational onlineclickbaitheadlines and relies on advertising revenue generated from this activity, regardless of the veracity of the published stories.

Easy access to online advertisement revenue, increased political polarization between the left and right, and the ubiquity and popularity of online social media, primarily the Facebook newsfeed, have all been implicated in the spread of fake news. Anonymously-hosted fake news websites lacking known publishers have also been implicated, because they make it difficult to prosecute sources of fake news for libel or slander. The relevance of fake news has experienced greater growth in a post-truth political reality. (Quote source here.)

A few days ago I ran into an article published online in Politico Magazine by Jacob Soll titled, The Long and Brutal History of Fake News.” The subtitle states, “Bogus news has been around a lot longer than real news. And it’s left a lot of destruction behind.”

Soll opens his article with a brief and grueling history lesson on the power of #fakenews dating back to 1475 regarding the disappearance of a 2 1/2-year-old-boy that ended up with fifteen members of a Jewish community being found guilty and burned at the stake. They had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance, but the purveyors of #fakenews didn’t care about the actual facts. And Soll states, “The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar atrocities” (quote source here). #fakenews is meant to inflict the greatest possible harm to its target in a way that obliterates the truth.

Fake news isn’t just the latest buzzword to be bantered about in newsrooms and on social media. It’s deadly and it’s the stuff of propaganda. Soll states:

. . . Amid all the media hand wringing about fake news and how to deal with it, one fact seems to have gotten lost: Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print—a lot longer, in fact, than verified, “objective” news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago. From the start, fake news has tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices. And it has often provoked violence. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the same sorts of fake stories about ritual Jewish drinking of children’s blood that inspired Prince-Bishop Hinderbach in the 15th century [see article for background information]. Perhaps most dangerous is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be. As Pope Sixtus IV [see article for details] found out, wild fake stories with roots in popular prejudice often prove too much for responsible authorities to handle. With the decline of trusted news establishments around the country, who’s to stop them today?

Fake news took off at the same time that news began to circulate widely, after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439. “Real” news was hard to verify in that era. There were plenty of news sources—from official publications by political and religious authorities, to eyewitness accounts from sailors and merchants—but no concept of journalistic ethics or objectivity. Readers in search of fact had to pay close attention. In the 16th century, those who wanted real news believed that leaked secret government reports were reliable sources, such as Venetian government correspondence, known as relazioni. But it wasn’t long before leaked original documents were soon followed by fake relazioni leaks. By the 17th century, historians began to play a role in verifying the news by publishing their sources as verifiable footnotes. . . . (Quote source here.)

“Perhaps most dangerous is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be.” That is, no doubt, why is it used so effectively and pervasively. Soll’s article is quite informative, and he ends it with the following statement:

The Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2016” paints a grim picture for most serious news organizations. Advertising revenue is down; staffs continue to get cut; the number of newspapers has declined by 100 since 2004. Between 2003 and 2014, with the decline of the printed press, the number of professional statehouse reporters dropped 35 percent. Professional local beat reporters are also a dying breed. These figures, trained in basic journalistic principles, were locally known and trusted. They could be found in bars and local schools and acted as the human link between statehouses, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. population. They were seen as local heroes. (Jimmy Stewart often played truth-obsessed newspaper reporters in films, like the 1948 thriller “Call Northside 777.”) But today, these popular role models and societal links are gone, and with them, a trusted filter within civil society—the sort of filter that can say with authority to fellow local citizens that fake news is not only fake, it is also potentially deadly.

Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide. (Quote source here.)

In an article titled, How to Spot Fake News,” by Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson on FactCheck.org, a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Kiely and Robertson state:

Fake news is nothing new. But bogus stories can reach more people more quickly via social media than what good old-fashioned viral emails could accomplish in years past.

Concern about the phenomenon led Facebook and Google to announce that they’ll crack down on fake news sites, restricting their ability to garner ad revenue. Perhaps that could dissipate the amount of malarkey online, though news consumers themselves are the best defense against the spread of misinformation.

Not all of the misinformation being passed along online is complete fiction, though some of it is. Snopes.com has been exposing false viral claims since the mid 1990s, whether that’s fabricated messages, distortions containing bits of truth and everything in between. Founder David Mikkelson warned in a Nov. 17, 2016 article not to lump everything into the “fake news” category. “The fictions and fabrications that comprise fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also encompasses many forms of shoddy, unresearched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone,” he wrote.

A lot of these viral claims aren’t “news” at all, but fiction, satire and efforts to fool readers into thinking they’re for real . . .  [Quote source here). Additional information on how to spot fake news in this article is available at this link.]

