Want to beat fake news? Nationalise the web giants

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By Alan Boyce

Fake news is a big problem. We can all agree on that, can’t we?

And web giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter are at the heart of the problem. We’re on the same page there as well, right?

In the run-up to last week’s election, Facebook announced that it had deleted thousands of alleged sock puppet accounts and it took out newspaper ads explaining how to spot fake news. Google has added tools to make it easier to report false, misleading or hateful content delivered in SERPs. The government and parliamentary committees have called on social media businesses to do fare more to combat the phenomenon.

At the same time, a consensus is developing around the idea that this is not a glitch or a phase, but something intrinsic to the present-day internet. Last month, Twitter founder Ev Williams told the New York Times: “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place…I was wrong about that.”

And so to my needlessly provocative, mostly tongue-in-cheek headline. Why did I pick that title? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?


I could have called this post “An analysis of fake news” or “What does fake news mean for content marketing” or something else equally sober – but if I had, I guarantee that fewer of you would be reading this.

This blog by Brad Smith for Kissmetrics is one of the best analyses of clickbait I have read. He shows that it’s not a new phenomenon at all – in fact, in the guise of “yellow journalism” it dates back to the 19th century.

Why clickbait works

What is clickbait? It’s content that screams LOOK AT ME! It’s the content equivalent of junk food – you know it’s not doing you any good, but...ooohhh….it’s hard to resist when it’s put in front of you.

In an environment of ever-more information and choice, clickbait is the stuff that is designed specifically to stand out from the crowd; that has been calculated to catch your eye.

That calculation is no longer just a matter of journalistic instincts for a catchy headline. It’s increasingly based in neuroscience, particularly the psychology of emotions. The notion that our emotional brains work much faster than our rational selves is well-established – making its way into popular consciousness through mind models such as The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters and other self-help programmes.

Chimp paradox.jpg

Clickbait exploits our natural curiosity and our tendency to react to emotional stimuli (positive and negative) first. Emotions make us spring into action far more rapidly than careful consideration.

As University of Pennsylvania social scientist Jonah Berger is quoted as saying in the Wired article linked to above: “Anger, anxiety, humour, excitement, inspiration, surprise—all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on.”

You can’t resist finding out what awful thing Katie Hopkins has just said for the same reason you can’t stop yourself clicking on cute kittens.

Who benefits from clickbait?

So clickbait gives you a quick fix of curiosity satisfaction and emotional stimulation - far more interesting than that spreadsheet you’re supposed to be going over. In exchange, you offer up your attention, which providers can monetise in various ways. In the case of people like Hopkins, it fuels the notoriety that keeps her in demand in the media. In the case of the kittens, it’s the ads.

Programmatic advertising sells clicks and views, so maximising eyeballs is paramount, alongside maximising shares.

In May, Facebook said it was taking action against spammy clickbaiters but can that ever work? They’re battling deep patterns in human social consciousness that are amplified by the very algorithms social sharing platforms like Facebook are built upon. Until networks can or are prepared to assess the content of the content they help to circulate, this is surely a losing game.

Enter fake news.

The clickbait model proves that there are reliable ways of getting attention. In the pre-social media era, conventional media outlets determined what was news and applied standards of evidence and journalistic integrity which ruled certain stories in and others out – blatant, demonstrably false claims being firmly confined to the latter category.

The Mainstream Media (and yes, I am deliberately using a phrase that has taken on heavily loaded connotations, for reasons that will shortly become apparent) historically applied standards to what was published. A shared sense of the journalistic rules of the game determined what was fit to print and the barriers to entry for other points of view - “alternative facts” perhaps? – represented by the cost of setting up a newspaper, TV station or radio station kept out people who didn’t want to play by those rules.

Fake news is clickbait gone bad

Of course, “alternative” media outlets peddling wildly different news agendas to the MSM are nothing new. The forlorn figure of the lonely Socialist Worker seller will have been a familiar site to university city-dwellers since the 1970s. When I was a student, I remember buying a copy of a publication called “Green Anarchist” from a luxuriantly-bearded hippy – which certainly had a different perspective on what was happening in the mid-1990s to the papers in my college common room.

