The Problem of Fake News Is Not Recent, But Our Current Internet Ecosystem Is

I listen to a lot of podcasts at work. I try to get them from a number of places and find perspectives that I’m not well-equipped to see. I do this for two reasons: first, the cultural default in the United States is white, and as a white person this is going to give me blind spots. I feel it’s important to try to overcome those blind spots. Second, I feel that it’s going to make me a better human in general to work at getting outside my own realms of experience – my own white, middle-aged, female skull – and see other points of view. So I subscribe to The Daily Zeitgeist and 2 Dope Queens and Ridiculous History and Stuff You Missed in History Class and Ethnically Ambiguous and The Gay Power Half Hour and etc etc etc.

Today while I was listening to The Daily Zeitgeist, the two hosts (Miles Gray and Jack O’Brien) and their guest (Ify Nwadiwe) were talking about fake news online and seemed to put a lot of the problem of fake news at the feet of older people (and Miles, I cannot believe you told your grandmother Jurassic Park was real.) The conversation went something like, “Well, young people know better but older people are credulous.”

I get the impression that these gentlemen are much younger than I am – Jack maybe is in his early 30s? – and for a minute I was angry, and then I was a little sad, and then I was worried because while Internet citizens (of all ages) might have a problem with critical thinking, I don’t think that’s where the essential problem lies. And if these folks (who in my opinion are smart and sharp) think that we’re having a fake news problem because older people are gullible, then we might get into the history repeating itself game. And I don’t want that to happen.

Fraud On the Internet Is Nothing New

“If you wanted to publish a book that says 2 plus 2 equals 5, you had to go through a lot of effort and spend a great deal of money. But the cost of putting up a Web page saying 2 plus 2 equals 5 is virtually nothing.”

I said that to a reporter sometime before March 4, 1999, when it was published in a New York Times article, “Whales in the Minnesota River.”  That’s almost 19 years ago. Librarians and writers and other information nerds saw it as a problem. There were scams, and conspiracy theories, and all the rest of it. But fake news was not the overarching tsunami of – oh, let’s just say it – shit that it is now. Why?

Because despite the fact that it was essentially free to put up something on the Internet, there was a cost in getting people to pay attention.

The Problem of Venusian Unicorns

Let’s say it’s 1999 and I want to spread the idea that unicorns are, in reality, actually aliens from Venus. I start a Web site on Tripod and write out all my theories.

Now I have to get people to pay attention. And that’s where the problem lies. I can join web rings and link exchanges and searchable subject indexes, And while this can establish my online presence it cannot bring people to me. I cannot specify my audience. And while I can advertise, that’s expensive. The AdPushup blog has a history of online advertising that can give you an idea of how prices went. I remember talking to ad reps for local media in the early 2000s when they were selling banner ads. As I remember they were asking for $25/CPM, ROS – in other words, I would pay $25 for every 1000 banner ad impressions, and they were run-of-site — I couldn’t target them at all.

That’s a lot of money when all you’re trying to do is hip people to unicorns from Venus.

There were Internet communities at the time, though they did not much resemble the social media of today – Slashdot, for example. MetaFilter was in its infancy, I believe, and I’m pretty sure Reddit wasn’t born yet. I didn’t spent a lot of time in those communities but as I recall it was fairly open – that is, you did not have a social media group of people with whom you could communicate exclusively. Therefore if you went to a community and tried to get people on board with your Venusian unicorn theory, you might get some interest – but you might also get stomped by astronomers and mythology experts.

The check on the entire thing was the openness. The open Web and to a certain extent open communities made it difficult to get a critical mass of attention for fraudulent ideas, and the expense of advertising made it difficult to buy an audience. Furthermore, ad targeting was rudimentary at best.

I was correct in 1999 when I said that the ability to publish false information on the Internet was practically free. Where I failed was to not take one step further and recognize that the ability to amass – by guile or money – an audience for that false information was very expensive.

That is no longer the case.

Give Me One Million UFO Enthusiasts And Make It Snappy

There is still the Web, of course, but over the last few years it has been increasingly overshadowed by Facebook. Facebook is not open; it wants your attention and your eyeballs for its ads. It solely determines what you will see based on an algorithm that it does not disclose in its entirety. We might hear things like Facebook’s intention to show you more posts from friends and family, but we do not learn specifically how this works. If we set up Facebook Pages to promote ourselves or our companies and services, our “organic reach” – the number of people our page posts will reach if we do not pay Facebook – gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

Facebook and Google are dominating digital ad spend. Two two entities alone were expected to bag over 60% of digital advertising revenue in 2017. Facebook has been able to do that by developing a “walled garden” that is the setting for its increasingly-lucrative ads business.

