“I don’t believe what I read in the papers, they’re just out to capture my dime.”
– Paul Simon, Have a good time
While propaganda is as old as time and political stakeholders have used the internet to spread their messages since the web’s early days, in 2016 propaganda went viral. It was also monetized in an arguably new way, further highlighting the need for readers to check their sources – and the motivations behind those sources – before making decisions.
Fake news isn’t new, but it was a lucrative business during last year’s US Presidential election. Executive hasn’t found an exact figure for how much revenue the operators of fake news websites earned, but one US “publisher” claimed in an November 2016 interview with the Washington Post that, “right now I make like $10,000 a month from [Google] AdSense.” No shortage of US news outlets traveled to Macedonia late last year to interview teenagers who claimed to be pulling in $1,000 or more per month operating “news” websites consisting of mostly plagiarized content with the occasional “viral” report (typically a story either made up entirely or given a wild and misleading headline) that drove up hits and ad revenues.
While Facebook and Google have both pledged to crack down on fake news by attempting to keep it off the platform and starving sites hosting it of revenues, respectively, it certainly won’t go away. Efforts by these powerful gatekeepers may kill the business model that seemed to do so well last year, but they certainly can’t eliminate “clickbait” and poor journalistic practice all together. Sensationalism and outright falsehood have always been the “dark side” of journalism, seductive because it sells, but ultimately corrosive (hurting the credibility of both publishers and the wider industry, and providing a disservice to readers). Stopping the profiteers masquerading as publishers pushing fake news in recent years may make fake news less voluminous, but won’t eliminate the phenomenon entirely.
In the past two years, Western countries have been decrying what they insist are Russian online propaganda efforts aimed at discrediting liberal democracy, but misinformation has been used as a state tool for manipulating public opinion for centuries. It is neither recent nor surprising that governments have turned to the web to promote their interests. While the West today is accusing Russia of outright lies in its propaganda efforts, governments and politicians “spin” news all the time in an effort to “manage” public perceptions of an event or issue both on and offline. The US created an Arabic-language satellite news network – Al Hurra – to win hearts and minds following its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Avoiding the moral debate about the differences between “spin” and outright falsehood, one shared consequence of both activities is the need for readers to be discerning when consuming information, which is also not new.
An under-reported aspect of two of 2016’s most surprising election results is just how much more aware readers need to be of not only what they read, but the personal information they willingly share that will increasingly influence what they read. According to both UK-based daily The Guardian and the Swiss news website Das Magazin, a company called Cambridge Analytica used big data to craft micro-targeted messages for Donald Trump and a group called Leave.EU, which promoted Britain’s exit from the European Union. Cambridge denies any use of fake news, but, the Guardian reports, the company proudly claims to have “psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters.” Our digital footprints tell a lot about us, and how we may react to certain well-crafted messages, meaning seemingly innocuous ads on the side of whatever website you’re reading could actually be designed specifically to elicit a certain reaction from you individually (whether that’s voting a certain way or buying a certain product).
Despite all the huffing and puffing about information manipulation online in the past few months, the internet has not reinvented the wheel. The web has made information more easy to publish, disseminate and access, and Big Data gives propaganda a frightening Big Brother feel, but the web hasn’t changed the fundamental fact that readers simply must be discerning in order to avoid being duped.