Fakes news sites, the ones which make up a phony story about a celebrity having a heart attack or a politician resigning, are the scourge of the internet. These sites can bring brief and profitable traffic surges for the publisher, before the public figures out they’re a hoax. In fact there is now some analysis that these hoax sites may have influenced the election, and that’s abhorrent. But there is now an equally abhorrent trend on the part of other con artists, who falsely label a legitimate news site as being “fake news” for the sake of harming its reparation – and such phony attacks becoming an increasingly commonplace leverage tool.
Even as Facebook has announced plans to put the squeeze on the actual fake news sites, the practice of falsely accusing legitimates sites of being “fake news sites” has grown from a mere hobby to what dishonest individuals now apparently view as a career advancement opportunity. I first noticed the beginnings of the phenomenon back when I launched a political news site called Daily News Bin eighteen months ago. We got some early traction and respect. But then I wrote an article pointing out that one candidate had a much larger primary lead in the polling averages than cable news had been implying. A pocket of fans of the opposing candidate didn’t take too kindly to it, and they began seeking out every Daily News Bin article they could find on Facebook and commenting on it en masse that it was either “fake news” or “satire.”
Because Daily News Bin was a new site and I was new to covering politics, it took me some time – and some adamant fighting back – in order to reclaim my reputation from these trolls. But just when I thought the nightmare was over, some fading political blogger (whom I won’t even give the satisfaction of naming) decided to publish an article about “fake news sites.” And sure enough, Daily News Bin was on his list.
I initially assumed he had been disinformed by the trolls, and I cordially reached out to him, asking him to correct his error. Instead he proudly replied that because of the tricky way in which he had worded the inclusion of Daily News Bin, there was nothing I could do to legally force him to remove it. He was flat out acknowledging that we weren’t fake news – but that wasn’t the point. Because there had been the earlier false claims about Daily News Bin by the trolls, he saw it as an opportunity to lump us in with a bunch of actual fake news sites, thereby harming our reputation so he wouldn’t have to compete with us.
Fortunately this stunt didn’t get him very far. And the reputation and stature of my site Daily News Bin continued to grow to the point that everyone from cable news pundits to candidates for high office have been regularly posting and sharing our articles. But a few months ago a failed political writer, who apparently couldn’t get a real gig and had been reduced to blogging about politics on a niche website about religion, decided to go for broke: he published a list of “fake news” sites – around half of which were actual fake news sites, and the other half of which were the respected independent news sites that he was apparently resentful of for not hiring him.
That phony list, too, went away eventually as more people began to question why the independent sites they to be legitimate were somehow on a list of “fake” sites, and they gradually realized the absurdity of relying on a random list on a religion blog as being an authoritative arbiter of which political news sites to trust. But it came full circle again this week when an assistant professor at Merrimack University named Melissa Zimdars published a google document of the sites that she had decided were fake.
I mention her name here because her list turned her into an instant online celebrity. Suddenly her list was being taken as gospel. New York Magazine and at least one major newspaper immediately published articles praising her for heroically standing up against fake news sites. She began touting the list on her personal Facebook page in the manner of someone seeking their fifteen minutes of internet fame. One software developer even created a browser plugin, based on her list, to inform users that they should leave the “fake” websites if they ever happen to land on one. The trouble: Zimdars’ entire list was bullshit she had made up out of thin air.
As has become the custom for these stunts, my publication Daily News Bin was included on the list for no valid reason. So were at least a dozen other respected independent news outlets, some of them much better known than mine, making their inclusion all the more absurd. I quickly emailed her asking that she remove my publication from the list, which she did – without replying back to me, and without bothering to acknowledge anywhere on her list that my site had originally been included in error.
During the course of the day I observed that she had also removed a half dozen other respected sites from the list, also without explanation, while adding some more sites without explanation. It became clear that she had done no research in constructing her list at random, and she was now trying to cover her tracks piecemeal, with no acknowledgement that she making and rescinding damning accusations on the fly. She also admitted in a footnote that she had relied on the earlier, already-debunked list from the religion blog as a guide for constructing her own nonsensical list. In other words, her dishonest stunt had backfired.
