Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fake News

In Fake News, Ben Thompson at Stratechery argues (and I agree) that:
The reason the media covered Trump so extensively is quite simple: that is what users wanted. And, in a world where media is a commodity, to act as if one has the editorial prerogative to not cover a candidate users want to see is to face that reality square in the face absent the clicks that make the medicine easier to take.

Indeed, this is the same reason fake news flourishes: because users want it. These sites get traffic because users click on their articles and share them, because they confirm what they already think to be true. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug — and, as Techcrunch reporter Kim-Mai Cutler so aptly put it on Twitter, it’s a hell of a business model.
No feet on the street
But, as I pointed out in Open Access and Surveillance using this graph (via Yves Smith, base from Carpe Diem), there is another problem. Facebook, Google et al have greatly increased the demand for "news" while they sucked the advertising dollars away from the companies that generated actual news. The result has to be a reduction in the quality of news. The invisible hand of the market ensures that a supply of news-like substances arises, from low-cost suppliers to fill the gap.

Thompson concludes:
I am well aware of the problematic aspects of Facebook’s impact; I am particularly worried about the ease with which we sort ourselves into tribes, in part because of the filter bubble effect noted above (that’s one of the reasons Why Twitter Must Be Saved). But the solution is not the reimposition of gatekeepers done in by the Internet; whatever fixes this problem must spring from the power of the Internet, and the fact that each of us, if we choose, has access to more information and sources of truth than ever before, and more ways to reach out and understand and persuade those with whom we disagree. Yes, that is more work than demanding Zuckerberg change what people see, but giving up liberty for laziness never works out well in the end.
Its hard to disagree, but I think Thompson should acknowledge that the idea that "each of us ... has access to more information and sources of truth than ever before" is imperiled by the drain of resources away from those whose job it is to seek out the "sources of truth" and make them available to us.


David. said...

An anonymous Slashdot reader writes:

"We take misinformation seriously," Facebook's CEO announced in a late-night status update Friday. "Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We've been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We've made significant progress, but there is more work to be done."

But you know what's funny? The ad to the right of Zuck's post is fake news. It has the headline "Hugh Hefner Says 'Goodbye' at 90" and a quote from his wife saying "I can't believe he is actually gone," even though Hugh Hefner isn't dead. And clicking through, it's just another lame ad for erectile dysfunction -- on a site that's been tricked up to look like Fox News.

EditorDavid responds:

"But apparently it's pretty easy to get fake news onto Facebook -- you just have to pay them."

David. said...

Isabella Kaminska at Alphaville has a must-read piece on the fake news issue:

"To the contrary, what really underpins the malaise of modern digital media is the medium’s inability to properly contextualise the news as well as the commercial impulse to prioritise comment over everything (because that’s where the money is)."


"Don’t make Facebook and Google filter fake news. If you value truly balanced and verified news; if you value comment which scrutinises vested interests, business models or government policy; or if you value being confronted by views which are different from your own but still well argued, pay for the news, don’t just get it from Facebook."

David. said...

Lee Fang's Some Fake News Publishers Just Happen to Be Donald Trump’s Cronies shows where quite a lot of the news-like substances are coming from.

Tim O'Reilly describes How I Detect Fake News.

David. said...

Tim Wu's new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads shows that fake news goes back a long way. In 1835 James Gordon Bennett's The Morning Herald, competing with Benjamin Day's market leading New York Sun ran a five-part series recounting the "discoveries" Sir John Herschel made with his new telescope at the Cape of Good Hope. They included that:

"the moon was covered with great seas and canyons, pillars of red rock and lunar trees [and] large, winged creatures"

This was:

"widely accepted, in part thanks to the scientific style ... the pretense that the story was reprinted from a respectable Edinburgh journal, and the impossibility of replicating with the naked eye the findings of the world's largest telescope. The series was, understandably, a sensation and the initial runs of the newspaper sold out."

David. said...

Carole Cadwalladr's Google, democracy and the truth about internet search is a depressing look at who is putting the money and resources into generating the "more information and sources of truth than ever before". Its not the traditional media, nor the Internet companies like Google and Facebook. Its the far right.

David. said...

See, for an example of what Cadwalladr is writing about, here.

David. said...

Benjamin Mullins' These two stats from The New York Times should give newspapers hope reports that the rot at the New York Times has slowed:

"Print ads are gradually becoming a smaller piece of The New York Times overall revenue mix. According to media analyst Ken Doctor, Thompson told the crowd that ink-and-paper spots now comprise slightly more than a fifth of overall revenue ... print revenue — the category that's shrinking the fastest — now represents a relatively small fraction of the Times' overall business. That means other categories, such as digital subscriptions, native advertising and events, have begun to fill that gap."


"Today, Thompson announced the paper has added 200,000 subscribers this quarter, part of a post-election bump in reader loyalty."

David. said...

Matt Stoller's tweetstorm is a must-read explanation of the historical background to the "fake news" controversy and its roots in monopolization of the media.

David. said...

The New York Times reports that a good deal of the advertising revenue that is no longer flowing into the coffers of traditional media is being diverted to Russian criminals:

"a Russian cyberforgery ring has created more than half a million fake internet users and 250,000 fake websites to trick advertisers into collectively paying as much as $5 million a day for video ads that are never watched. ... The thieves impersonated more than 6,100 news and content publishers, stealing advertising revenue that marketers intended to run on those sites, ... The spoofed outlets include a who’s who of the web: video-laden sites like Fox News and CBS Sports, large news organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, major content platforms like Facebook and Yahoo and niche sites like and AccuWeather. Although the main targets were in the United States, news organizations in other countries were also affected."

The fraud started in September and continues. That's about a half-billion dollars in almost pure profit. Eat your heart out, Goldman Sachs!