The bad news: phony content doesn’t depend on ad revenue

We’ve been talking, for the past few weeks, about the impact of fake “news” and its effect on current affairs, public conversation, and matters of governance. We’ve focused, in particular, on the role of social-media platforms in its dissemination, and on whether those platforms bear any responsibility for the effect of the phony content they serve up. (Spoiler: they do.)

So while their continuing rejection of that responsibility was disheartening on the one hand, it was interesting to see some of them moving to cut off the revenue stream for junk pushers by barring them from advertising networks. That should work, shouldn’t it?

Well, not so fast. A recent study of the fake-news ecosystem by Jonathan Albright, an expert in media analytics and data journalism, suggests that it probably won’t. (H/t, once again, to Mathew Ingram at Fortune.) Why not? Because the content they spew into the pool of public conversation doesn’t depend on ad revenue — it’s hyped organically. It’s deriving its own manufactured authenticity by being shared via email and such. And that’s how it finds its way to the top of Google search results and Facebook’s news feeds. As Albright observes:

The data I have here suggests that a good portion of the fake news (misinformation) is entering Facebook, Twitter, etc. through “old school” mechanisms — emails, email newsletters, organic search results — and by audiences going directly to these fake news websites.

Albright’s study is worth reading in depth, not just for the links between the social-media giants and the sources of some of the crap, but also for the strategies used by the pushers — data-driven PR efforts, behavioural microtargeting and the like. It’s essential for anyone in the business of marketing, messaging, and / or communication.

And this is where it gets really troubling. That the business of misinformation and manipulation is long-established and well-resourced isn’t news. And how deep it goes shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either.

But the patterns Albright describes are just a symptom of a much deeper malaise. What’s the term du jour? Post-reality? Post-truth? Post-satire? Whatever it is, the war on “the media” — and a few other manufactured targets — has been so protracted, and so scorched-earth, that the damage may be irreversible.

We used to be able to talk to each other, even if we didn’t agree. Now?

People share garbage content because they can’t distinguish what’s valid from what isn’t. They have no conception of the truth any more, and no commitment to it because they don’t even know what it is. They just identify with their own tribes, and truth is whatever the people manipulating / leading those tribes say it is.

The “elites” / “liberals” / “media” are the enemy.

Climate change is a hoax.

Immigrants are stealing our jobs.

White people are being persecuted.

We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.

Your free speech is under attack because you can’t shout racist, sexist, LGBTQ-phobic slurs. You’re being oppressed by political correctness.

Fake news isn’t the half of it. I go on about critical thinking, but sometimes I wonder how people are supposed to do it when words no longer mean anything and half the time we don’t even speak the same language any more.

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