Fake News Gets Serious Attention

This 'big business' has an ever bigger spotlight on it now — but there should be no collateral damage

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 28 Nov 2016 at 11:26 AM

Fake news has become big business. You’ve likely seen plenty of ads boasting of an actor’s premature death or other rumors that don’t quite sound right. You may have even needed to correct a friend or acquaintance who’s been spreading around a news story on social media that sounds so outlandish, you had to google it yourself … and, yup, it’s phony.

Fake political news has become a hot topic in the wake of the election. A recent analysis found that top fake news stories outperformed legitimate news stories from places like The Washington Post and The New York Times on Facebook in the final three months of the election. The analysis was done by Buzzfeed, by the way.

Speaking last week in Berlin, even President Obama touched on the rise of false political news: "If we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems." The new spotlight on the growing industry of "infotainment" has even forced some faces to be put to viral stories.

For a recent article, NPR tracked down a man named Jestin Coler, the owner of a website trafficking in false news. The man, who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles, told NPR his spreading of fake news had nothing to do with money, but rather with infiltrating the Alt-Right — or something like that. "The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction," Coler told NPR.

Coler's various websites run false political news aimed at conservatives. He told NPR he makes between $10,000 and $30,000 a month from ad revenue.

One man admitted that his interest in setting up websites that spread false headlines and news was simple: "For me, this is all about income — nothing more."

Google recently announced it would ban websites that spread fake news stories and use their ad service. Facebook also recently announced it would make it easier to flag fake news stories.

Coler revealed that one of his sites was already banned by Google's new guidelines — but that did little good. "There are literally hundreds of ad networks," he told NPR. "Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google was cracking down — hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites."

The New York Times caught up with another fake news creator who specializes in the same outlandish political stories that so often go viral across social media. Beqa Latsabidze, out of the nation of Georgia, admitted his interest in setting up websites that spread false headlines and news was simple: "For me, this is all about income — nothing more."

Latsabidze's phony news has included headlines like, "The Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States" and "This Is Huuge! International Arrest Warrant Issued By Putin For George Soros!"

Related: The False Narrative of a Vindictive Trump

Both stories were unequivocally false — but the former managed to be the third most popular fake news story on Facebook from May through July.

Of course, with a growing business revolving around phony news has come the business of busting said news. Snopes.com has become a popular go-to website: It fact checks many of the false stories spread around the web, political or not.

Some stories the website has worked to debunk include one about the cultural icon and dead gorilla, Harambe, receiving over 10,000 votes on election night. By finding the source of the story and tracking the steps of the rumor as it went viral, Snopes works to debunk any and all false facts. Note: Harambe did not receive over 10,000 votes on election night.

Still, after a heated election season, fake news is big business, with an even bigger spotlight on it. While the average person has the resources available to dismiss silly headlines and false reports, the response to the spread of phony news may be more dangerous than the viral falseness itself.

Related: Facebook 'Unfriends' Conservatives

Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all upped their games in censorship, and some on the Left are even claiming Russia and other countries are manipulating fake news to control election outcomes (note: Coler and Latsabidze both worked independently). Obama even upgraded the for-profit nonsense to the level of "propaganda."

Phony news should not open the door to censorship, speech regulation, or government oversight. Justin Coler already admitted to NPR that Google's new guidelines won't stop him and his false news, after all. Regulation and censorship typically always miss their intended target and instead usually only create collateral damage, especially if the government gets involved.

Just remember, folks: If it sounds fake, it usually is ... or you can just reassure yourself with a simple Google search.

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