Scope.com (mentioned above) has a fake news archive with the latest, up-to-the-minute reporting of #fakenews at this link. Established in 1995, Snopes states that it has “all the latest rumors, urban legends, myths and misinformation gathered together in one nifty list” (quote source and list available here).

In an article titled, The Real Consequences of Fake News,” by Akane Joseph, University of Hawaii Maui College, she states:

Today, we live in a world where information is readily at our fingertips and often behind a screen. Information online is easy to post, instant to view and can be shared quickly to a wide audience. While this can seem like a great advantage, there are also dangers that arise with the shift to online platforms. One of these dangers is the rise of fake news.

One of the reasons fake news is so dangerous is it often hides under the appearance of a legitimate news organization. Recently, Stanford researchers conducted an 18-month study which evaluated middle school, high school, and college students from 12 states and their ability to assess the information they see online. The results were in their words “bleak.” The researchers had hoped middle school students would be able to distinguish an advertisement from a news story, high school students would be able to recognize articles presented by a biased source, and college students would look at sources of articles which present only one side of an argument. “But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” said researchers. The data was so alarming that researches stated, “At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish”. . . .

The dangerous reality of fake news became apparent on December 4, 2016 when Edgar Maddison Welch shot a AR-15 assault rifle multiple times in Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C. pizzeria. Authorities reported that Welch’s actions were in response to a fake news article claiming a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton was hidden in the pizzeria. Thankfully no one was injured, but this incident gives rise to the question, in a situation like this who is responsible? Welch is now facing federal charges but should the person who wrote the fake news article be held accountable?

Not only is there real danger behind fake news but real money as well. The team at NPR’s Planet Money decided to track one popular fake news story titled “FBI Agents Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide,” which reportedly got 1.6 million views in 10 days, to its source. The story was originally published on the Denver Guardian, a fake news site made to look incredibly professional. Planet Money was able to track the Denver Guardian and several other fake news sites to one person, Jestin Coler. Planet Money interviewed Coler and while he wouldn’t share the exact profits he was making from fake news, he did admit it was around $10,000 to $30,000 a month. The money is made through advertisements that are featured on the fake news sites. . . .

. . . At a news conference in Berlin on November 17, 2016, President Obama said “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we cannot discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

With seemingly professional fake news so readily available online it is up to the reader to make sure information is accurate before they accept it as the truth. Before passing on information to others, readers can check sources and explore an article to make sure it is truthful and non-biased. Even though an article may confirm an opinion, it does not necessarily make it true. Philosopher Michael Lynch said that the internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer -often at the same time.” Consumers must keep that in mind as we use the internet as a tool while searching for the truth. (Quote source here. Links in article have been added.)

Here’s one last article on the seedier side of #fakenews titled, Why Does Fake News Exist? A Look Inside A Highly Lucrative Business,” by Financial SamuraiFinancial Samurai has been highlighted in major publications such as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal Online, Business Insider, The Consumerist, The Sydney Herald, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times (source here). Financial Samurai states:

Everywhere I go people seem to be talking about fake news. It’s fascinating to witness the war between Donald Trump and the mass media, especially CNN. The rare press conferences he hosts truly are entertaining to watch if you’re stuck on the throne longer than normal one morning. [Comment not endorsed by this blogger.]

As an online media entrepreneur who types from San Francisco, plenty of people have been asking me why there’s been such a proliferation of fake, very fake, or overly biased news. To understand fake news, we must understand the cast of characters. . . .

There are two main creators of fake news. The most egregious creator comes from non-journalists who put out spammy garbage you see on the web that’s simply untrue. The second creator of fake news is not so much fake news, but biased news coming from journalists with an agenda. Biased news isn’t as egregious since we all have our biases that are hard to extricate from our actions. However, biased journalists can do greater damage due to their large platforms.

With the use of clickbait titles, misinformation, and satire, fake news has the ability to affect public opinion about a person, country or issue (examples are available at this link).

The main reason why fake news exists is simply due to the desire for MONEY, lots of it! Once you follow the money, everything becomes much clearer. The #1 goal of every fake news creator is to get as many impressionable readers to click on their fake news articles as possible. More clicks means more advertising revenue.

Clickbait titles are very important because fake news creators cannot compete on substance. None of their articles will ever rank well on search (Google, Bing, etc) because most of their content is very thin and filled with grammatical errors on topics that are very ephemeral, e.g., “Southern California Floods Sweep Away Neverland Ranch, Revealing Michael Jackson Is Still Alive!”

