People really believe this stuff. The NY Times didn’t realize that…

I started the site Doubtful News in 2011 with the premise that science-based, skeptically-minded coverage of news stories that you shouldn’t believe on face value was sorely needed. There was good reason to doubt the news headlines and fantastic anecdotes passed off as news even then. I lamented there were not enough hours in the day.

Here we are in 2016 and the idea of “fake news” – whatever the definition of that is – is ubiquitous. The Washington Post posted yesterday:

Fake news can refer to deliberately fabricated stories, often with the purpose of making money for the creators. (Think of those Macedonian teenagers looking to strike it rich on the gullibility of American audiences reading about politics.) It can also refer to comedy or satirical news, faked for the purposes of entertainment. Both of these types of stories are often shared across social media — and are taken as true by some readers.

FAKE rubber stamp. Part of a rubber stamp series.

Back in 2011, it was clear that people really believed this stuff : Guatemala pig alien born after ufos seen in the sky, Jesus seen in a cloud, Month of birth may suggest what career a baby will have, John Travolta was a time-traveller based on an old photograph. These posts came mostly from UK tabloids but it didn’t take long for them to be spread and then get picked up in all their stinky ridiculousness, to be click bait for what people once assumed were reliable news sites, like Yahoo News, CNN and the local news channel web pages. At some point around 2010, the border between backchannel Internet forums and mainstream news became very porous and incredible tabloid fodder became “news”.

Today, I wrote this piece about Breitbart and climate change propaganda, Breitbart was a  main proponent of spiking mainstream news with stories that had a kernel of truth but were rotten in the interior. These stories were meant to destabilize the decisions between truth and fiction. People read the headlines, they shared, the pseudo news became the news. It’s not like we had no warning that society was threatened by this trend, just 9-11 conspiracies, alien disclosure, reptilian overlords, and Sandy Hook crisis actors claims.

The guest on Fresh Air recorded yesterday was The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. My mouth dropped open when he admitted he had no idea that “fake news” was a thing until it was too late.

When did you become aware of the fake news that’s all over the internet now and the impact that it’s having?

BAQUET: You know, not early enough, not early enough, to be honest. I bet most editors would say that. I think it was only near the end – I mean, I would get stuff myself in my email and on my Facebook feed with outlandish allegations about the Clintons and outlandish allegations about other people. I guess I thought at the time that it was just sort of part of the traffic of the internet and that – and we could ignore it and that people were ignoring it. I think – I’m not convinced that it had impact on the presidential election, by the way.

Emphasis above added by me. He was this ignorant? Was he that detached from the pulse of the internet? Apparently so. He continues:

But I think that probably I wish I had paid more attention to it earlier than I did. I bet every news organization is saying that now. We wrote about it, but I wish we had paid more attention to it. I just thought some of it was so outlandish. I mean, even the – I mean, the most outlandish one that’s come into the news in recent days that the Clintons ran a child porn ring out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. I guess I thought nobody would believe that. I thought that was so outlandish a claim.

GROSS: Yes, until a man walked in with an assault weapon and started shooting.

BAQUET: That’s right. And until we learn that the son of a future Cabinet member sort of was retweeting it.

Welcome to the real world.

PEOPLE REALLY BELIEVE THIS STUFF!!! 

Some days I banged my head on the wall because my website had provided evidence that a story was blatantly false three days ahead of it making mainstream news as true. DoubtfulNews.com was getting a few thousand clicks while sites spouting complete nonsense were getting millions of views. My work got little to no support, where creators of the other sites were getting thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue. Snopes.com was inundated with urban legends to debunk that they hired professional writers. Caitlyn Dewey could only keep her “What was wrong on the Internet this week” column up for about a year. There was NO excuse to have been surprised at how this phenomenon affected the what the public believed. It was not just the fringe; this stuff was discussed by everyone. There were multiple gigantic red flags no self-respecting journalists should have missed that fake news was a major problem we needed to address.

But big name media sources did nothing and rolled along as usual. We got the bamboozler-in-chief we deserved. Now America is one big reality TV drama fest. It was inevitable.

Dear NYT and WaPo: I’m available for consultation. You need assistance. It’s a whole new world out there.

Trust No One: All news is doubtful – Doubtful ~ Sharon Hill

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11 thoughts on “People really believe this stuff. The NY Times didn’t realize that…

  1. I listened to the Fresh Air interview also but wasn’t really cognizant of the kind of fake news reports until a couple years ago as it became clear that there were sites other than The Onion, The Borowitz Report and The Colbert Report that were apparently just pranking like high school kids.

    Of course, one can hope that the major journals and journalists would have been more aware since news is their business.

    But In a way, we all became aware of fake…or “faked up” news with The National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids. I suppose there’s a difference, though it might be hard to define exactly how the Enquirer differs from Weekly World News.

    I also remember the early (pre-Snopes) days of email when friends and co-workers would routinely pass along what they considered “interesting information” without any vetting whatsoever. A lot of it turned out to range from out-and-out political dirty tricksterism to people simply changing the facts of a story to make it more interesting.

