I was reading a story on the Internet, you’ll never believe what happened next…

Fake News.

Naively, I’d assumed the far-fetched stories I read on social media were either from well-meaning but misinformed parties or commercially motivated. The goal was either to provide information for the general good of society so they could avoid a certain product, or sell an alternative, by suggesting the product could wreck havoc with health, digestion, or the environment. The profit motivation might not be entirely separate from the first, altruistic one, if the originator of the story genuinely believes they have a product of benefit to the people.

At first glance, Fake News, a phenomena that has been spattered all over the media recently and ascribed such lofty importance as helping to determine the fate of a nation, didn’t appear to me to fit into either category, although it does belong in the same general area of misinformation in the popular press.

The tricky thing about Fake News, and other less-than-factual stories, is that they tend to look like real news. Misinformation gets mixed in with real news when people share on social media, and amplified when trending stories are promoted. Stories on the internet often appear in order of popularity, rather than sorted by the creator’s journalistic awards, years of establishment, or history of credibility.

To fit Fake News into the spectrum of internet misinformation, I speculated about the motivation of its makers. Leaving aside criminal intent1, why would anyone want to create truth-bending stories?

With real news, a journalist’s goal is to find the truth and enlighten readers. Is the goal of Fake News to make something up and see how many people can be confused? If it isn’t selling a product that’s the cure, a clearly responsible cleaning solution that will save the planet, or a secret, 50ยข remedy that your doctor don’t want you to know about, then what is the motivation for publishing nonsense stories?

Silly me. From what I read, Fake News makes money for its creators the old fashion way: by selling advertising on the basis of having lots of eyes on the website. A simple, old-fashion rule: big readership commands the highest price for third party advertising.

Fake News has spawned a lot of real media recently, on various themes, such as:

  • the potential far-reaching impacts’
  • that it’s nothing new – for example, supermarket-sold tabloids have been selling it for years’
  • how hard it is to identify – academic research shows people2 can’t tell the difference between advertisements and real news,
  • a plethora of advice on how to tell good information from bad.

Why would someone decide to create stories they know are false? Leaving aside those who do it because there’s no law against it and it’s a source of advertising revenue (of which I imagine there are some), and those who do it to sell other things, what motivates a person to provide pure Fake News?

It’s unlikely to be confusion about what constitutes fiction. We humans have been creating fiction for a long time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes through the process of many, many retellings of the same tale over the centuries. Various perspectives suggest fiction originated in ancient Greece, pre-modern era China, or medieval England.

Is Fake News satire gone horribly wrong? Satire, like fiction, is a form of entertainment, which often has an embedded educational element. Satire exaggerates aspects of a situation to amuse and provide commentary. With either fiction or satire, I can imagine people getting carried away, pushing the boundaries of truth for the heady praise of an audience.

Are Fake News purveyors evil pranksters, trying to share a good laugh at the gullible with the not-so-gullible? In a deeply twisted way, this explanation could be seen as simple business, because it provides a product for a niche market. Could Fake News be viewed as a business model for satisfying the in-crowd, providing the elitism that comes from getting the joke over those who didn’t?

There is also the possibility of power or fame as motivation for disseminating Fake News. The equalizing force of the internet, where all stories are presented on the same platforms, gives every writer the potential to influence millions. Imagine the thrill of having your story go viral. This, after all, is the goal of most writers – to have their material read.

It seems to me Fake News is like any other form of misinformation on the internet. It’s there because there’s money to be made and fame to be gained. Is it more harmful than stories from misinformed but thoughtful champions of their cause or the snake-oil hucksters selling products on the free market? The consequences in all cases range from harmless to dire.

One of my mother’s axioms rings in my ears. ‘Keep your wits about you’, she’d say, regardless of whether I was on my way to a foreign country or doing a homework assignment. The words haunt me, in a comforting way.

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1While criminal motivations are possible, I’ll leave that area to the law enforcement experts.

2 These studies relate to youngish people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the findings extend to all ages.

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