Did you hear about the deep fried rat at KFC? Or how about the two Floridians who were arrested for selling golden tickets to heaven? If you frequent social media, you have probably seen these stories on your feeds. They are fascinating stories—if only they were true. The age of information is also the age of deceit, and deceit pays for a small but growing industry of fake news sites.
The internet is a vast sea of undifferentiated information. In a perverse variation of the Kevin Bacon game of association, a Wikipedia article links to a web site, which links to a personal blog, which links to a forum post, which links to a site purporting the moon landings were faked as a conspiracy to allow the Trilateral Commission authority to fluoridate the water supply. Where along the chain does fact end and fiction begin? There are no signs warning unwary sailors on the perilous internet seas that they are going off the charts, entering the ultima Thule of the unknown, the unmonitored, the unreliable. Fables and fact occupy the same space on the internet map and convey the same outward appearance of authority. Hoax sites rely on that invisible line.
Being taken in by fake stories is not a new phenomena, even for governments. World media famously derided North Korean news agencies for being unable to discern the satire in an Onion article. Chinese outlets have quoted hoaxes as well—the stresses of cultural differences, language, and unfamiliarity with foreign personalities confusing the issue. Fake stories are repeated in the reputable press, as when the Washington Post ran a fake news article claiming Sarah Palin was joining Al Jazeera America. The situation is bad enough, the Washington Post has a weekly feature explaining what was fake on the internet. Even before the emergence of hoax web sites, chain emails and urban legends carried unsubstantiated facts and information to an unwary public. It is a long tradition, but one that has exploded in recent years in part due to the speed of social media. Virality allows an interesting story to spread across the internet like wildfire. The history of the internet is littered with these stories: Kony 2000 and the Dress come to mind. For some it is a model to be emulated—by any means possible, for the promise of making a tidy profit.
The ease of posting simple, intentionally viral content to gain attention and the need to stand out in an increasing crowded internet pantheon of web sites has spurred the proliferation of sites dealing with “funny” news. Unfortunately, in the desperate chase for page views and likes, smart satire has given way to simply faking shocking and attention grabbing headlines. They are easier to produce, the path of least resistance for upstart web sites trying to pull in page views while shielding their actions by posting disclaimers about satirical content. The problem lies in the fact the internet does not respect or understand virtual boundaries. Stories are pulled free from their context and away from any small disclaimers buried in their pages that a site contains about its content. Disclaimers are a disingenuous fiction for fake news sites. The worst offenders adopt intentionally misleading names to trick readers, banking on the lack of due diligence fostered by modern internet culture. The misleading domain names also work to fool the algorithms of social media sites, helping ensure their posts will show up on your Facebook news feed. Most internet users will read a story not on a web site but as a post on social media, possibly browse the article without checking the site it came from, and then forward it on. The currency of the internet and the metric of success is traffic and page views that equate to real dollars. Even a moments perusal of a web page counts as traffic and in the end, that is the standard that counts.
The success of hoax news relies on two intersecting points. The first is the lack of discretion by internet users when clicking links. The second is the internet’s own lack of structures. Modern internet culture has bred a culture of complacence when it comes to credibility. The rules for avoiding physical threats such as viruses and malware are common knowledge, but intellectual security has.
Traditional libraries and repositories of information have guardians at the gates and curators within the stacks. Librarians and the institutions that run traditional libraries, be they governments or universities, are able to examine and vet books or articles that finds their way onto their shelves. Even a bookstore has an established order and a casual browser will be able to detect any discrepancies. A Bible is out of place in the Sports section. A book on UFO sightings would raise eyebrows on the History shelf. The internet has no such categorizations, no such way for an internet user to gauge the merits the information presented unless they themselves dig further.
The problem is compounded by general lack of followup. As information comes our way through social media and alternative forms of transmission, there is a likelihood that a retraction or correction to fake article will never seen by a percentage of readers. The hoax is then filed away in the mind, a snippet transformed over time into a nebulous fact. The foreseeable permanence of the internet will ensure these invented fantasies will continue to have a second life. While web sites may come and go, the story will live on in fragments. Like a road to a demolished town, the path may lead to nowhere, but the signposts and markings indelibly left behind will continue to perplex and mislead.
Five Fake News Sites to Avoid: http://now.snopes.com/2015/05/12/five-fake-news-sites/ (link no longer accessible).
The Great Satirical-News Scam of 2014: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118013/satire-news-websites-are-cashing-gullible-outraged-readers
The 9 Worst Fake News Sites: http://factually.gizmodo.com/the-9-worst-fake-news-sites-1681729157
Watch out for this fake news website masquerading as The New York Times: http://www.businessinsider.com/nytimescomco-posts-fake-news-articles-pretending-to-be-the-new-york-times-2015-6#ixzz3eVcw0FXL
What was fake on the Internet this week: KFC’s deep-fried rats, shark selfies and Miley Cyrus’s Bible-burning: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/06/19/what-was-fake-on-the-internet-this-week-kfcs-deep-fried-rats-shark-selfies-and-miley-cyruss-bible-burning/