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Nov 28, 2016

News, news everywhere, but not a word of it is real

Publishing fake news has proven a lucrative business model -- with very real consequences.

Did you see the heartwarming story that the founder of Corona beer left millions of dollars to everyone in his small town in his will? It was widely reported — the perfect story for sharing on Facebook. The problem is that, like the story of Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump or the myth that Hillary Clinton slept through the Benghazi attackit is not true.

During a US election in which the mainstream media emerged as a key battleground, attacked and criticised for bias and elitism — attacks, one has to conclude, at least partly vindicated by the final election result — the key takeaway message for most major media companies has been that fake “news” articles on social media misled the electorate, and Facebook is to blame.

Tensions have been running hot between media companies and Facebook for some time. The social network has become traditional media’s primary means of distribution and has diluted traditional media organisations’ once-powerful brands. In securing a large proportion of digital advertising while investing no serious money into the production of journalism, Facebook and Google have not been good for democracy, which requires a robust, well-funded media to ensure accountability. By sending readers to “news sites” that tell them attractive lies they hope readers will share far and wide, social media networks are complicit in using people’s gullibility to sell them a version of the world as they wish to see it — divorced from truth, and useless for the purposes of democratic accountability.

But Facebook and most of the media are, essentially, in the same game. Both are for the most part paid not as a function of their civic duty, or even their usefulness to their users or readers, but instead to monetise readers’ attention on the internet, sold on to advertisers. This has profound implications for what kind of content does best online — and the proliferation of fake news is but one negative outcome.

[How Facebook is screwing over digital publishers (including Crikey)]

Facebook is responding to the same incentives media companies do — incentives that have led them into doing just what Facebook does.

For several years now, affiliate links have been appearing on the bottom of articles on serious media outfits (including on Crikey, through Taboola). These links are run by external companies — Outbrain, Taboola, Plist, Revcontent and others — which are themselves paid by other websites to serve up these links. Whenever a user clicks on one of these links from a news website, the original website and the affiliate-links company (e.g. Taboola) each get a payment. As a way of funding journalism, this has been extraordinarily successful. Outbrain has said some publishers rely on it for up to a third of their revenue.

But it’s not without cost. Most of what is served up using such platforms is content marketing — advertorials on company websites that established news sites send readers to for a small fee. But such affiliate links have also been used by dodgy websites that seek to make money off a form of ad arbitrage. As long as users who click through are worth more to the advertisers on those sites than the dodgy site that pays the aggregator to serve up its links, it’s worth using affiliate links to secure readers. And like on Facebook, the best way to get people to click is to serve them “surprising” information that confirms their existing prejudices. Fake news does this well. Companies behind affiliate linking have made a big song and dance about trying to clamp down on this stuff, but your correspondent has often seen fake news on such affiliate links sections nonetheless.

cnnmoneyoutbrain

The above was served up to a reader on CNN Money via Outbrain. The first link hypes a prediction Social Security will run out of money this year. The third link is a not-very-salacious slideshow of Bill Clinton that loads an invasive pop-up ad with every photo

And then, of course, there are all the times news outlets are taken in by false stories themselves — hastily put up with inadequate fact-checking as they chase clicks. That seems to be what happened with the Corona story.

This isn’t intended to paint publishers’ as hypocrites for calling out Facebook for something they engage in themselves. It’s a problem many news outlets area aware of, and a reason many are considering dumping affiliate links altogether. But the lure of the dollars that float in the murkier parts of the internet is seductive to both Facebook and traditional media outlets.

It would be the responsible thing for Facebook to prioritise reliable sources over unreliable ones when deciding what to serve up in people’s news feeds. But this is expensive, and not always in Facebook’s commercial interest, so perhaps it’s no surprise CEO Mark Zuckerberg was initially reticent to do anything to change Facebook’s news feed settings. Public pressure finally forced him to outline “projects” Facebook was undertaking to handle the problem.

[Some native ads to get regulated under new advertising code]

Established media companies have cultural and ethical prohibitions against lying outright to their readers for the sake of getting attention (though misleading them or offering only a partial truth are well-established genres of journalism). Others are not so scrupulous. People will always lie for political advantage, but the current vapours over fake news are driven by something else — a growing realisation of the commercial logic of this kind of content. This is a sickness of advertising.

