Brain Chatter: This is How Fake News Gets Around

November 29, 2017 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

From stories of the fantastical to a Trump buzzword – Fake News has certainly travelled the course of time and seen some things.

But how did we find it? Where did it come from? Is it sponsored, or are we finding it organically?

In our first two installments of Fake News we covered what Fake News is and where it came from, all the way back to the 16th century.  

For this part of the story, we’re covering how it gets around.

Back in the day (that is, 16th century), we explained that fake news was something that was shouted in town squares as people gathered to listen and look at gory pictures in broadsides.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, it’s a little different than that.

Two words: social media.

We’re not going to spend time explaining how social media quickly disseminates information. Not only is that a long song and dance, but despite its complexity people understand that social media is essentially a soap box with an unlimited audience.

Platforms like Facebook, and Google even, have come under fire for alleged complicity in spreading fake news.

The thing is, these platforms are most likely (we hope) not purposely spreading fake information. Unfortunately, by nature, social media platforms are almost inevitably embroiled in this all.

On top of being able to spread information quickly, social media is also home to a ton of ads – think “Don’t Eat These 16 Cancer Causing Foods.” Ads of which are on fake news websites. Ads that make a lot of money because they are so widely shared, emailed, and clicked on.

Platforms have done their best to fight it. Facebook is working on creating tools that can detect fake news. Google has made financial contributions to educating people on the importance of quality news. Heck, even China – an entire country – has created a website for citizens to report “distorted headlines”, albeit that related to its military.

The thing is, when one crack is sealed, another is revealed and fake news finds it.  

How? We’ll let the experts do the talking.

Fortune recently wrote about the work of Jonathan Albright, a professor and researcher in journalism, who has researched how traffic is being generated by fake news websites.

Albright maintained that banning fake news sites from running ads isn’t the answer.

Here’s why:

That’s because much of the traffic to and from those sites—and therefore their presence at the top of Google’s search engine or high up in the Facebook news feed—is achieved organically, he argued. Many seemed to be driven primarily by sharing through old-fashioned networks. In other words: they’re sent via email.

Statista has done some work on this topic as well, visualizing the data that shows the traffic sources.   

Albright has done a ton of research and coverage on distribution on his Medium feed. As we said before, we’ll let him do the talking on this topic. But here’s one idea he articulates that really breaks the issue down:

“Bottom line: There’s no magical “algorithmic” solution to the fake news problem…”

The plot thickens.

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