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 attack, it 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.
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.
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.