I’ve already argued that the rush to point fingers at Facebook for allowing lots of fake news to get passed around is greatly overhyped by people searching for explanations for last week’s election results. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be looking to do something about fake news on various platforms. On Monday, Google also faced some controversy over fake news, when its top result for people searching for “final election results” pointed to a fake news site with made up numbers. In response, a few hours later, Google announced that it was going to start banning fake news sites from using Google’s AdSense ad product. A few hours after that, Facebook announced a similar pledge to stop allowing those sites to make money from Facebook.
This leads to a few different thoughts: lessening the power of totally fake news sites is certainly a good idea. And cutting off conventional ad revenue paths might be at least somewhat effective in the short term. After all, recent reports have shown that many of the fake news sites were set up by people overseas in a pure arbitrage play to cash in on the easy ad revenue by finding lots of gullible Americans.
The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.
“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. “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. 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, this raises lots of other questions. If Facebook can figure out which sites are “fake” news sites, then, um, why doesn’t it also adjust its algorithm to either highlight that those are fake news sites or to simply not promote those stories in feeds quite so much? But there are a number of other issues here. Sure, for the purely fake news sites, perhaps this makes sense, but who’s determining what sites are “fake” and what’s not. Because while it sounds like a black and white kind of thing, that discussion can get fuzzy pretty damn quick. After all, some of the sites that have been discussed publish a mixture of fake and real news. And sometimes “real” publications get tricked and publish fake news too. Remember, just a few weeks ago, Rolling Stone lost a lawsuit for publishing what was basically a fake news story. And, of course, you’ll have opinionated partisans on all sides arguing that this or that publication is “fake.” We see it all the time when people yell at us for linking to certain websites that haters insist are propaganda for one or the other political parties. Where do these companies draw the line?
Another problem is that while Google and Facebook may dominate the ad business, they’re hardly the only ones. Hell, we get emails basically every day from new ad networks looking to put ads on Techdirt. Many of them seem dubious, but do kids in Macedonia running fake Trump stories care about how dubious the ad networks are? If they get paid, they’ll use them.
Finally, while cutting off ad revenue from these sites isn’t a horrible idea, it does seem to avoid the actual issue which is how so many people are absolutely terrible news consumers. And, yes, you are too. Everyone is at some point. A story just seems too good to be true, or that fits with your world view, and of course you’re going to share it, because that’s what we’ve all been conditioned to do. What would be great was if there was a way to actually train people to be better news consumers — to actually take the time to learn what’s happening and what’s really going on — but that seems like it’s just wishful thinking these days.