Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fake News and Where to Find It

The News Tribune has a fairly hilarious piece about the generators of right-wing viral news. Rather than fellow true believers, of course, they are disaffected liberals who see no other way to secure their identity besides economic success, and see no other path to economic success than viral fame.

Instead, Wade hums a hip-hop song and starts a new post as readers keep reading, sharing and sending in personal messages. One comes from a woman who frequently contacts his page. “YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH,” is one of the things she has written, and Wade doesn’t need to look at her Facebook profile to have a clear sense of who she is. White. Working class. Midwestern. “And the economy screwed her.” 
He writes another headline, “THE TRUTH IS OUT! The Media Doesn’t Want You To See What Hillary Did After Losing. ...” 
“Nothing in this article is anti-media, but I’ve used this headline a thousand times,” he says. “Violence and chaos and aggressive wording is what people are attracted to.”
“Our audience does not trust the mainstream media,” Goldman, 26, says a little later as Wade keeps typing. “It’s definitely easier to hook them with that.

Read it and laugh. This reminded me of the pre-alt-right book "Trust Me, I'm Lying" about generating similar fake content for blogs like Gawker when Gawker was still a thing.

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by [Holiday, Ryan]

It’s written by a “blog manipulator” about how easy and unethical it is to get the information you want into wide distribution. The author is openly immoral, and so it comes off more like the Screwtape Letters than anything else. So obviously don’t just, take everything he says as honest - and in fact the book has plenty of details that belie how much more terrible his own actions were than the stories he tells himself about his own lack of culpability. But even doubting his reliability, he presents compelling arguments about how modern social media, and the popular websites that rely on them, are an “anything goes” atmosphere where the only standard is “what will go viral and get the most shares.”

Not “is this article information”, not “does it advance the narrative I want”, and not even “is it true”, but just will it spread. The last is particularly counter-intuitively logical. If you post something that later on turns out to be false, either people have forgotten about it anyway or -- the argument about whether it was true, your website’s culpability in it, or even just your personal mea culpa, simply make even more traffic. Retractions are a great business move now, instead of a punitive measure to encourage caution in the future.

The book focuses on the emotions that cause an article to spread (outrage or elation, instead of sadness or thoughtfulness). But what strikes me is how much controversy plays a factor. Not just controversy in that “this makes people upset”, but controversy in that it naturally has two sides. The news stories that make it big are the ones where you can immediately see “your side” and “the faint glimmer of logic the other side has” but more importantly “why you are much much more right than them.” Being more right and righteous than absolute monsters is not very satisfying actually, since hey we can all do that. But being more right and righteous than people who have some childlike logic that you can both understand and disdain, makes us feel like moral giants.

It also means that if an opponent of the article’s viewpoint reads the article, they can immediately imagine the correct response, since the glimmer of opposing logic is already there. They can then get furious about how their side is unfairly represented, knowing their side has a good point to make.

If an article implies that there is no other side, there’s no reason to spread the word. But if it half-heartedly hints at the foolish logic the other side has, then you feel the moral duty to tell the internet “No wrong people, this is why you are wrong!” At least some people feel this, enough to matter.

In each controversy, some people will write thoughtful pieces that express sadness, and empathy for the points made by each side, and other words of wisdom. People who read these articles will go “Yeah, that’s all true and useful.” People who read these articles nod and are enlightened by them. These articles do not get linked. The articles of outrage - from either side - get the traffic and attention, and their influence continues to grow.

If you like stories of “empathy for people in unexpected situations” and “complex, unreliable narrators”, this was really surprisingly good. And again, no one should endorse the political positions many people seem to push the book based on. But sometimes we have to look past what other people think about a work, and engage with the text ourselves.

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