social media and all the fake news that’s fit to print

Es­ti­mated reading time is 11 minutes.

SOME PEOPLE DO BE­LIEVE every­thing they read on Face­book: “So­cial media has swal­lowed the news, threat­ening the funding of public-interest re­porting and ush­ering in an era when everyone has their own facts. Twenty-five years after the first web­site went on­line, it is clear that we are living through a pe­riod of dizzying transition. 

Now, we are caught in a se­ries of con­fusing bat­tles be­tween op­posing forces: be­tween truth and false­hood, fact and rumor, kind­ness and cru­elty; be­tween the few and the many, the con­nected and the alien­ated; be­tween an in­formed public and a mis­guided mob.”


For 500 years after Guten­berg, the dom­i­nant form of in­for­ma­tion was the printed page.


These opening para­graphs were gleaned from the bulk of an ar­ticle ti­tled “How Tech­nology Dis­rupted The Truth” by Katharine Viner for The Guardian (July 12, 2016). The orig­inal story is 5,500 words and takes 40-60 min­utes for normal readers like you and me to wade through.

Be­tween the hor­i­zontal lines and the two il­lus­tra­tions below, you will find a trun­cated ver­sion of Vin­er’s ar­ticle (1,600 words) in­tended to make the reader want more, to make you want to read all 5,500 words of the original.

Be­cause it’s worth it. 

I re­peat: the text be­tween the lines and the il­lus­tra­tions below (Guten­berg and Face­book) are not my work. They are re­posted from an­other article.


Swallows Gutenberg 1000

“In 1440, Jo­hannes Guten­berg in­vented a movable-type press that per­mitted the high-quality re­pro­duc­tion of printed ma­te­rials at a rate of nearly 4,000 pages per day, or 1,000 times more than could be done by a scribe by hand. Overnight, the new printing press trans­formed the scope and reach of the news­paper, paving the way for modern-day jour­nalism.” (His­tory of News­pa­pers)

Technology Disrupted The Truth
by Katharine Viner

So­cial media has swal­lowed the news, ush­ering in an era when everyone has their own facts. When a fact be­gins to re­semble what­ever you feel is true, it be­comes very dif­fi­cult for anyone to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween facts that are true and “facts” that are not. The Leave Cam­paign [in the British Brexit vote] was well aware of this, and took full ad­van­tage, safe in the knowl­edge that the Ad­ver­tising Stan­dards Au­thority has no power to po­lice po­lit­ical claims. 1

A few days after the vote, Arron Banks, Ukip’s largest donor and the main funder of the Leave.EU cam­paign, told the Guardian that his side knew all along that facts would not win the day:

“It was taking an American-style media ap­proach. What they said early on was ‘Facts don’t work’, and that’s it. The Re­main Cam­paign fea­tured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to con­nect with people emo­tion­ally. It’s the Trump suc­cess.” 2

It was a little sur­prise that some people were shocked after the re­sult to dis­cover that Brexit might have se­rious con­se­quences and few of the promised ben­e­fits. When “facts don’t work” and voters don’t trust the media, everyone be­lieves in their own “truth,” and the re­sults, as we have just seen, can be devastating.

How did we end up here?

And how do we fix it? 3


InternetTrolls TrollHunter 1500

The troll was long a crea­ture of Norse mythology and chil­dren’s books but is now one of the most feared and re­viled of denizens on the World Wide Web.

A misguided mob

Twenty-five years after the first web­site went on­line, it is clear that we are living through a pe­riod of dizzying tran­si­tion. For 500 years after Guten­berg, the dom­i­nant form of in­for­ma­tion was the printed page: knowl­edge was pri­marily de­liv­ered in a fixed format, one that en­cour­aged readers to be­lieve in stable and set­tled truths. Now, we are caught in a se­ries of con­fusing bat­tles be­tween op­posing forces:

• be­tween truth and false­hood, fact and rumor, kind­ness and cruelty;
• be­tween the few and the many, the con­nected and the alienated;
• be­tween the open plat­form of the web as its ar­chi­tects en­vi­sioned it and the gated en­clo­sures of Face­book and other so­cial net­works; and
• be­tween an in­formed public and a mis­guided mob.

