University of Chicago Institute of Politics
Craig Silverman at the University of Chicago's International House
Craig Silverman, media editor of Buzzfeed, was showing a picture of an ABC News article recently to a crowd at the University of Chicago's International House Assembly Hall. The headline read "Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: 'I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.'" It looked official enough. That is, until the audience began to notice things like the ABC logo font in Arial, the odd kerning, the fact that paid protesting really isn't a thing
, and finally, the author's name—"Jimmy Rustling," a nod to the popular 4chan meme, "That Really Rustled My Jimmies."
This is "fake news"—not in the way President Donald Trump uses the term, which is basically to describe any story that seems unflattering, or the meme it's become, which is anything I disagree with, but as it was originally intended—purposefully invented or falsified news (especially politics) stories, written for low-budget websites and dramatized to receive maximum click-through traffic.
Silverman was invited by the U. of C.'s Institute of Politics to give a talk, called "Fake News, Alternative Facts, and the World of Misinformation," on February 13—and who better? Silverman's made his name fact-checking and managing misinformation, first as the "Regret the Error"
fact-checking and media verification columnist for Poynter, then as the founder of Emergent.info
, a start-up meant to tend to the ever-growing rumor mill in online news. At Buzzfeed, he spearheaded much of the site's forward-thinking coverage of online misinformation outlets from Macedonia to Canada. With "fake news" on the lips of every politician and editor, it would seem this is Silverman's time to shine.
But at the beginning of the last week's talk, he demurred. "I think the term 'fake news' has almost
been rendered meaningless at this point," he said. "It means a lot of different things to different people." Instead, he simply hoped to set the record straight, to "offer a little clarity, at least in terms of how I see fake news and how I define it, but also what I call the 'online misinformation ecosystem' as well." It would go on like this for the remainder of the talk—Silverman delving into his wealth of knowledge on how we get tripped up by falsehoods on the Internet, but always leaving questions open as to where the stories will go next.
The fake story about a paid protester that Silverman led off with might have just languished in Facebook and Twitter feeds far from the gaze of journalists and the political class if not for two people—Corey Lewandowski and Kellyanne Conway, seeming to take the piece as fact, had both tweeted the story out to their huge numbers of followers. It's a narrative that's become familiar at this point, and Silverman stressed the real concern: "This is really important for misinformation," he said. "When people in positions of power and authority share it, and put it out there, it adds to its perception of credibility."
These highly charged political stories have become an all-too-regular occurrence—a person with little credibility comes up with either a misrepresented statistic or a blatantly false idea, and the Trump administration runs with it, terrifying many on the left while energizing those in the president's base, many of whom already believe they've been lied to.
Silverman emphasized that while many of those sharing fake news are politically motivated, the stories themselves usually have less partisan origins. Many of the most popular stories, he made clear, were from "trolls who don't necessarily have an ideological motive, who are just out there causing trouble."
Silverman made sure to emphasize that while there's great potential for fake news websites (which he's also compiled an ever-growing list of) to be used by political actors to set an agenda, the sites that he's found are instead driven by the simple desire to make a quick buck.
True fake news today, Silverman explained, "has to be 100 percent false. It has to be purposefully created as false, and it has to be financially motivated." It's a "cynical form of attention harvesting" that takes advantage of people's reliance on social media for emotional validation just as much as for information gathering, hijacking the distrust of mainstream media sources and the endless information that the Web can provide.
So these oft-cited Macedonian teens running some of the biggest fake news sites might be associated with Russia, sure. But it's telling that in Silverman's own investigation
, a 17-year old site owner say nothing about political motivations. "In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money," the teen says. "I'm a musician but I can't afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things."
Of course, Silverman went on to remind people, fake news didn't come out of nowhere. Misinformation, intentional or otherwise, is as old as dirt.
At one point, Silverman brought up the Sun,
a now-defunct New York City broadsheet that at one point coexisted with the New York Times
in the mid-1800s. An early benefactor of the "penny press," which made it cheaper to print papers and thus led to the rise of mass media, the Sun
also took advantage of another trick that Silverman described as "just print crazy shit." This included a six-part series about an explorer who had seen what was on the moon . . . and found it to be filled with a species that was half man and half bat.
But while fake news isn't new, the combined set of circumstances surrounding its recent flourishing is indeed novel: partisan drama, a networked society, and an extension of the endless craving for attention-grabbing stories first built up by the 24-hour cable news cycle. Plus, who needs a penny press when you can just buy a domain name off GoDaddy?
The election, in particular, Silverman said, "combined all the things that will make misinformation run rampant. One, a presidential cycle attracts a huge amount of attention . . . and this was an especially crazy cycle, so even more attention. That's good for attention harvesters. That's what they need."
Silverman went on: "The emotion and strong-beliefs component [are] really, really important, 'cause we know people react to stuff that reinforces what they want to hear, things that get an emotional reaction. Reading something that makes you happy doesn't make you react as strongly as something that makes you angry or disgusted, and people know that.
"And the other thing is," Silverman said, "in general in politics there's a good amount of spin and misinformation. Donald Trump is, frankly, very unique because of the amount of totally false things that he says. And so when you have a major candidate who will consistently say things that are not true, it sort of lays the groundwork and opens the area for lots of other crazy things that are not true to be said as well.
"The last big one is the social network platforms and algorithmic filtering. I don't think Facebook had any idea that a lot of stuff that was false and misleading was getting as much traction as it was—their platform is so big it's impossible to monitor it at that level. Same with Google."
This perfect storm of factors came together, and as Election Day approached, Silverman showed that the top 20 fake news stories had received significantly more engagement
on Facebook than the top 20 from mainstream news outlets. The revelation reflects the potentially problematic conflations that have seeped in through Facebook and Twitter's catch-all interfaces—between professional and personal, emotional and intellectual, political and economic.
With the election in the rearview, one might be forgiven for thinking that fake news might similarly slide out of view, a relic of a tumultuous time that seems absurd, even with respect to the Trump administration's chaotic first month.
But Silverman's recent reporting bears out differently. He recently published a story noting that the film A Cure for Wellness was using fake news
as part of a marketing campaign, in a sort of twisted meld of alternate-reality game and the misinformation economy.
And that may be the strangest implication of all. Fake news might have had its origins as a kind of DIY online hucksterism, a peripheral to trolling that has its roots in the same ethos—but after its big break in 2016, it just might be going corporate.