Prairie Lights: In the new news biz, truth is for suckers

Laughs

There was a time when fake political stories were good only for laughs.

There has been no lack of disappointing, discouraging news over the past few months, but I don’t think anything I read was as depressing as these two sentences:

“Six months ago, Wade and his business partner, Ben Goldman, were unemployed restaurant workers. Now they’re at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want people to start asking for loans.”

“Wade” is Paris Wade, and he and Goldman, proprietors of the mostly-fake-news site Liberty Writers News, were the subjects of a recent Washington Post profile. That same story included this paragraph, nearly as depressing as the material quoted above:

“There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in. ‘In a perfect world,’ he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?”

Ed

Ed Kemmick

That story contained a few hints that Goldman and Wade might have been disillusioned liberals whose fake stories, nearly all of which were tailored to win praise from Donald Trump supporters, at the very least advanced an agenda they sort of believed in.

But there are also teenagers in Macedonia whose pro-Trump “news” sites likewise generate millions of hits, without a shred of ideology involved. For them it is strictly about the money.

The most astounding thing is that in one town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—the town of Veles, about the size of Bozeman—at least 140 web sites, nearly all of which fed a never-ending stream of phony news articles to Trump supporters, were started in the past year.

I admit that I was hardly aware of this phenomenon until just recently. Way back in May, I wrote a column about how Facebook, by herding the American populace into echo chambers, was intensifying the sense of paralyzing partisanship besetting the country.

And then in the past few weeks I wrote about two Facebook-spawned tempests here in Montana—one involving the owner of a yet-to-open coffee shop and the other a delegate to the Electoral College.

These were not trivial subjects and I have no regrets, but they pale in comparison with the stories that proliferate on fake-news sites. It’s one thing when a newspaper or network puts an ideological spin on the news. It is quite another when unemployed slackers or foreign entrepreneurs make up stories that influence elections and, while enriching their fabricators, rob ad revenues from journalistic enterprises that are, in their quaint way, still trying to report facts.

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BuzzFeed News did an analysis and reported that during the three final months of the presidential campaign, the 20 top-performing fake election stories on Facebook drew considerably more readers than the 20 most widely read election stories published on the major news websites.

Peter Hopkins, co-founder of the Big Think website, believes the best way to counter the fake-news phenomenon is for people to take matters into their own hands, to read as deeply as they can at websites that stick with facts, websites that concentrate on what is important and lasting, not necessarily what is new or momentarily popular.

“In other words,” he says, “this is as much your problem, and my problem, as it is Mark Zuckerberg’s.”

Another solution was suggested by Froma Harrop, a syndicated columnist who announced that she is leaving Facebook as a protest against its willingness to tolerate and even to encourage the growth of the phony-news industry. She is asking other people to join her.

Her idea is that there has to be a better alternative to Facebook, and that the best way of encouraging tech entrepreneurs to create that alternative is by abandoning Facebook.

I support her … in theory. In reality, approximately three-quarters of the people who end up reading a story at Last Best News come in through Facebook. As much as I’d love to contribute to the fall of the Zuckerberg Empire, I’m afraid I need Zuckerberg a lot more than he needs me.

The best revenge, I hope, will be to continue to use Facebook as honorably as possible, as a means of reaching an audience but not giving in to the cheap thrill of algorithmic “popularity.” It has taken us almost three years to get a bit more than 7,000 likes on the Last Best News Facebook page—a half day’s work for the pretend reporters profiled in the Washington Post.

On the other hand, we’ve been here for almost three years, and we’ve been in the news business long enough to know that there are some things, a lot of things, actually, more important than money—and more important, believe it or not, than Facebook likes.

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