What is common to these struggles—and what makes their res­o­lu­tion an ur­gent matter—is that they all in­volve the di­min­ishing status of truth.

This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no con­sensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.

In­creas­ingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true—and tech­nology has made it very easy for these “facts” to cir­cu­late with a speed and reach that was unimag­in­able even a decade ago.


FakeNews keyboard 1400

Social media and false information

There are usu­ally sev­eral con­flicting truths on any given sub­ject, but in the era of the printing press, words on a page nailed things down, whether they turned out to be true or not. This set­tled “truth” was usu­ally handed down from above: an es­tab­lished truth, often fixed in place by an establishment.

This arrange­ment was not without flaws: too much of the press often ex­hib­ited a bias to­wards the status quo and a def­er­ence to au­thority, and it was pro­hib­i­tively dif­fi­cult for or­di­nary people to chal­lenge the power of the press.

Now, people dis­trust much of what is pre­sented as fact—particularly if the facts in ques­tion are un­com­fort­able, or out of sync with their own views—and while some of that dis­trust is mis­placed, some of it is not.

In the dig­ital age, it is easier than ever to pub­lish false in­for­ma­tion, which is quickly shared and taken to be true.


“So­cial media hasn’t just swal­lowed jour­nalism, it has swal­lowed every­thing. It has swal­lowed po­lit­ical cam­paigns, banking sys­tems, per­sonal his­to­ries, even gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity.” 4


Al­go­rithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are de­signed to give us more of what they think we want—which means that the ver­sion of the world we en­counter every day in our own per­sonal stream has been in­vis­ibly cu­rated to re­in­force our pre-existing be­liefs. 5

The per­son­al­ized web means that:

1. We are less likely to be ex­posed to in­for­ma­tion that chal­lenges us or broadens our worldview.

2. We are less likely to en­counter facts that dis­prove false in­for­ma­tion that others have shared.

Face­book has be­come the dom­i­nant way for people to find news on the internet—and, in fact, it is dom­i­nant in ways that would have been im­pos­sible to imagine in the news­paper era.

Pub­li­ca­tions cu­rated by ed­i­tors have in many cases been re­placed by a stream of in­for­ma­tion chosen by friends, con­tacts, and family, processed by se­cret al­go­rithms. The old idea of a wide-open web—where hy­per­links from site to site cre­ated a non-hierarchical and de­cen­tral­ized net­work of information—has been largely sup­planted by plat­forms de­signed to max­i­mize your time within their walls.


FakeNews cartoon 1

Fake news farms

In the last few years, many news or­ga­ni­za­tions have steered them­selves away from public-interest jour­nalism and to­ward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of at­tracting clicks and ad­ver­tising. The most ex­treme man­i­fes­ta­tion of this phe­nom­enon has been the cre­ation of fake news farms, which at­tract traffic with false re­ports that are de­signed to look like real news, and are there­fore widely shared on so­cial networks.

It would be a mis­take to think this is a new phe­nom­enon of the dig­ital age. But what is new and sig­nif­i­cant is that today, ru­mors and lies are read just as widely as copper-bottomed facts—and often more widely, be­cause they are wilder than re­ality and more ex­citing to share.


“Nowa­days it’s not im­por­tant if a story’s real. The only thing that re­ally mat­ters is whether people click on it. If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.” 6


The in­creasing preva­lence of this ap­proach sug­gests that we are in the midst of a fun­da­mental change in the values of jour­nalism: in­stead of strength­ening so­cial bonds, or cre­ating an in­formed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a de­mo­c­ratic ne­ces­sity, it cre­ates gangs, which spread in­stant false­hoods that fit their views, re­in­forcing each other’s be­liefs, dri­ving each other deeper into shared opin­ions, rather than es­tab­lished facts.


