Many keystrokes have been spent on the next of the succession of scourges meant to counter-explain the collapse of establishment politics and the loss of Hillary Clinton: Facebook hoaxes! Not to be outdone by the Alex Jones crowd, liberals, in their evergreen smugness, have decided that they too are victim to a political climate where everyone is falling prey to false reporting. The furor has gotten so deafening that Mark Zuckerberg himself has vowed to renew the fight against fake news after abandoning the project when in testing the algorithm, the company reportedly feared conservative backlash.
While Facebook is certainly capable of building an algorithm that perhaps begins to shadow ban users proliferating misleading content, it isn’t as if Facebook put that information there in the first place. There are entire industries dedicated to the production and proliferation of information, and as with any product in capitalism, it comes with a price.
The Blame Game
While it’s easy to look for nefarious actors tainting the otherwise sanctified structures that run our channels of information distribution, the hard work comes in analyzing how the incentives of our economic system encourage the mass dissemination of false information. While outlets such as Breitbart, Alex Jones, and Joe for America (to say nothing of US Uncut, Daily Kos, or Occupy Democrats) and their writers can certainly take personal blame for their role in this, the financial pressure to draw a profit creates a tiered system of pricing for accurate information.
At the one end are the conspiracy mongers, freelance purveyors of an impending collapse where every media outlet is lying (except them) and who are usually trying to directly sell you a product. Alex Jones, Natural News, and Jeff Rense, for instance, sell phony medical supplies and supplements. Peter Schiff, Lew Rockwell, and Fox News sell gold investments. The Daily Sheeple sells survival gear. Countless others are trying to sell you their book. Because the cost of what they are selling is usually significant, these outlets can forego mainstream credibility and make a killing from repeat customers kept in thrall by fear for a relatively small initial overhead.
The outlets that seem to get the most mainstream traction – right and left – are use a mixture of out-of-the-box ad services such as Taboola, Spoutable, and AdSense. By and large, these venues such as Breitbart, US Uncut, and Joe for America are paid by clicks and views and so often peddle in selective quotation from otherwise reputable news sources to exaggerate claims about how events are transpiring in their headlines. Further muddying the waters, these advertising products generate links to sponsor websites that are disguised as other trending news stories based on whatever personal data happens to be available to their ad trackers.
This model of placing advertisements in mass media in not particularly new. What seems to separate the new wave of tabloid media from the established corporate news outlets is whether they handle their advertising in-house. Instead of running automated ad services, institutions such as the New York Times, Fortune Magazine, and The Atlantic use a boutique combination of banner ads, splash screens, and paywalls managed by an advertising division within the company. Increasingly, these media companies are hosting sponsored content, the textual equivalent of infomercials, to appear as if it is a pressing news story in their publication.
While this latter category captures its readership by making the sincerest attempt at journalistic practice, their direct engagement with their advertisers often shapes their editorial line. Thus, stories about civil unrest are more likely to go to print if they can convince readers to buy protection or products from their sponsor rather than boycott them.
Taking a Toll
While it’s easy to pin the blame on certain classes of free media within the online information sphere, it only tells half the story. Increasingly, reliable information of all sorts – scholarly and journalistic – has come to be restricted behind paywalls. Those in the last category of mass media have begun dabbling in paywalls, limiting the number of articles any user can access in a given period of time. In fact, the New York Times’ ten article limit may have prevented you from reading the last Krugman article (god forbid), so now you’ve been reduced to reading my shitty opinion.
Outlets like The Nation, The Economist, and the Washington Post have all begun to introduce and calibrate their article limits in a vain attempt to drive subscription. The Financial Times puts all articles behind a paywall after a day, and the Wall Street Journal has paywalled their entire site. And while plenty of readers do ultimately end up subscribing to a handful of these outlets, many more simply move on to the next interesting story they can read for free. In other words, by virtue of being established, media actually removes itself from the conversation entirely in the pursuit of profit.
But the paywalls don’t end there. Many feature stories about scientific developments reference scholarly articles that are behind paywalls of companies like Elsevier, Routledge, and Taylor & Francis that can range upwards of $30 per article. While most connected to scholarly institutions have access to download the information remotely for free, most lay readers would either have to take whatever free sources they find at their word or go through the time-consuming rigamarole of accessing the source through their local library.
As a result of our economic system which turns everything into a commodity, credible information itself becomes an expensive privilege. While the internet, including Facebook, has certainly democratized the spread of information, it has done relatively little in changing the way capitalism regiments its access.
Though we may hold out the glimmer of hope that capitalism might come crashing down as an economic system any day now, there are ways hone your internet usage to cut through the noise of high-yield misinformation:
- Click carefully: Social media websites are themselves companies that make money by keeping users interacting with the site in order to sell advertising and your personal data. Thus, social media algorithms are geared to learning your preferences to show you content that will keep you interacting with the site. When you go to like a post or click on a link (or even hover over a picture for an extended period of time), consider what that action is telling those algorithms to show you.
- Blacklist content: If you find that a source repeatedly misleads you, most social media services (Facebook included) allow a number of options on any given posting to restrict that content from your feed. The dropdown menu in the upper right corner of any link on Facebook gives you the option to hide content from particular URLs. This is a great way to eliminate sources you know to be unreliable from your feed entirely.
- Unfollow people: While this might be more socially significant on certain platforms over others, ultimately you do not need to be bombarded with content by users (even your aunt and uncle) who are consistently unreliable. Facebook allows users to unfollow people without removing those people from the user’s social network. Most other sites only allow you to connect with users you follow. Despite the possibility for a faux pas, ask yourself this: If someone gets mad at me over who I choose to follow on social media, should I really be friends with this person? The answer may surprise you.
- Fact check: When you come across fake news your friends take as legitimate, call it out. This doesn’t have to be confrontational or public. If you find that your friend is hostile to corrective information or worse, embraces the misinformation as leading people to “open their minds,” it might be time to consider the step above.
- Steal stuff: No public good was ever won without counter-institutions operating in the grey areas of the law, and a well-informed public is no different. There are many places online (including secret Facebook pages) that allow users to share PDFs of paywalled academic material. Before you moralize about stealing, consider this: Most academics receive no compensation when their articles are downloaded from scholarly journal databases and often pay a fee to submit their articles in the first place. Is it really such a tragedy that such a business model is undercut by theft?
- Go outside: Sometimes the amount of misinformation online makes researching contentious topics (e.g., central banking) impossible. In this case, it might be good to get the help of a librarian. In addition to the knowledgeable staff, most libraries have a staff member trained in library sciences to help you find credible information on exactly what you’re looking for. These people are wizards, and their magic should be coveted and feared. If for mobility or financial reasons you are unable to make the trip to the library, many libraries have ways that you can access their services remotely with a simple call or email. Further, if your library does not offer such services, work with the library staff, your community, and your local government to provide accessible library services for all.