Fake News: The Blame Goes Far Beyond Facebook

The continuing backlash against fake news on social networks has companies taking action: Just hours after Google announced to cut off the Adsense ad revenue for fake news sites, Facebook followed suit with tweaks to its ad network policies.

But while these steps may help to curtail some of the commercial machinery for fake news, they don’t address an underlying problem: Fake news is merely the flip side of the way media is conducting its business online.

The close connection between mainstream media business models and fake news first became apparent when Facebook tried to push back against the backlash immediately following the election last week. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially called the idea that fake news on Facebook could have influenced the election “crazy” during a conference appearance last week, and then doubled down this past weekend by arguing that more than 99 percent of the content shared on Facebook was “authentic.”

Both statements are highly problematic to advertisers looking to reach an audience on Facebook. After all, brands and small businesses alike have long assumed that their ads on Facebook could sway opinions. Hearing Zuckerberg argue that Facebook users aren’t receptive to posts and ideas shared on the service directly undermines this notion.

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Likewise, the argument that something isn’t effective on Facebook just because it isn’t being shared as widely as most other content seems counter-intuitive to the whole idea of targeting, which is the cornerstone of Facebook’s business.

We gave them clickbait, and you’ll never guess what happened next…

But it would be far too easy to only blame Facebook, Twitter and Google for fake news. The traditional media business has been complicit in the spreading of false and distorted news. One reason that so many Facebook users fall for highly sensationalistic stories with no regard for the truth is that they often look just like the stories that mainstream media organizations share on social networks.

Sensationalist clickbait titles, stories that single out isolated medical studies to show that the things we all already do are good for us, listicles that promise to prove a point, but really just drown it in 30 unrelated photos: All of these formats have proven incredibly popular on social media, and all of them have contributed to a stream of news that makes some of the false and deeply biased sources much harder to distinguish. “We Gave Them Clickbait, and You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next…”

What’s more, many publishers have readily accepted money from ad networks like Outbrain and Taboola that regularly peddle borderline fake news between ads for underwear, car insurance policies and that one trick every homeowner should know. These ads not only normalize fake news, but also provide a business model for their creators. (Full disclosure: Variety runs ads for Outbrain on its website as well.)

It’s good that companies like Facebook and Google are taking first steps against fake news. But to really combat the phenomenon, we’ll need a much more thorough discussion about their rise, and the willingness of everyone to do their part.

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