There is a man named Paul Horner who writes fake news on Facebook for a living.
Some of his best work includes convincing others he is the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy, or writing that President Obama signed an executive order for an election recount and revote on December 19th.
Horner taps into our greatest fears and biases and makes a nice little profit, while gullible users do the legwork for him by sharing these stories with their family members and friends, often without doing proper research. The stories spread like wildfire and, before too long, they are accepted as truth.
(Editor’s Note: For an excellent primer on how fake news goes viral, read this case study.)
By sprinkling this content around the internet from a handful of different web sites he owns, Horner makes upwards of $10,000 a month just from AdSense. Not a bad return for making stuff up.
But in an election year that was like no other election year, fake news stories had serious implications.
It’s fun to poke fun at your Aunt Margaret from upstate New York who liked to share obviously fake stories about Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the election, but Aunt Margaret wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of thousands of people were doing the same thing, and it had a real impact.
The spread of falsities stop being cute when they begin to have a real impact on the future of our country.
A big part of my job involves monitoring the media for one of our financial clients.
I wake up early each morning and peruse the news of the day, then share the articles I deem important in a report that is shared with their leadership.
While the articles I clip focus on automotive and banking, I’m sifting through The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to find those articles, which means, whether intentionally or not, I’m retaining the top news of the day.
And, during the election, there was a lot of news. About both candidates. So I took a lot in. Because of this, I’d like to think I was well-informed when it came time to vote on Election Day.
But then I started doing something you should never, ever do: I started reading the comments on the articles and paying attention to what Americans were saying on social media.
I had no idea how ill-informed people are about important topics. For every article being shared by reputable publications, there were a handful of articles that were dubious, at best.
In other words, the truth could’ve been gleaned easily with a bit of research, but nobody, it seems, has time for that.
As someone who prides himself on being up-to-date and knowledgeable about current events, I’ve become paranoid that the well-informed among us will soon be in the minority, fighting every day to ensure that our brothers and sisters know what’s fake and what isn’t. But I don’t think that’s a war we will win any time soon.
Call us “the elites” or whatever you like, but being well-informed is everyone’s duty.
In the face of everything else that is happening in our country post-election, it might seem trite to complain about how news is being reported.
This country was founded on the principle, though, that there should be no infringing on the freedom of the press. But every time we share a false article from a false news source, we lose a little bit of that freedom.
If we are lazy about being informed, then it becomes easier for politicians to muzzle that freedom, because we will then have become so disenchanted with what the media tells us that we will welcome the shutting down of “biased media”.
But a true and fair media is a protection given to us that many around the world don’t have the ability to enjoy.
In a Q&A with the Washington Post, Horner himself admitted that he’s part of the reason Donald Trump is the president-elect.
Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.
No matter who you voted for, I think most of us expect some element of truth to guide us on a daily basis.
There should be cause for concern when lies rule the day.