Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Rise of Fake News

Executive Summary:

The news media has been going through rapid changes over the last 20 years because of both financial chicanery and technological change. In the recent US presidential election it was revealed that websites publishing totally fake news actually out-performed real news sites on social media. This article explains the forces governing these changes, explains the rise of fake news, and suggests that the same forces are at work in what remains of the local corporate media in Guelph. It ends with a suggestion that citizens need to support alternative media---such as Guelph Politico and The Guelph Back-Grounder---if they are going to retain anything like a real local news infrastructure.


Yesterday I had a very fun interview with Adam Donaldson at the "Open Sources" radio show he does at CFRU. (When he publishes it on-line I'll tell you readers.) He mentioned in passing that it's been about a year since "the Mercury" folded. This led to a conversation about what is happening to the news business and the task of being an independent, self-employed journalist. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about where news is at in the 21st century.


There have been a flurry of stories recently about the impact that fake news sites and social media had on the last American presidential election. The issue isn't that there is such a thing as fake news---after all The National Enquirer has been printing that sort of thing for a very long time--but rather the way social media encourages far too many people to believe that it is true. When The National Enquirer is published it has to go through a long supply chain to end up shelved next to your grocery's cash register. And the company has a long and carefully-crafted brand image that the customer knows about.

The story that your friends forward to you on Facebook is totally different. Anyone with a passing knowledge of website design can create a fake template that looks "professional" which suggests that it is a legitimate news organization that publishes real news stories. Moreover, whereas The National Enquirer has to negotiate with advertisers and have them pay up front to sell their wrinkle cream in amidst stories about the Loch Ness monster and the escapades of the Royal family, these websites can sign up with Google Ad Sense in fifteen minutes and not have to explain to any business person why they are publishing fake news.

In short, it has become very, very easy to create fake news sites and fund them with advertising revenue sources---even if you don't give a damn about whether what you are saying is truthful or not.   

The second thing to realize is that social media has created a huge readership base that is disconnected with the usual informal mechanisms that people use to judge the truth value of an information source. When I was young people had very firm opinions about newspapers, magazines, etc. I can remember my parents snorting about a specific newspaper and saying "oh that's just a scandal rag---you can't believe anything you read in that".  News organizations used to be afraid of destroying public trust in their organization, because if it ever happened, they would probably lose these readers for the rest of their lives. Getting caught writing blatantly fake news would be a disaster.

But nowadays many people only get their news from things like Facebook, Twitter, or, comedy shows. This means that they are receiving discrete "bits" of news totally devoid of a context. I don't know how many times I've had friends send links on my feed to stories that were out and out fake, and I easily showed why by accessing a fact-checking site like Snopes.

This happens for a variety of reasons.

First of all, when a story is recommended to you through a Facebook feed they all look the same. This is because of the mechanics of recommending stories.  You are encouraged to write a little introduction "I just saw this on the web and wow, does it ever explain why things are the way they are". Then when you put in the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) address, Facebook automatically selects a few lines plus a graphic image to identify the story. This "levels the playing field" in a way that confuses people used to assessing the truth value of a newspaper by looking at the masthead, the quality of the paper, the sort of font used, etc. If everything looks the same, then people never develop an unconscious ability to separate the authoritative and respectable from the questionable and disreputable.

Secondly, social media is social, which is to say that it has more in common with "small talk" at a party than a philosophy seminar at university. People at parties who try to pick holes in the opinions of other people are not "good guests" (which is why people often think that I am a huge pain in the butt.) What this means is that the vast majority of people---even if they suspect that a recommended story is baloney---will not respond to a piece of fake news by pointing out obvious inaccuracies. That's just not what "nice" people do!

Even worse, social media is also like a "party" in that it picks the "guest list" and makes sure that only some people---and advertisers---get invited. This is the infamous "echo chamber" effect. People tend to associate with people of like mind, which means that they are shielded from unpleasant people (like me) pointing out errors in reasoning or reliance on inaccurate information sources.

So while the ability to create fake news is easier than ever before, because it is spread by social media, people now have a much harder time identifying fake news as "fake" than they have had in the past. 

Beyond the "echo chamber" effect of people tending to clump together into groups of like minded individuals, Google AdSense has also created the new ability to individually craft advertisements to fit the specific browsing history of individuals. This means that when you or I look at the same site using the Google search engine, we see different advertisements---based on what the Google algorithm sees you as being interested in.  And in the last presidential election in the USA, it meant that the Trump campaign could "zoom in" on the people who were passing around and reading stories that slagged Hillary Clinton and buy advertising for Donald Trump to get out the vote.