FakeNews Lies cartoon2

Too good to check 

News media around the world has reached a fever-pitch of fren­zied binge-publishing, in order to scrape up dig­ital advertising’s pen­nies and cents. 

In­creas­ingly, otherwise-credible sources are also pub­lishing false, mis­leading, or de­lib­er­ately out­ra­geous stories.

What dis­tin­guishes good jour­nalism from poor jour­nalism is labour: the jour­nalism that people value the most is that for which they can tell someone has put in a lot of work—where they can feel the ef­fort that has been ex­pended on their be­half, over tasks big or small, im­por­tant or en­ter­taining. It is the re­verse of so-called “chur­nalism”, the end­less re­cy­cling of other people’s sto­ries for clicks.


“Click­bait is king, so news­rooms will un­crit­i­cally print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends le­git­i­macy to bull­shit.” 7


The im­pact on jour­nalism of the crisis in the busi­ness model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the ex­pense of ac­cu­racy and ve­racity, news or­ga­ni­za­tions un­der­mine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth—to re­port, re­port, report.

Se­rious, public-interest jour­nalism is de­manding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the pow­erful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and re­li­able in­for­ma­tion are es­sen­tial for the func­tioning of democracy—and the dig­ital era has made that even more obvious.


FakeNews cartoon 6

Torrents of racism and sexism

The truth is a struggle. It takes hard graft. But the struggle is worth it: tra­di­tional news values are im­por­tant and they matter and they are worth de­fending. The dig­ital rev­o­lu­tion has meant that jour­nal­ists are more ac­count­able to their au­di­ence. 8

At the same time, the lev­eling of the in­for­ma­tion land­scape has un­leashed new tor­rents of racism and sexism and new means of shaming and ha­rass­ment, sug­gesting a world in which the loudest and crudest ar­gu­ments will pre­vail. It is an at­mos­phere that has proved par­tic­u­larly hos­tile to women and people of color, re­vealing that the in­equal­i­ties of the phys­ical world are re­pro­duced all too easily in on­line spaces.


“‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to news­paper ed­i­tors not to jump on bull­shit sto­ries. Now it’s a busi­ness model.” 9


Above all, the chal­lenge for jour­nalism today is not simply tech­no­log­ical in­no­va­tion or the cre­ation of new busi­ness models. It is to es­tab­lish what role jour­nal­istic or­ga­ni­za­tions still play in a public dis­course that has be­come im­pos­sibly frag­mented and rad­i­cally destabilized. 

The old gate­keepers were also ca­pable of great harm, and they were often im­pe­rious in re­fusing space to ar­gu­ments they deemed out­side the main­stream po­lit­ical con­sensus. But without some form of con­sensus, it is hard for any truth to take hold. 

I be­lieve that a strong jour­nal­istic cul­ture is worth fighting for. Tra­di­tional news values must be em­braced and cel­e­brated: re­porting, ver­i­fying, gath­ering to­gether eye­wit­ness state­ments, making a se­rious at­tempt to dis­cover what re­ally happened.


FakeNews Scrabble 1000

An editor’s prerogative

Lib­er­ties were taken editing the story: thou­sands of words were re­moved, but no words were altered—except for ab­bre­vi­a­tions or other ref­er­ences that might con­fuse and con­found non-British readers (like you and me).


“[The rise of Trump] is ac­tu­ally a symptom of the mass media’s growing weak­ness, es­pe­cially in con­trol­ling the limits of what it is ac­cept­able to say.” 10


Em­phasis was added where I wanted to draw the read­er’s at­ten­tion, and I used Amer­ican Eng­lish (AmE) in­stead of the orig­inal ar­ti­cle’s British Eng­lish (BrE).

I also played with the struc­ture of the para­graphs and sen­tences to make it more palat­able to the In­ternet eye.


Swallows Welles WarOfTheWorlds 900

FEA­TURED IMAGE: At 8 PM on Oc­tober 30, 1938, radio lis­teners across the United States heard this rather tame an­nounce­ment: “The Co­lumbia Broad­casting System and its af­fil­i­ated sta­tions present Orson Welles and the Mer­cury The­ater on the air in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.” Well, not all of them heard the in­tro­duc­tion; they just heard what followed.

