If you were to go by the hype this week, you’d think the internet was currently drowning in “fake news” articles from hoax sites that pull profitable pranks by making up fake stories about a heart attack or a fire. Such sites do exist, and they’re horrendous. But they’re also largely in the past tense. Facebook blocked most of them months ago, and the phenomenon has since mostly vanished. But now there’s a new and more insidious problem: people falsely accusing real news outlets of being “fake news” either out of laziness, or an axe to grind, or mere paranoia.
To some extent it’s understandable. Six months to a year ago, Facebook was besieged by one hoax site after another which made up imaginary news stories from whole cloth and went viral before anyone caught on. The Pope died one day, and then the next day the Pope endorsed a candidate he never would have endorsed, and so on. But those “fake news” sites like nationalreport.net and newslo.com and others like them were all banned by Facebook a long time ago. That trend died.
As the publisher of a legitimate independent news outlet, I see these trends up close. During the height of the fake news phenomenon I saw people bypassing my real articles, in favor of far more exciting fictional articles on other sites that they didn’t know were fictional. I got sent links to these fake stories all the time, by well meaning readers who thought they were tipping me off to breaking news. And as the admin of a Facebook group, I had to weed out the fake articles that would get submitted to my group daily. But I can tell you with authority that it’s almost entirely in the past tense – even as this new trend of “every site is fake news if I haven’t heard of it” phenomenon has gripped Facebook instead.
Any time one of my regular readers posts one of my Palmer Report articles on their own Facebook page, for instance, they inevitably have to fend off the comments of those who rush in and yell “Uh, I’m not sure if this is a real site or not.” Then they’re stuck trying to somehow ‘prove’ that my site isn’t fake, which is remarkably difficult to from a rhetorical standpoint, even though every Palmer Report article includes supporting source links for verification. To the laziest of false accusers, no amount of evidence matters.
Even as people like Governor Jennifer Granholm and NBC News legal analyst Lisa Bloom have linked to Palmer Report articles this past week, I’ve still been asked by my readers to jump into arguments on their personal Facebook pages in which they posted one of my articles and one of their friends randomly decided to start insisting that it’s “fake news” without offering any evidence. In fact, while I was helping mediate one of these incidents today, I became aware that Governor Howard Dean had just tweeted a Palmer Report article. But even the blessing of such respected public figures doesn’t seem to matter to the lazy random accusers.
On the other hand, any random nobody can publish a supposedly authoritative list of “fake news” sites and find instance acceptance and acclaim. Even if it turns out, as was the case last week, that the list was complete nonsense and contained a dozen or more legitimate news sites as part of a publicity stunt. Even after the creator of the “hit list” in question took it down in disgrace, some folks were quoting that list as if it were gospel. Because in this current environment, paranoia sells.
Pretty much every independent news publisher is now spending their days fighting for their reputation against this sudden hysteria. My site is still doing fine during this period, because I have a large base of regular readers who know enough to trust me, and who are willing to defend me against any random false accusations about me that they might encounter. But I worry about the up-and-coming independent news publishers who are just now trying to establish their reputations. I want the best ones to prosper, to grow, to compete with me and make me better at what I do. I don’t want to see them eaten alive out of the gate by a pointless wave of hysterical paranoia toward any news site that isn’t already a big name.
If you ask the average Facebook user how many “fake news” sites he sees in his feed each day, he’ll rattle off a list of them. The trouble: every one of those sites is legitimate, and he doesn’t know it. It’s just that he heard so many random cries of “I think this site might be fake” from other people, he decided it probably was indeed fake, without ever having visited it to decide for himself. Worse, each time that person sees a true headline from that real site, he mistakenly believes that story must be fake – and so when he sees a similar headline from another legitimate news site he hasn’t heard of, he concludes that site is also false.
To put into perspective just how out of control this problem has gotten: so far this week, there have been more than a thousand different instances of members of my group asking if any given posted news article posted in the group is “real” or not. You know how many of those articles have turned out to actually be fake? None. It’s been a false alarm every single time. That goes to show just how little “fake news” there is on Facebook these days, and how out of control the hysteria is. In fact when I saw a fake news article three weeks ago about a supposed house fire that never happened, I had to laugh, because it had been so long since anyone had even tried to float a fake news article.
To be clear, the internet-going public should have a critical eye toward the news they’re consuming. If something about an article or site seems suspicious, it’s easy enough to examine that article and follow its supporting source links (or lack thereof), and come to a reasonable conclusion about whether it’s legit or not. But that’s far different from sitting back and suggesting to the other commenters that every random article you come across might not be “real” simply because you haven’t heard of the site. All that does is falsely brand legitimate news sites as being “fake” in the eyes of everyone else, which is an act of criminal libel against the publisher – and worse, it creates confusion among the public. Considering what’s going on in this nation, right now would be the worst possible time to destroy independent news reporting with random accusations, to the point that the public no longer trusts any independent news sites. Stop randomly crying wolf, for your own sake, before it’s too late.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report