Now this ability of advertisers to connect with a specific demographic---totally based on their reaction to "news" content---allows people creating fake news sites to make a lot of money. They did this by crafting news stories that would attract the sort of person they knew their advertisers would want to fund, and, by watching how often their stories ended up being shared in places like Facebook. And since they were making all of this stuff up anyway, it means that they could keep experimenting until they found a "sweet spot" that got maximum sharing and maximum ad revenue. The people who were able to do this made a lot of money. Some of the people who did so have been identified---one cluster are a bunch of teenagers from Macedonian, of all places! This "positive feedback loop" rewarded the fake news people and ensured that they continued to produce it.


(This teenager only identified as "Victor" is the editor of fake news site, "Total News". For the past several months leading up to the presidential election, fake news stories like the ones written on Victor's site flooded social media. From a "Daily Mail" story.)

This means that at a time when it is tremendously easy to create fake news, and extremely hard for ordinary people to identify it as such, there is a tremendous financial inducement for individuals to do so. 

In effect, we are facing a "perfect storm" where several technological innovations are creating a whole industry designed to pulling the wool over people's eyes. The result is the following trend. In the last American election fake news was shared more often than real news.

From BuzzFeed News
"This Analysis Shows How Fake Election
News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook"


This alone would be bad enough, but the mainstream news organizations have been declining in quality for at least twenty years and are now at the point where it is extremely hard to believe that any of them are still worth defending. Again, this is the result of a "perfect" storm, one of a totally different type.

At one time local newspapers---like "The Mercury"---were tremendously profitable. This was because they had stable readership, a constant flow of advertising revenue, and, no effective competition. Unfortunately, various big business types like Conrad Black, Ken Thompson, etc, figured out that if you bought a small town newspaper you could dramatically improve profitability by laying off editorial staff without having any immediate discernible effect on revenue. So what they would do is buy a newspaper for more than it was worth given it's current profits, lay off a bunch of reporters, and, use reprinted stories from other news organizations and syndicated columnists to substitute for the lack of original, local content. By cutting editorial staff, the profits of the paper would go up to the point where the owner could pay off the investors that he borrowed from to buy the paper in the first place. Often, he would then sell the paper at a profit to another investor. Then the process would start all over again. When I started hanging around "the Merc" many years ago this process had just started and for about ten years the paper changed hands about once a year. And every time it did so, there would be fewer people in the news room.

This led to a tremendous decline in news content. But because subscribers and advertisers had nowhere else to go, most people just grumbled and "sucked it up" while venture capitalists bled their town's news infrastructure dry. Then along came the Internet. People found that they could access news on-line for free and advertisers found that they could target advertisements directly at the people most likely to want their products. This left the old news organizations in a terrible bind. Their only competitive edge---local, high-quality news content---had been destroyed by the years of cost-cutting to pay for junk bonds. This meant that they had no loyal customer base to support them, so their revenue effectively dried up and papers like The Mercury went out of business.

Venture capitalists had already destroyed the "brand" of mainstream media so when significant competition arrived from the Internet, mainstream media no longer had a loyal customer base to support them. 

What is left of the "legacy media" has been trying to adapt to the new reality. Unfortunately, the ways that they have tried to do so have only accelerated the decline in quality news collection.

One way to protect an existing brand is by hyping up individuals into "stars" and then building customer loyalty around them. Probably the best example of this corporate strategy is the way the CBC has been pushing specific "stars" such as Rex Murphy and Jian Ghomeshi, but there are other examples in the private sector such as The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente. What the publishers are trying to do is two-fold.

Primarily, they are attempting to use a specific person to access tribal loyalty of a specific fraction of the general public. In the case of Murphy and Wente, it is obviously right-wingers who don't believe in climate change and who think that there is a class of "social engineers" who are out to change the world into some sort of socialist, "politically correct", dystopia. In Ghomeshi's, it was an attempt to draw in the young, urban, "hip" demographic that CBC radio had pretty much lost.

In all three cases, the decision seems to have been somewhat successful. Lots of people seem to like Rex Murphy, Jian Ghomeshi, and, Margaret Wente. The problem is, however, that when you hire people and make them stars based on "tribal identity" instead of their ability to actually do good research and reason clearly, you end up creating monsters. What is the definition of "stupid"?---someone who refuses to listen to evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs and cannot understand when someone points out the flaws in their thought process. I would argue that that pretty much describes someone who ends up being a media star aimed at a specific demographic. Creating media stars is a process of rewarding people because they are stupid in a particularly popular way.

So it turns out that Rex Murphy's inability to understand the truth of climate change has been greased by lucrative speaking contracts by the oil patch and our public broadcaster embarrassed itself by saying it's lack of action on a clear conflict of interest was because Murphy is an "independent contractor" instead of a "paid employee". It also turns out that CBC had invested so much into creating a star out of Jian Ghomeshi that they allowed him to treat the women around him in a way that would have led to a "less important" employee's dismissal within an instant. And The Globe and Mail has made it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing Margaret Wente can do in terms of plagiarism that will lead to her dismissal. The problem ultimately comes down to the story of the lady riding the tiger, once a media institution goes to the effort of building up a "star" personality, the name recognition (and the power that brings) belongs to the celebrity and not the organization. The conservative media in the US built Donald Trump up into a star too, but once they tried to reign him in, he ended up eating them.