The internet is funded by advertising, and for advertisers, the most valuable commodity is people’s attention. This is why fake news flourishes; it’s a better means of getting people’s attention than the truth, which is often mundane, messy, murky or insignificant. When the unyielding goal of online content is to monopolise people’s attention, it is the logical end result.

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “News, news everywhere, but not a word of it is real

  1. Andrew Seeze

    hahaha. Don’t you love it when the MSM gets beaten at it’s own game.

    1. Saugoof

      No, I really don’t because, like it or not, the alternative is disastrous.

  2. Daly

    Because all commercial media have been dependent on advertising for ever, governments set up public broadcasters like the ABS,SBS, BBC etc. Only in the US were they not a main player in the media space. Now it is irrelevant because the media hunts as a pack and is only focused on ‘breaking news’. Pity those, like me, who like investigative and long form fact based journalism. I would like some information on which to base my thinking and my democratic duty. Radio National is being threatened from ‘cutbacks’. Where should a reader go?

  3. klewso

    Is it that much worse than the crap we get from our msm -not least Limited News with it’s agenda – where “entertainment” rules?

  4. Bill Hilliger

    The above article states: facebook and google are not good for democracy which requires a robust and well funded media. Well, well, an organisation like NewsCrap is also not good for democracy. Some years ago due to clever and canny accounting practices managed to lay their hands on som $800 million. Now that is certainly not good for democracy nor the Australian taxpayers. Ha, ha, ha the MSM complaining about false stories need look no further than the TeleCrap stories that have been peddled to a gullible public. Maybe for the MSM the game is finally up. I notice at airports free NewsCrap products are mostly ignored by the travelling public. Given some of the morons working and contributing to that organisation, is it any wonder?

    1. Andrew Seeze

      With it’s current debt levels, Fake News Corp is technically insolvent. Maybe not even technically. If it was n’t for it’s usefulness as just another tentacle of the mass media control mechanism the banks would have sold it up years ago.

  5. AR

    Myriam, that is a dire final line. I’m scared.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    There’s just a razor thin sliver between News Ltd and these fake news websites, and a Miranda Devine or Piers Akerman article is no better than an IPA research paper or an internet forum discussing who hates lefties the most.

    They’re all trolls.

  7. mary wood

    I find this “post truth” in the MSM and social media quite frightening. With the coalition government (plus friends and Backers) going all out to destroy the ABC I fear they (and we) will live to rue this demolition. The ABC has for many years been voted the most trusted news outlet, and when that is completely gone – not long now – there is no other. As Kevin Rudd found out to his cost when trust has gone it cannot be rebuilt. What will they do when they genuinely need/want to speak to the Australian people, for instance in a time of real crisis, and there is no trusted news outlet. Or when they want to communicate an election policy, or anything else of importance. Good luck with that.

    1. klewso

      The assault on the ABC is like the invasion of Iraq – there’s no plan for what they want to do when it’s raized.
      And Murdoch’s been involved in both – one (as FUX News) embedded to handle the PR and the other because it’s a competitor.

  8. Sally Goldner

    More & more it’s a case of of the old gag: “did you hear about the media outlet who thought ethics was a county in England?”

  9. Evan Denton

    Sick of fake news? Tune in to UK researcher Richard D Hall who has done some impressive work with his series of documentaries investigating the Madeline McCann case. This is a classic case where mainstream media has played a crucial role in perception management. It is exposed for being nothing more than a tightly controlled propaganda machine and gatekeeper of truth.

  10. klewso

    Modern msm, with it’s emphasis on projecting the politics of the presenter (hired and promoted as they are, along ideological lines), is a scourge on society.
    Where news is commodified – to sell ad space and politics.
    Swept into this gutter by the priorities of those paying the bills and wages.

    1. klewso

      Even at the ABC.
      The overt “Lefty” Alberici (- Lateline Feb; 2, this year) – after dealing with “Labor’s stunt”, she goes on to “interview” O’Connor and Dutton – in two different demeanors – hectoring O’Connor with her own facts and faith in Heydon’s findings : while comparatively sanguine to Dutton?
      And this was after the earlier (prerecorded) report on how Bishop had cancelled the passport of the whistle-blower due to attend The Hague to give evidence re the buggery of East Timor?
      Nothing is going to get her to question her faith in the righteousness of her Limited News Party?

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