The average fake news article might contain 250 words of gibberish, whereas the average article on Financial Samurai tends to be more evergreen with well over 1,200 words, complemented with charts and graphs. Due to the way search engines work, a fake news article would unlikely ever rank above an article I write about on the same topic. If it did, the search engine would be discredited and eventually lose a ton of money themselves.

Fake news creators are paid generally in the range of $1 – $10 per 1,000 impressions. Therefore, if a fake news creator can get 1,000,000 impressions a month, his website stands to earn $1,000 – $10,000 a month. If you’re a fake news teen earning $10,000 a month living in Macedonia [see article at this link] you’re crushing it because the Macedonia GDP per capita is less than $5,000. That’s like making $960,000 a year here in the U.S.!

So how do spammy garbage sites exist on the web if they can’t rank well in search?

The first reason is due to low barriers to entry. Anybody can start a website for less than $50 a year nowadays and compete with the Yahoos, the Forbes, The New York Times, and the Googles of the world. WordPress and other platforms make it easy to create good looking sites that used to cost tens of thousands to create. Chances of creating a reputable website off of fake news are low, but so is the opportunity cost.

The second reason why fake news exists is due to the enablers. More specifically: Facebook. Facebook has almost two billion users each day who waste about an hour of their lives on their platform. Facebook is the largest, most engaged social media platform in the world. Fake news creators know that people who spend lots of time on Facebook are often lonely, highly impressionable people who are looking for validation and a way out of their misery. Since misery loves company, negative fake news does very well.

Why does Facebook enable so much garbage in everybody’s news feed? Money, money, and more MONEY! (More information in this article regarding Facebook is available at this link.)

From the fake news creator’s perspective, if he can spend $1 on advertising to make $1.10 in advertising revenue off a bogus article, he’ll do it all day long until marginal cost exceeds marginal revenue. If you are a skilled fake news creator, sometimes you can spend $1 to make $2 in revenue, which is an absolute goldmine until arbitrage whittles away all profits.

Paying for clicks is what paid marketing is all about. Based on my experience consulting for various marketing departments who regularly spent $50,000 – $200,000 a month on online marketing, Facebook has the highest return on investment in paid marketing, much more so than Google Adwords, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

The reason? Facebook knows more about you than every other platform because you’re spending the most amount of time clicking and sharing on their platform. They track all your behavior and know everything you like and do. Therefore, an advertiser can target their ideal consumer much more granularly, e.g., a get rich quick scammer can target an insecure guy in massive credit card debt who constantly posts selfies of himself with things he cannot afford.

I’ve spoken to many engineers at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google about how easy it is to stop fake news from running on their platforms, and they all said it is very easy to do. All Facebook has to do is create a new screening algorithm and employ a team to randomly vet the output of these algorithms before articles are advertised on other people’s news feeds. Sure, they won’t catch all fake news, because “good” fake news almost seems like real news, but they’ll certainly reduce the number of fake news articles on their platform.

Ask yourself why there is no fake news on your LinkedIn feed compared to all the garbage on Facebook. The first reason is because LinkedIn doesn’t allow fake news. The second reason is because LinkedIn’s members won’t stand for fake news. They’ll actively report a fake news article and ruin the reputation of the fake news creator/poster. In other words, the quality of users is quite different.

Don’t think for one second a company with over $30 billion in revenues can’t do more to squash fake news on their platform. Even if you are worth millions or multi-billions, the desire for more money is often too strong to allow a person to do the right thing. . . .

Fake news is all about taking advantage of impressionable people in order to make more money. Thank goodness I’m not in the business of reporting the news because that is a never ending grind. But thank goodness there is fake news because it allows media people who build a brand based on substance to get ahead in the long run. . . .

The creators of fake news come from all over the world due to low barriers to entry. Geoarbitrage makes earning money online from a poorer country much more attractive. If all you have to do is make $417 a month in Macedonia ($5,000 per capita GDP) to replicate the $4,416 purchasing power a month in the United States ($53,000 per capita GDP), you’ll absolutely be drawn to the fake news business. Fake news headlines need to stir emotion, usually the negative kind that makes you rage.

Fake news is a get rich quick scheme. . . . (Quote source here). This article is much longer than the excerpts I have posted above and can be read at this link.

I have to admit that I learned a whole lot more about #fakenews than I ever knew before I wrote this blog post. May we all take our online viewing a lot more seriously as there is a lot of #fakenews out there, and unscrupulous folks are not only manipulating us, but they are getting rich off of us, too. . . .

And you shall know the truth . . .

And the truth . . .

Shall make you free . . . (John 8:32)

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