Orson Welles and his Mer­cury The­ater com­pany wrote an up­date to H.G. Wells’ sci­ence fic­tion novel War Of The Worlds for na­tional radio. It was not planned as a hoax, but a se­rious per­for­mance piece.

“Per­haps as many as a mil­lion radio lis­teners be­lieved that a real Mar­tian in­va­sion was un­derway. Panic broke out across the country. When news of the real-life panic leaked into the CBS studio, Welles went on the air as him­self to re­mind lis­teners that it was just fic­tion. There were ru­mors that the show caused sui­cides, but none were ever con­firmed.” (His­tory)

A classic fake news story an­nounced as fic­tion and be­lieved by count­less lis­teners. As P.T. Barnum fa­mously ob­served, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”



1   The Ad­ver­tising Stan­dards Au­thority (ASA) is the UK’s in­de­pen­dent reg­u­lator of ad­ver­tising across all media. They apply the Ad­ver­tising Codes, which are written by the Com­mit­tees of Ad­ver­tising Prac­tice. Their work in­cludes acting on com­plaints and proac­tively checking the media to take ac­tion against mis­leading, harmful or of­fen­sive advertisements.

2   Once again Amer­ican know-how led the way and those bloody limey rightwing bas­tards had to look to the Amer­ican rightwing bas­tards for in­no­va­tion and leadership.

3   A simple law that makes it a crime to make claims or al­le­ga­tions that are un­prov­able in a po­lit­ical ad­ver­tise­ment or cam­paign tract would com­pletely alter pol­i­tics in the US and the UK.

4   Emily Bell, “Face­book is eating the world.”

5   “In com­puter sys­tems, an al­go­rithm is ba­si­cally an in­stance of logic written in soft­ware to be ef­fec­tive for the in­tended ‘target’ computer(s) to pro­duce output from given input. An op­timal al­go­rithm, even run­ning in old hard­ware, would pro­duce faster re­sults than a non-optimal al­go­rithm for the same pur­pose, run­ning in more ef­fi­cient hard­ware; that is why al­go­rithms, like com­puter hard­ware, are con­sid­ered tech­nology.” (Wikipedia)

6   Neetzan Zim­merman in David Holmes’ “Whisper EIC: It’s not im­por­tant if a sto­ry’s real, the only thing that re­ally mat­ters is whether people click on it.”

7   Brooke Binkowski in Kevin Rawl­in­son’s “How news­room pres­sure is let­ting fake sto­ries on to the web.”

8   Hard graft is British slang for hard work.

9    Dave Weigel, “If You Want Re­porters to Check Sto­ries Be­fore They Pub­lish, You’re a Hater.”

10   Zeynep Tufekci, “Ad­ven­tures in the Trump Twit­ter­sphere.”


2 thoughts on “social media and all the fake news that’s fit to print”

  1. AAAAH­HHHH!!!!!

    All the fake news that fits.

    I think that Will Rodgers was cor­rect. “All I know is what I read in the news­paper.”! He was a great racon­teur, an honest co­me­dian, as well as an icon! Maybe we should all go back to reading the newspaper!

    • J

      I don’t think the real issue is that there are fake news sites on the In­ternet: anyone above FI level (“F*ckin’ Idjit”) should be able to rec­og­nize these sites when they find them.

      I mean, how long should you have to stare at a head­line that tells you that you can make $60,000 a year on wel­fare in Hawaii be­fore you re­alize that’s simply not possible?

      But we both know people who read these unf*ckingbelievably stoopit ar­ti­cles and then send links to everyone on their email list!!!


      PS1: Folks below the FI level should not be al­lowed to drive large ve­hi­cles, op­erate dan­gerous ma­chinery, or vote.

      PS2: To the best of my knowl­edge, every fake news site on the ‘net dealing with US pol­i­tics is ex­treme rightwingnut.


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