Fake news exposé brings real threats

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Communications prof Melissa Zindars posted an exposé of fake news, complete with a list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” Then, reports the Los Angeles Times, she took down the list, as  “a safety measure in response to threats and harassment she and her students and colleagues had received.” That’s the power, and the peril, of good reporting in a time when fake news wins elections and earns big bucks.

Zindar’s post, compiled as an aid for students, came under immediate attack from sites including WND, which was on the original list. WND, a right-wing site, called Zindar a “Trump-basher feminist” and slammed her for including right-wing sites (e.g. Breitbart and WND itself) on her list. WND completely ignored the fact that Zindar also listed left-wing sites (e.g., Occupy Democrats, Bipartisan Report), outright fakes (e.g., abc.com.co and Newswatch 28), and satirical sites ranging from The Onion to the much more dubious Daily Currant. Predictably, the right wing attackers also ignored the main thrust of Zindar’s publication–advice on how to identify phony news and questionable websites.

In Washington, James Alefantis is receiving personal death threats, threats to employees, and threats to burn down his Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. The New York Times reported that when he investigated the threats, he found a highly viral, targeted fake news campaign:

“He found dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms. The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, with one headline blaring: ‘Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.’”

All completely phony. One hundred percent fiction. And terribly dangerous:

“Most troubling for Mr. Alefantis and staff has been the use of children’s images, pilfered from the restaurant’s social media pages and the personal accounts of friends who had “liked” Comet Ping Pong online. Those photos have been used across dozens of websites. …

“Over the weekend, Comet Ping Pong received dozens of calls from people screaming obscenities and threats. Mr. Alefantis got 50 nasty Instagram direct messages, including one that warned, ‘This place should be burned to the ground!’”

Fake news is big business. A Buzzfeed investigation turned up a network of teens in Macedonia who made money from phony, pro-Trump websites:

“The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.”

Phony stories do better than real ones in garnering clicks and paying the bills. Nor is the fake news industry entirely a low-budget, off-shore operation. Paul Horner is a U.S. impresario of lies, who believes he may have swung the election for Trump. Horner told the Washington Post:

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore …

“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”

A just-released Stanford study confirms his conclusion – people don’t bother sorting facts from fiction. Nor do they distinguish between “sponsored content” produced by a business and actual reporting done by journalists:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped. …

“At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Whether or not fake news won the election, deceptive and divisive fakery poses a real and present danger to democracy. We need more media literacy, and that means teaching media literacy, beginning early and continuing as an essential part of civic education.

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I’ve written extensively about fake news and other problematic reporting of various kinds, including four fairly recent articles:

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