Increasingly-lucrative and targeted to the point of being downright creepy. A 2016 Washington Post article lists dozens of data points Facebook uses to profile and target users. (Though it must be noted that Facebook isn’t always correct; when I checked to see what data Facebook had gathered on me I found it thought my “multicultural affinity” was African-American. I put that down to sharing a lot of African-American genealogy resources.)

The targeting of ads has appropriately started a lot of conversation about Facebook and privacy. But in the meantime it’s an incredibly handy tool if you’re ready to start spreading a scam. Back to the Venusian unicorns!

In 1999 my Venusian unicorn Web site would require a lot of time and a lot of plain old effort to get attention. It would be expensive to advertise. It would be downright impossible to closely target users, to choose them by interest and age and location and parental status.

But now? I need a lot less money to get to my audience.

I went to the Facebook ad tool, which I used for several years in my former Real Job (™). (PLEASE NOTE: I did not use it to promote the idea of alien creatures.) It doesn’t take a lot of expertise to create a target audience consisting of people interested in UFOs in the United States. I then tweaked it to exclude parents of toddlers, on the assumption that they’d be too busy chasing their children to read about my Venusian unicorns. That left me with a countrywide audience of 1.1 million people interested in UFOs. And for $20 a day I can reach, according to Facebook, between 1,900 and 6,000 of this well-targeted audience. Beats the heck out of run-of-site banner ads for $25 per thousand completely untargeted impressions.

screenshot from 2018 02 22 23 59 56

So what did we have and what do we have?

What we had then: an open Web that diffused users all over the world. Sometimes they would aggregate into communities like Slashdot, but even then those users were not subject to very specific targeting. Any advertising available to reach those users was too expensive to really scale. Further, advertising that had impact in one place might not be effective in another.

What we have now: an Internet dominated by a walled garden (Facebook) with a incredibly huge number of users (over 2 billion monthly active users!) featuring a advertising system that isn’t particularly pricey and can target you down to your socks. It is not quite an ideal environment for targeting people with lies about unicorns from Venus, but it’s close.

Why isn’t it ideal? Because Facebook does have policies against fake news and misinformation – it is not, theoretically, a free-for-all. Unfortunately those policies lead to their own set of problems.

Facebook’s Credibility Veneer and the Problems It Generates

Say you walk into a restaurant in the middle of a huge food fight. Things are flying everywhere. You get mashed potatoes in your ear. Someone says to you, “Hey! All the food is free. You can take as much of you want of it and leave.”

You look around. You see no managers. There are no rules posted on the wall. The person talking to you is covered in corned beef. It doesn’t look like anyone’s in charge. You decide you don’t want to get arrested for theft and you leave.

You go to another restaurant. It’s calm. There’s someone at the cash register and a manager’s walking around. Someone sitting at a table gestures to you. You walk over and they whisper, “All the food is free. You can take whatever you like and leave. Oh, and also you have mashed potatoes in your ear.”

You go to the cashier and ask if the food is free. He says yes. You’re not sure so you go to the manager. She says no. People are walking up to a buffet and putting food in their pockets and a few of them are being stopped, but many are not. You think to yourself, “Well, it looks like at least some of the food is free. Because if it wasn’t, wouldn’t everybody be getting arrested?”

When a situation is chaotic and there is not even a pretense at rules, you trust nothing. You will examine everything critically because you have to; you lack any other guidance.

Facebook, on the other hand, does have rules. It has many policies about what is acceptable on its platform and what is not. Of course, if you pay attention to Facebook you’ll understand how unevenly it applies its rules. It will censor cartoon breasts but leave a livestreamed suicide up for two weeks. It will block indigenous people from their accounts on suspicion of fake names but allow advertising stating that Michelle Obama is getting divorced.

But you’ll only know about that inconsistency if you follow Facebook a lot in the news. It’d be the equivalent of standing inside the door of the second imaginary restaurant, counting all the people trying to take free food and seeing who gets stopped and who doesn’t. And even then you wouldn’t understand why some people were getting stopped and some people were allowed to take all the deviled eggs.

Am I advocating that Facebook abandon all pretense at rules and just let chaos reign? Absolutely not. The point I’m trying to make is that Facebook is an enormous social network which has had a lot of media coverage over the years and currently enjoys a stock price of over $175 at this writing. It has been granted authority by large institutions in our culture (media, the stock market) and it exercises that authority in the form of rules which is imposes on its users.

