Not to worry, Dad, Sylvester Stallone hasn’t perished in a car wreck (let alone a snowboarding accident ). You can relax, Mom, that young girl didn’t die after her Ice Bucket Challenge video went awry . And you kids settle down, there’s no “Purge ” coming to your town that makes all crime legal for a night.
Our hypothetical American family here isn’t particularly daft or burdened with sucker genes, they’ve just been browsing the Internet, where fake news is becoming a real problem.
You’ve seen the stories, dispatched into your Facebook news feed via speed-reading members of your friend pool: A whaling crew was eaten alive by a family of killer whales! No. The drinking age is being raised to 25! Nope. George Zimmerman was arrested in Ferguson! Water-wasting Californians who do the Ice Bucket Challenge are getting fined! No , and would that it were so, but no .
Some of it is satire (The Onion and, to a less proven extent, its clickbaiting sister site Clickhole continue to bear the standard of mastery), but the larger part of what’s out there is “satire” — from the chronically unfunny half-jokes of the Daily Currant to the shrug-inducing falsehoods of Empire News , the toothlessly goofy sendups of Free Wood Post , the over-the-top Christian-trolling of Christwire , and the more pernicious race-baiting of sites like CreamBPM and Newsbuzzdaily .
And it’s not just your Facebook friends who are getting duped. The Onion has been taken for real news in the past by the Chinese government , the Iranian press , and even some members of our own Congress (who had no language barrier to blame).
It’s unlikely that The Onion set out this past week to deceive readers into believing that the FBI had raided the “Kennedy fundamentalist compound” or that Obama had Colorado appraised , or that growing violence had led the State Department to issue a warning to travelers against any “non-essential travel to 1861 .” But many fake news items aren’t as harmless as Kim Jong Un being named Sexiest Man Alive.
Last week, with the events in Ferguson still defining the headlines, Newsbuzzdaily published a story with the headline “Uh Oh! Not Again! Unarmed Black Woman Shot to Death by Police in Georgia !” That the article contained no hint of a joke came first as a source of relief, then of disgust. This hoax was about clicks — not content, nor context, nor consequences.
Part of what lends these bits of fake news their aura of “truthiness” is their very appearance in our social-media news feeds, which have been cultivated by various known and unknown algorithms to cater to our interests, beliefs, and desires, and supply content via our most trusted interpersonal sources. We might more easily accept the idea that the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” was revealed to be the Zodiac Killer if it comes from a friend.
This crush of fake news has become enough of an issue that Facebook recently started testing a “satire” tag meant to explicitly identify gag articles before they have a chance to trick you. Well intentioned, maybe, but it's the equivalent of a comedian introducing a joke with, “Here comes another joke!”
Of course, the other contributing factor is us. A Chartbeat study recently determined that one in every three people spend 15 seconds or less on any given article they click. The shorthand: Don’t assume that your Facebook friends have read closely what they’ve shared.
We’ve been acquainted with the Web’s unique capacity for mendacity since the mid-’90s, when $250 cookie recipes and overtures from Nigerian princes filled our Earthlink inboxes. A recent Gallup poll indicates that only 19 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in news they read online (and even that is a point higher than their trust in TV news). Today, we’re so accustomed to the Internet’s pathological lying that we can watch an episode of “Catfish” and find pathos in it.
It’s becoming easier to debunk these increasing instances of bullpucky. Sites like Snopes and Hoax-Slayer are solely devoted to untangling the net of the scurillous and untrue. And publications like Gawker and the Washington Post have given dedicated space to correcting Internet untruths.
Of course, fake news is also becoming easier to produce.
One site called Nipsy’s News allows users to craft a fake news story, and attribute it to a list of legit-sounding sources like The Boston Telegraph, The New York Chronicle, and the Daily Bollocks — which might be slightly easier to detect. So far this has yielded the panic of the rumored raising of the drinking age, as well as a handful of less-convincing stories, like “All Schools Will Be Closed From 18th Of July 2014 For Six Months ,” ostensibly so that “children can teach the England football team how to play.”
It can be hard to tell when the Internet is telling the truth about anything, but there are some rules of thumb in parsing satire: The good stuff slows you down; the bad stuff speeds you up. The good stuff makes the joke the punch line; the bad stuff makes you the punch line. The good stuff teaches you something about yourself; the bad stuff teaches the friends you share it with something about you.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.