Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?
There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.
The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).
A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:
- Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
- Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
- Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.
A history of fake news reporting here on Sips
I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.
Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.
All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.
Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:
Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.
There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.
The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.
Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.