Our culture is good at teaching that our citizens must acquiesce to authority. (You’ve probably heard of the Milgram experiment.) I don’t think anyone is just reading news on Facebook and swallowing it whole. I believe that there is at least some thought along these lines: “Facebook doesn’t allow fake news. This is on Facebook. Therefore it can’t be fake news, because Facebook doesn’t allow fake news.”

Facebook can talk about its initiatives for how it is working against disinformation, but it can’t discuss how it is failing. It can’t say, “We’re having problems with this kind of news and these kinds of postings,” because a) it’ll be giving a roadmap to bad actors and b) it’ll get punched right in the stock price.

We the users are left with a veneer of credibility for Facebook, an uneasy amount of authority granted to it, and an incomplete understanding of how Facebook shapes and enforces its rules. Furthermore, it is against Facebook’s financial best interests to be completely transparent about its efforts against fake news and its failures (see above re: stock price.)

We started with an open Internet ecosystem that makes the barrier to entry easy but the barrier for attention difficult, with agency scattered across the Internet and not concentrated overmuch in any one area. We are now in a walled garden where entry and attention are both simple, or at least inexpensive, with credibility heavily weighted to one place.

And that is why fake news flourishes and blossoms and spreads; we are no longer in an ocean, we are in a fish tank. One entity controls all aspects of the fish tank – the temperature and the food and even the kind of fish allowed in the tank – and it cannot effectively fix imbalances in the small, limited ecosystem it has created. That has nothing to do with the age of social media participants and everything to do with how power and authority has been concentrated in too-few places.

At this point you might be expecting me to tell you to cancel your Facebook account, throw off your chains, etc. Nope.

Water Water Everywhere

Yes, I have a Facebook account. No, I will not cancel it. My mother in law is there. My friends all over the world are there. Pictures of my grandchild are there. Of course I am not leaving!

But there are things I do, and do deliberately, to make sure I treat Facebook like a Web site, and not like some infallible institution.

  1. I recognize that a fish tank is a fish tank. Facebook would like you to spend all your time there, looking at cat videos. It would like you to think that it is the Internet. It is not. It is one Web site among millions.
  2. I spend most of my time out of the tank. I use RSS feeds and Google Alerts and Nuzzel and many other information resources to get an information flow that I control as much as I can. And I work constantly to update these resources and keep myself informed. Maybe you can’t do this. Maybe you have a life. In that case, find people or institutions that you can trust to do this for you. Ask them questions about how they do what they do, and if they can’t answer those questions to your satisfaction, go somewhere else.
  3. I respect Facebook’s rules but I do not trust it. Facebook has rules that I abide by. But past that I do not trust my fellow users to follow the rules, and I do not trust Facebook to consistently enforce the rules. I assume no credibility.
  4. I understand who Facebook answers to. Facebook is a publicly-owned company. Its purpose is to make profit. It might have ethical ideals and a desire to engage in good works, but at the end of the day it is a business. How transparent it is and how it responds to site problems is based on the fact that it is a business. I am not judging Facebook because of this; I am taking into account a fact.

I wanted to go from here into an exploration of alternate systems that could combine the best of social and external networks, but I’m already over 2500 words.

I said at the beginning of this article that as a white person in American culture I have blind spots. If you are a citizen of the Internet and you spend the majority of your time on Facebook, you also have blind spots (albeit of a different sort.) Please: take a little time away from the fish tank. Explore the ocean.

Categories: News, Rants

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5 replies »

  1. While You conclude your well written piece by telling people not to delete their Facebook account, but that is exactly what I did, as well as a number of my friends and family. We are still able to communicate via phone, email, and especially face-to-face.

    As you say, Facebook is in the business of making money for the shareholders, and if enough people opt to drop these social media sites, people in charge will take notice, and clean up their act.

    Keep up the great insights to the web around us.


  2. Thank you so much. That I know people like you — who write well, who think (more or less) clearly, who occasionally go on an outrage or hilarity bender but really have their feet planted on good old Earth — is one of my greatest self-satisfactions.

  3. Nice write-up. There is a counterpart to ‘fake news’ that is equally noisome and pernicious – bungled research and/or reporting. I’m working on a scrap of mangled 19th century history that traces back to a small error early in the 1950s. That error spawned fabrication of a tale at the turn of the current century that today graces computer screens in several versions. It also turns up in government publications, learned treatises such as Master’s theses and Doctoral dissertations and several ‘historical’ novels. Failure to ‘check it out’ has yielded a conveniently made-up hash in place of a verifiable globe-girdling saga entwining ordinary people in various walks of life whose paths converge on one location with a disastrous outcome. Truth often IS stranger (and more interesting) than fiction, and it also takes more time and effort than prevaricators are willing to invest.

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