The legacy media has attempted to stop it's decline by creating media stars. In doing so, however, it has accelerated the decline of accurate, high-quality content.

Another way that the existing media is attempting to stay alive is by throwing their objectivity out the window in ways that save them money. One recent example involved The Globe and Mail's Deirdre Kelly writing a glowing story about a Northern diamond mine without making any serious reference to local opposition---or stating that De Beers Diamonds paid for the trip. It even seems that Kelly may have actually received a "gift" of some diamonds from Birk's diamonds.  Wow!  A paper can save a lot of money if the expenses for their feature stories get paid for by outsiders. Indeed, it would appear that The Globe has a whole department called "the custom content group" who's job it is to write stories that accompany advertisements called "advertorials".

Actually, this has been a pretty standard activity in newspapers for a long time. The "Travel", "Homes", "Style", and, "Cars", features of newspapers have for a very long time been not much more than "advertorial" sections where "the custom content group" of your paper writes "puff pieces" in order to get advertising from airlines, real estate agencies, clothing retailers, and, auto dealerships. In addition, for a very long time opinion pieces on editorial pages have often been written by highly funded "think tanks" which are often not much more than propaganda organizations that exist to send slanted "free copy" to newspapers that are desperately trying to cut costs. What is new is the way this sort of chicanery is bleeding into the part of the newspaper that is supposed to be "fair", "balanced", and, "objective".

One of the points that Adam Donaldson made in our conversation was that he thinks that most of the people who were upset about The Mercury going out of business seem to have accepted that the new replacement, Guelph Today, is an adequate substitute. I have to disagree. The old corporate media did not serve our community well, and I see no evidence that it will do much better of a job in a new "post-paper" age. People should think about some of the issues that I've raised in the above essay.

Guelph Today is completely paid for through advertising. This means that it's primary loyalty is always going to be to the advertisers, not it's readers.

Secondly, it's revenues are based on traffic at the website, not a fixed payment per advertisement. This means that there will be constant financial pressure on reporters to write more and shorter articles instead of longer, in-depth ones. If a story is 10,000 words long, it will get just as many clicks as one that is only 100 words long. And if a reporter writes 100, 100 word articles the paper will make 100 times as much advertising revenue for them as it does for one 10,000 word story. This is a prescription for "dumbing down" the readership, as complex ideas encompassing new information simply cannot be written in short, snappy articles.

Finally, if you look at "Guelph Today" you can see that at the end of every story there are buttons that encourage people to share the story on Facebook, Twitter, or, email. (As there are on mine.) This means that part of the advertising strategy of news organizations like "Guelph Today" is to encourage people to share the stories through social media. If they want to "hit the jackpot" (like those kids in Macedonia) and make a lot of money off a story, they are going to have to get a lot of people to share it. And, the last US federal election has shown the best way to do this is to craft sensationalist stories that appeal to a specific tribe of people who already have strong preconceived notions. If a corporate, for-profit business uses the same tools and revenue source as the purveyors of fake news, how long is it going to be before they start following the same strategy in order to pay off investors?

This is why I believe that the people of Guelph should be supporting initiatives like Adam Donaldson's Politico and The Guelph Back-Grounder. This is actually in some ways an interesting time. The new technology of the Internet has "leveled the playing field" in some interesting ways. It really doesn't cost much to put out a news magazine anymore. Equally important, through Patreon and Pay Pal, it is possible for a "little guy" to raise money off content without onerous bank fees eating up all the revenue. But people are going to have to want to support projects like these through subscription fees. Why not advertising? Well, if you have read the above article, you should probably have seen that underlying just about every problem that I have identified is the pervasive and pernicious influence of advertising. If you read an on-line news source for free, YOU are the product for sale, not the story. Even if you aren't looking at advertising, your information is being collected, packaged and being sold to advertisers. If you pay for what you read, then you are the ultimate boss, not some corporate marketing directory.

This isn't to say that Politico and the Back-Grounder are aiming to put corporate media out of business. We aren't going to make the CBC irrelevant either. But if the community decides to financially support "outsiders" who bring informed, newsworthy stories to the community, they can act like "scrappy little dogs" who can keep the bigger "media oxen" from trampling the community into the ground. If you find my argument convincing, take a look at the two buttons on the upper right of page and figure out how much you can give to support the Back-Grounder. And if you can't afford to give me money---something I understand completely---share the Back-Grounder on social media, add a button if you have your own website, subscribe to me on twitter, or do something else to spread the word about the site.

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