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It's a world wide web of lies (but facts strike back)

Mike Elgan | Oct. 17, 2016
The internet is overrun by urban legends, hoaxes and politicians who make up their own 'facts.' Here's help.


Meanwhile, the opposite is happening at Facebook. After Facebook's human editorial team was criticized by a political activist for bias in how they chose stories for Facebook's Trending feature, Facebook laid off the editorial staffers in late August and replaced them with algorithms.

Unfortunately, these algorithms are having a hard time telling fake stories from real ones. "The Intersect" reportedly ran a series of experiments and found out that Facebook has published several hoax or fake stories in its Trending section.

Facebook algorithms are actually choosing hoaxes and deliberately spreading them to millions of users. Sadly, we humans don't need help from algorithms. We can spread misinformation just fine without them.

Anything for traffic

Did you hear about Rachel Brewson? She became the subject of a series of articles on the women's site xoJane. She's a Hillary Clinton supporter who fell in love with a Donald Trump supporter named Todd. At first, their political disagreements added passion to their relationship, and they got married. But then things soured, they split up and Rachel penned a post on xoJane headlined, "Trump is Tearing My Marriage Apart."

Great story, right? The online news site "Fusion" thought so, and interviewed the couple on camera. So did ABC's Nightline.

Unfortunately, it never happened, and Rachel Brewson doesn't exist. The whole thing was a publicity stunt to drive traffic to a now-defunct site called "Review Weekly." They even hired actors to play Rachel and Todd on camera.

This is a fraudulent business model. It's fiction presented as nonfiction, based on the idea that a prurient, gossip-centric, reality-TV-obsessed public needs to believe a drama is true in order to stay engaged.

Before Jezebel's investigative journalism exposed the fraud, there was no way to "fact-check" the story, no way to know for sure whether the story was true, partly true or a total lie.

And speaking of lies...

Let's talk politics

Political organizations have always spread disinformation that helps their candidates. But in recent years, they've been spreading disinformation about fact-checking itself!

I learned this the hard way.

Watching the political arguments over the upcoming U.S. presidential election take over my Twitter stream, it became clear that each side was arguing from its own set of facts. And this frustrated me, because facts are facts -- or they're supposed to be. So I experimented by responding to heated political arguments with links to fact-checking sites.

To quote a common clickbait catchphrase, you won't believe what happened next!

My tweets were pounced upon by hoards of people convinced that fact-checking sites are biased, corrupt and untrustworthy. Every specific site I linked to was discredited as owned or controlled by a politician or their supporters, or it was a "joke," not to be taken seriously.


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