My main project, Doubtful News is on hiatus right now. (Update 22-Jan-2016: We’re back.) Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media. Twice this week, I was reminded by others of the following: 1. I am not alone in this and, 2. We are foolish to rely on the media for accurate information.
DN was designed to reach the “Googler”, the curious, the smart searcher. I wanted to show that there was more to these stories than just “they’re fake”. Early on, it was clear that DN could be a full-time job for me. In fact, it could be work for half a dozen people. But it wouldn’t make a profit because I was opposed to plastering the site with crappy ads.
After four years, I noticed a few things.
By covering news on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and the general paranormal I saw that these very poorly done, sometimes obviously hoaxed pieces came mainly from tabloids like The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post. Several reputable news sites would pick them up because they were great click-bait. They were like pre-packaged fast food snacks – devoid of nutritional value, pure filler, really not part of a healthy news diet. But for some, this is their main news feed.
There was a proliferation of fake news sites. They are so ubiquitous now that it can be difficult to tell if they are satire or real. I have no love for dumb fake news. Today’s fake news is not witty satire of The Daily Show, Colbert Report or The Onion, but deliberate crap put out there to fool people who don’t look too closely. And, about 80% of people, I’d guess, don’t look closely at all. They just click “share”. That sort of non-thought gullibility is, overall, not good for society.
Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post who wrote the weekly column, “What was wrong on the Internet this Week” had her work cut out for her. She mostly covered the fake news, not the deeper, trained, skeptical look into questionable and antiscientific claims that I often did. While I thought her column was great for the public – because the more people see a reasoned response, the better – Dewey never really gave me the impression she knew all that much about how psychology works in terms of cognitive bias. She writes:
Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.
So, you have people deliberately being disinformation agents. And people eat it up. She continues:
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. …Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
Starting to? It always was a Sisyphean job. She can’t keep up, so the column is dead. I can’t keep up either, especially everyday. While DN does very good traffic – so much so that I have to pay for a higher tier of hosting – there is no way to compete with the Daily Mail, Reddit, IFLS or the many really awful Facebook pages and websites that pander to the sensational and/or shocking. Or even just politicians these days!
A few other things I found:
The endless sources of news material on medicine and health issues is best left to the professionals. This is a needed niche that, hopefully, won’t suffer from mission creep and will continue to grow. When people search for info about these issues – vaccines, autism, dietary supplements, cancer treatments, alternative cures – they need to hit a science-based site on the first page.
Themes of false stories are regurgitated over and over again. Even the exact stories are regularly resurrected. One of the first things I do is look at the dates, search for other sources, and look at THOSE dates. It’s becoming more frequent to see the same stories show up from 2 or 3 years ago framed as if they JUST happened. And the sharing begins again. Are our netizens learning? Not that I can tell. They seem to have incredibly short and poor memories. So, the archives of stories on my sites do receive views years laters. Sometimes they spike unexpectedly. Funny, that.
I’ve developed a bit of a knack for knowing what story will go viral. But I can’t always predict how successful a critique post on that topic will be. You can’t do too much to help it along; though I’ve tried. I’ve had little to no help from Reddit, BoingBoing, or Fark who prefer the ridiculous versions, or other critical thinking organizations or individuals that I’ve asked to help share these stories as I share theirs. That’s a problem. The aggregators and community should make an attempt to get the best view of the story circulated. Not the garbage version.
Remember, people will share the extreme pieces far more readily. The majority of people just see the news is another way to be entertained. They don’t care much about how true it is if it has truthiness that they enjoy. So, the news feed never gets smarter, it just gets worse.
Therefore, I declare all news is doubtful.
But what of the portion of the population that is interested in the fuller story?
We really could use several sources for news to trust and who won’t pander to the pull of posting click-bait. Real news sources should be producing reliable news, not debunking someone else’s. Doubtful News as a niche blog is appreciated and shared by select crowd who gets it and why we do it. It’s also snubbed by a number of bloggers who don’t value cooperation, is badmouthed by a few who wish to live in a world of fantasy and paranoia, and cited by a handful who know how tough this is to do day in and out. A concerted effort is needed in order to provide a social solution to fake news.
Many of us are jaded by the tsunami of terrible news sources and ridiculous stories passed off as news (or worse, journalism). It is my opinion that a continued effort should not be from a few part-timers like me but that it should be a primary job of the skeptical/critical thinking organizations to focus on good information, counteracting misinformation and doing this IN REAL TIME with news feeds, original pieces, expert commentary and online resources.
There is a gaping hole in society that needs to be filled by orgs like Center for Inquiry and The Skeptics Society to stand up for science and evidence-based media critique. Modeling skeptical critique and critical thinking processes should be a priority. My gosh, we need this so desperately! The skeptical voice is required for a thinking society. It’s nearly impossible now not to be drowned out totally.
I will always probably write about this stuff even though it gets old at times. It’s been a relief to not have to follow every silly psychic story and miracle treatment claim in the past weeks, which can be a downer. I gave up talking about Bigfoot a while ago and can’t be moved to even click on UFO claims. Need a ghost? Create one on an smart phone app – instant hits and a UK tabloid might even pay you for your pic.
It’s all so boring online now. In fact, my co-editor for DN said we might as well just have a template for the sensational paranormal story of the day. There was nothing new to add since we were often repeating ourselves. But insert a few keywords and it’s like it’s brand new news to half the world!
The interesting stuff is very much deeper, more historical and tied in with psychology, society and our quest for meaning in life. It takes a lot of work to dig those angles up. I plan to keep up with DN as a story grabs me. I certainly learned a lot and will surely continue to do that in a limited capacity. So, keep the site bookmarked, keep sending me links I might have missed. I probably won’t spend time debunking them but I have assumed a role of curious and critical spectator. There is no harm in that – critical being the important word.