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.
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.
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.