It was Oct. 30, 1938 and Americans were glued to their radios awaiting further news about a reported invasion by Martians. They heard about how a meteorite had landed in Grovers Mill, N.J. An onsite reporter described how a crowd had gathered around a Martian who was sighted inside the vehicle and who incinerated all present, including the reporter. They awaited further bulletins on casualties and heard about how an army of Martians were preparing to invade New York City.
Orson Welles adaptation of the H.G. Well’s novel “War of the Worlds” is the pinnacle of fake news. At the time it was treated as an outrage by some journalists who claimed it created havoc. But we now think of it as brilliant drama.
Seventy-five or so years later, the tools to publish are available to everyone, as is the ability to promote what you publish through social media. The Web is full of fake news sites, the most popular of which is probably The Onion. While it calls itself “America’s finest news source,” its substantial following knows full well what the deal is.
But fake news also has a dark side. A recent story by the relatively unknown National Report carried the headline “17 Texas Kindergarteners Contract Ebola After Exposure to Liberian Foreign Exchange Student.” This prompted a story in Fast Company “Friends Don’t Let Friends Share Fake News About Ebola” which began: “This is a public service announcement about Ebola. If you see a story from a source called the National Report, ignore it.” The site dnaindia.com commented: “These sites claim to be satirical but lack even incompetent attempts at anything resembling humor.”
What motivates a nothing publication like the National Report to publish this kind of crap? The two million clicks it got in one day on this story, most of which were generated from Facebook. (Remember those statements from Facebook about elevating quality content in their news feed?) Fake news operations are using the same kind of clickbait tactics popularized by services like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, but without going to the expense of employing a real editorial staff.
Big American News is another fake newsjacker trying to produce clicks by feeding the potential panic over the spread of Ebola. These guys published a picture that they claimed showed an Ebola victim rising from the dead. Turns out the photo was a screenshot of a zombie from a movie. Imagine how the trend meter would percolate when you combine Ebola and zombie apocalypse.
Some other stuff that has gone viral recently includes another National Report story with the headline “The Big Lebowski 2 Filming Begins in January 2015.” It doesn’t really. And a site called Huzlers.com chipped in with “NASA Confirms That the Earth Will Experience 6 Days of Total Darkness in December 2014.”
But it is not just clickbaiters that use fake news to accomplish their goals. It has also reportedly been a tactic of both the FBI and the Republican Party.
Just last month, the FBI used fake news to nab a bomb threat suspect. (FBI Under Fire for Fake News Site to Nab Suspect.) They created a news story with an AP slug and posted it on a site that looked like the Seattle Times. They then sent it to the suspect on his My Space account. Since the story was about the suspect, he clicked on it, as they expected, and the file included malware that allowed the FBI to track his location. The Seattle Times called this an “affront to a free press.” But one also needs to consider that if catching this guy saved even one life does that result justify the tactics used?
In the ugly world of Washington politics, the National Republican Congressional Committee was reported earlier this year to have used fake news sites to attack Democratic congressional candidates (NRCC Launches Fake News Sites to Attack Democratic Candidates.) They created one page sites with names like “North County Update” to give the impression of a local news site. There were disclaimers at the bottom of the page acknowledging that the site was paid for by NRCC. The story in the National Journal also states that the NRCC had been the subject of a Federal Elections Commission complaint earlier for creating fake Democratic candidate sites.
Let us not forget, however, that there is some good satire out there, fake news that is both funny and insightful. Here are some examples:
After the governors of New York and New Jersey announced Ebola quarantine rules that went beyond what was being recommended by the CDC and the President, The Borowitz Report in newyorker.com reported “Christie Sworn In as Doctor.”
The staff at NewsMutiny apparently took note of the military arsenal available to the police dealing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., and took it one step further with this story “Local Police Department Acquires Nuclear Weapon to Fight Crime.”
And as football season draws to a close and sports reporters start to look at post season awards, the Onion felt this group worthy of recognition: “Penn State Honors Legendary 2012 Legal Team During Halftime.”