  2. If you have not seen the latest Virtual Skeptics (7 Dec, 2016), the first segment covers a wonderful case of just how this stuff starts, one facebook post and a single interview about a project to get peoples memories of Donald Trumps time in Atlantic City became ‘They’re going to build a museum in honor of Donald Trump in Atlantic City’ in a very short time and it’s gone everywhere.

  3. I heard that piece on “Fresh Air” also. I don’t comprhend how professionals in the news industry did not realize that this type of story was a problem. I have been concerned about it for decades (for the record I am an archaeologist). “It’s just for fun” people say about fake news stories. But to some people these stories have become their reality. And to think we used to just worry about whether Santa was real at this time of the year. Stay skeptical my friends.

  4. Two old saws developing a third.
    A fool and his money are soon parted, and never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups, which lead to what a prof at Wharton college once instructed explaining media advertising gimmicks…the masses are asses.
    The adages are a sort of mantra I use as a guide when dealing with John Q. Public. As a businessman I certainly can appreciate the lament of so few seeking quality and fact while inanity and misdirection draw the naive like flies.
    There are a plethora of studies regarding this phenomena though I have yet to find anything suggesting a cure.
    I sympathize wholeheartedly with any and all impoverishment due to this idiocy.
    A reminder of the ignorance the population of this particular country is etched in the history books with Chump as our leader and Ms. Prevaricator still grousing about numbers in the also ran department. Neither were even qualified to run their own lives and yet, the populace endorsed both with more enthusiasm than legally allowed for supposedly thinking adults. I shake my head at every mention of either and remember there haven’t been any positive choices proffered for a leader in the last fifty years. I know this as I am that old.
    My suggestion for ‘accepting’ this asinine situation? Sadly, just grin and bear it. Do your own level best to be more than yesterday, expect nothing but misery and keep on smiling…through the rain. It’s how I motivate myself. I know the masses are asses and I just have to deal with it the best I can.
    I close with a parody/mock adage: Illegitimi non carborundum. (Don’t let the b*st*rds gring you down!)
    Thank you for all your efforts and this superb reporting site. It is a joy to see and definitely proves there is still intelligent life on this planet. Keep on smiling!

  5. I thought this article was great in pointing out that, “big name media sources did nothing and rolled along as usual.”
    I also think that the very same big name media that ignored reality are absolutely guilty of publishing their own “fake news”.
    Bias reporting is just as damaging to the nation, and I’d hope that the country recognizes that. I hope that you continue your site! My blog is going to be focusing on some of the very same things your site has been addressing.

  6. We should criticise the media for letting us down. The gatekeepers dutifully refrained from printing dreck…but thought that was enough. They did half their duty, with some exception.

    But we have to put most of the responsibility on the consumer. They hunger for this awful stuff. The lot that voted for Trump made it clear for (at least) the last eight years that they didn’t want to be lectured to about what is true and false, good and bad. They wanted their truth to prevail; Trump merely gave them their wish.

    We live in a world where “the customer is always right,” so cynical amoralists are providing the confirmation. The people will go to the source that panders to them. So those believing in Pizzagate are not reading the Washington Post for fact-checking.

  7. I agree with Terry the C that we need to blame the consumers…the citizens who either didn’t vote or wasted their vote, and the citizens who just read headlines or Facebook posts.

    We can’t blame the traditional media (I don’t like to say “mainstream media” but can’t think of a better term to distinguish from Breitbart, Mr. Conservative.org, Fox News, Alex Jones, et al). The media did their job of reporting on what a self-serving demagogue and Maker-of-Stuff-Up Trump is. We heard reports on those shenanigans every day. We could see how he made name-calling of everyone who opposed him an everyday event: “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” etc. — everyone who opposed him got a vile name.

    I’m not even sure what there is to criticize in the reputable media — they did their job. We didn’t do ours as voters.

    1. There is much blame to go around. It’s not hard to find justification to lay blame thickly on many parties. However, the media did fail by focusing on whatever was the “drama” of the day, falling for Trump’s traps and getting covered in muck. The problem may stem from the need to fill 24-hr air time or to get clicks. The more boring, less sexy pieces about policy issues didn’t get read. This new environment for an election with such unique candidates left the media without a roadmap of what to do. They framed things poorly, they focused on the circus, they helped people misunderstand and become jaded with the information they were fed.

      The modern media covers total shit today that is not news and fails to do much deep investigation. It’s an appeal to the masses and I don’t appreciate it. So much so that I vowed to forego CNN from now on.

      As another example, look how they were humiliated by Trump when called to an audience with him after the election. They swallowed the hook over and over. I’m hoping they learned from all these mistakes and will change tactic over the next 4 years.

  8. Nice point, Sharon, about that post-election fawn-fest. I’d love to see a major news organization simply get up from the table and say, “Sorry, we don’t operate under those conditions. You can’t simply call us in and then call us bad names…we’ll come back when you’re willing to play by the rules of truthtelling.” I imagine they could only get away with it if they were able to act in unison though.

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