The difference between now and then was that the audience for these publications was tiny and their distribution capacity was feeble. Clickbait tactics and social media distribution have changed all that – along, I suppose, with a growing public reluctance to believe that what perceived “elites” tell them is the whole story.

A lot of experts date the tipping point in this trend to the financial crash of 2008, but my personal theory is that this trope entered the cultural mainstream with The X Files…

Joking aside (I’m not joking – I hold that view totally sincerely), it has certainly been there under the surface of public discourse for years, as Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” demonstrates.

Right, what have we got so far?

  1. A level playing field for distributing all kinds of claims, without gatekeepers or barriers to entry, in social media

  2. Scientifically-validated methods for grabbing attention by means of pushing claims to extremes and couching them in highly emotional terms

  3. Strong financial incentives (ie ad spend) for circulating content that gets attention regardless of “merit” – and intense pressure on publishers to get the eyeballs before someone else does

  4. Audiences receptive to non-mainstream explanations of events, who can be mobilised into action

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect recipe for the rise of fake news. Because if you can motivate people to click on, sigh over and share pictures of cute kittens then you can also motivate them to click on and get angry by repeating false rumours that there was a gunman outside Oldham hospital on the day of the Manchester Arena bombing.

Oldham hospital gunman tweet

From truthiness to fakiness, via bullshit

Clearly, a lot of fake news is not created for the monetary rewards. It’s there to push a political or social agenda. And that’s where the word “fake” starts becoming loaded – because even fake news that can be shown to be false usually has the quality Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” for those who share the values and assumptions it’s reflecting, while it doesn’t for those who don’t. In fact, it has the opposite quality, which we might as well call “fakiness”.

If you didn’t believe in climate change, reports showing the agreement of the scientific establishment on its reality would feel fake – precisely because the scientific establishment would say that, wouldn’t it? And of course, a conspiracy has the emotional benefit for adherents of being literally impossible to disprove. People who hold certain belief systems believe the Mainstream Media lies precisely because that’s what it’s there for.

Does it offend you that I picked climate change as an example? Does it make you suspect I might be a crazy person? A Russian agent maybe?

I mention climate change only to point out that what is perceived as fake news depends to a great extent on the point of view of the audience. When Donald Trump complains about fake news, he’s not talking about the same content as the Guardian.  We can all agree that we oppose fake news – but we don’t agree on what news is fake news.

It doesn’t have to sinister. The voices saying that the dead whale that recently washed up in Indonesia was actually an undiscovered sea monster and not – as all the scientists were saying – a dead whale got heard because the sea monster narrative is more clickable, so it got repeated.

Sea monster?

Fake news is a species of what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined as “bullshit” in 2005. Liars, Frankfurt claims, care about whether something is true or not and try to conceal it. Bullshitters don’t care whether what they say is true or false, but only whether it has the desired effect.

Fake news is what happens when we allow what we want to believe to drown out anything which contradicts that. Audiences are not innocent dupes of wicked manipulators in all this – like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.


What is to be done?

Theorists of post-modernism say that all truth is relative and all narratives are expressions of ideology and power. And to them I say “Big Mac and fries please”. Ha ha ha.

But much as we might make light of the excesses of relativists, the idea that there is a single truth – especially in the field of news – has taken one hell of a beating over the last fifty years. And if people don’t abide by the same (or at least compatible) rules of discourse, their arguments with one another are not going to get anywhere fast.

So what can be done? Well, one answer is the option I facetiously put forward in the title to this article – take the Chinese route and censor online content that contradicts the official line. China may have its problems, but death threats on Twitter are not one of them.

That’s a joke. I’m joking. I said it to get your attention. I said it to provoke a reaction. I am not calling for totalitarian state control of the internet.

Let me be clear on that point.

Nor am I saying “don’t use clickbait”. As Brad Smith says in the article quoted earlier, it works. For online marketers that’s gold dust.

But maybe we in the marketing business should ask ourselves, are we enabling fake news and bullshit to win? And if not, what can we do to help stop them? Whatever solution is found to fake news, it is surely going to affect online marketing – and that’s something everyone in this sector can agree is important.

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