Sure enough, by Friday, Zimdars had removed every website from her list, and her original google doc was now reduced to nothing but footnotes – and as per usual, with no explanation as to why she had now removed 100% of the sites on her hit list. In case she changes the document yet again without any further explanation or admission that it’s been changed, here’s a screen capture of what it looked like as of Saturday evening; my readers will be attempting to screen-grab every unexplained change she makes going forward.
Removing every single site from the list was a rather obvious tacit admission on her part that her list itself was a fake. She also removed every publicly visible reference to the list from her Facebook page, as she now tried to distance herself from the brief internet fame she had received from her now backfiring stunt. But the damage had already been done, presumably to her reputation, and certainly to the reputations of those she had so prominently libeled.
Based on the mere fact that my publication Daily News Bin had been on her list for less than a day, internet trolls are once again hunting down my articles across Facebook and commenting en masse about them being “fake news.” I haven’t lost any readers. In fact they’re furious at Zimdars and are encouraging me to take legal action. But now my most loyal readers find themselves harassed by trolls each time they post one of my articles. And the software developer who built the browser plugin had used the original list, meaning Daily News Bin was included, so his users are still being actively steered away from my site. I reached out to him and he quickly agreed that my site in no way met the criteria for the list that Zimdars had placed us on, and he has promised to remove us from his next software update. Out of fairness I’m also asking him to remove all of the legitimate sites that were on the list, not just mine.
Tellingly, Zimdars had used the rhetorical trick of framing her list as being a collection of sites that were false, satire, “clickbait-y” (which she never defined), and misleading. Despite putting four very different kinds of categories in the title, she had listed all the sites in alphabetical order, with no markings as to which sites she was accusing of which supposed crime. And of course she knew that few would read past “false” and “satire” before diving into the list. For instance Daily News Bin was listed directly beneath an infamously phony site called Daily Currant, whose “news articles” are hoaxes. She had created a hit list which was the equivalent of “Here are some people who are murderers and/or people I think are annoying, and I’m not going to tell you who’s who.” It was just a variation of the same tricky wording that every con artist has used who has ever created one of these phony lists of supposed “fake news” sites. As she ultimately admitted, each of these con artists is just piggy backing on the one who came before.
So why did so many people fall for Zimdars’ recklessly phony list? For one thing, the public is particularly leery of fake news sites right now, considering the impact they may have had on the election. So the atmosphere was ripe for someone to get away with putting out a libelously inaccurate list and have it initially taken at face value. I’ve also talked to people who initially believed that her list had come directly from Google itself, because it was in a google doc, without realizing that anyone can create such a document. And others have told me that they thought the list was sanctioned by the university who employs her, due to the manner in which she had prominently identified herself as an assistant professor on her list. It’s likely the same reason a couple traditional news outlets were so eager to jump on the list without doing any research of their own first.
In other words it was a perfect storm. Ironically, because Zimdars has now taken down the list entirely, and I didn’t think to download an amended copy beforehand, I can’t even prove to outside observers that Daily News Bin had indeed been removed from the list before she took it down. Fortunately a number of my regular readers had seen that iteration of the list, and are now willing to vouch for me to any skeptics. My publication and I have survived the last three phony “hit list” stunts of this kind, and we’ll survive the next three as well. Shamefully, even now that Zimdars has ended her stunt by taking down her phony list, New York Magazine is still refusing to amend or take down its own article praising the now-vanished list. This is even after my conversations with its editor, who made clear he simply doesn’t care – a disturbing reminder that some of the name brand news publications aren’t particularly concerned about whether what they publish is real of fake.
But in the mean time, even as the internet tries to figure out how to rid itself of these abhorrent sites that make up fake news stories and hoaxes, we might also want to pay closer attention to the con artists who are seeking career advancement or internet fame by publishing these phony lists of “fake news sites” that always turn out to have been hoaxes themselves. The only thing more abhorrent than the scourge of fake news sites are the con artists who are making the problem worse by exploiting it and muddying the waters to the point that the public now thinks some very real news outlets are fake.
The bottom line: the next time you see one of these lists, it’s almost certainly going to be yet another hoax where half the sites on it have been wrongly included in a libelous and damaging manner for exploitative reasons. If you decide to simply avoid them all, you’ll miss out on some of the most vital independent reporting out there. At the very least, do your own research on the sites you find on these lists, with your own two eyes, and draw your own first-hand conclusions. These phony lists of “fake sites” have now become such a scourge that you can’t even use one such list to verify another.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report