As the political season heats up, more and more anonymously published websites are springing up to rile up their readers, their prize being the millions of digital ad dollars allocated to ad networks.
A transgender woman was shot and killed in a Bradford’s Department Store in Colorado after engaging in a dispute with an employee… or so says a story on a website that frequently posts stories that end up being completely made up.
As BuzzFeed reported this morning, there is no Bradford’s Department Store in Colorado and there are no links to the sources used in the story. But there are hundreds of comments on the story, and that drives ad revenue from Google and other ad networks.
The hoax exposing story from Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed Canada founding editor, centers on rise in fake stories being generated concerning transgenders, but the subject of the hoax stories can actually considerably, though they are always appear to be intended to drive up outrage.
The author of the transgender shooting story, for instance, has also written other false stories intended to make the reader mad with outrage: Multiple States Have Agreed To Implement A ‘Two Pet Maximum’ Ordinance; Christina Applegate To Replace Kaley Cuoco On The 10th Season Of Big Bang Theory; Target Changes Restroom Policy After Receiving Boycott Threats; Planned Parenthood Announces On-Site Partnership With Select Public School Systems, are examples.
(No links, as that would only drive further traffic to the site, though you can find a link in the BuzzFeed story.)
Who is the author and who owns the website? That is unknown as the author’s name is a pseudonym, and a check of the Who Is Directory shows that the ownership of the website is protected.
Two issues arise with this rise in intentionally false stories: one, why do the ad networks permit these sites to use their networks; and two, should such intentionally provocative websites be permitted to continue to publish anonymously?
The business of publishing intentionally false news is, in fact, big business. But little of the controversy of fake sites revolves sites themselves but rather the false ad impression being generated online. Last year, Bloomberg reported on the phenomenon of fake web traffic:
Late that year he (marketing executive Ron Amram) and a half-dozen or so colleagues gathered in a New York conference room for a presentation on the performance of the online ads. They were stunned. Digital’s return on investment was around 2 to 1, a $2 increase in revenue for every $1 of ad spending, compared with at least 6 to 1 for TV. The most startling finding: Only 20 percent of the campaign’s “ad impressions”—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people.
“The room basically stopped,” Amram recalls. The team was concerned about their jobs; someone asked, “Can they do that? Is it legal?” But mostly it was disbelief and outrage. “It was like we’d been throwing our money to the mob,” Amram says. “As an advertiser we were paying for eyeballs and thought that we were buying views. But in the digital world, you’re just paying for the ad to be served, and there’s no guarantee who will see it, or whether a human will see it at all.”
Because of this, advertisers are forcing online ad rates to fall, even as they increase their digital advertising budgets.
As a result, there is an urgency among traditional media properties to grow their online audiences – only with volume can they make any money with digital advertising. But what is the difference between a story on the immigrant trafficking crisis in Greece or a completely made up story about a shooting at an non-existent department store – both will generate readership.
In fact, one advantage of these fake stories is that they are sure to attract reader comments and posts to Facebook – both of which drives more traffic.
The website that generated the department store shooting story ingeniously makes sure that their comments are shown in chronological order, from oldest to newest. The odds are that any reader outraged with the “news” will want to post a comment, but not be willing to scroll all the way through the other comments. Because of this, the first readers who comment, unaware the story is fake, encourage other comments from outraged readers. By time the hoax is discovered, and a reader posts news that the story is false, more readers will comment unaware that the story has already been debunked. Where readers can sort the comments from newest to oldest, the pace of commenting tends to slow down, and more and more readers post a comment saying the story is false.
From Google’s perspective, they pay for the traffic and any clicks that might result. The advertiser does the same, though traffic that generates lots of ad impressions, but no positive results are worthless to them. So-called false clicks, something every online reader has accidentally done, costs the advertiser and Google alike, and only profits the fake news website.
Is publishing fake news illegal? Only when it involves libel or defamation, and even then it might be hard to prove intent to defame in a US court. In the case of a story with completely made up names and events, it would be hard to find a victim that would sue, and readers don’t appear to mind being deceived by these websites when they are always presented with stories that fit their view of the world.
The story about the shooting, for instance, generated plenty of comments blaming the President for the incident, despite his name not appearing in the story (and the fact, let’s repeat, that the story was false).
But what about the story concerning the TV show Big Bang Theory? If, it turned out, that the actresses involved in the fake story lost an acting job over the story they might have recourse to sue, one reason I would guess that many of these websites try to avoid using real people in their stories.
One defense the publisher of any fake news website might use is that they are publishing satire. After all, who would believe such nonsense? Apparently millions of Americans.