AUSTIN — A keynote offering a sometimes-uncomfortable perspective on fake news at the South by Southwest Conference here started with a pitch suggesting a different story.
The description below a generic title on the conference’s website for Tuesday’s talk by Yasmin Green, director of research at Google’s Jigsaw project, implied she’d speak about countering the radicalization of at-risk audiences. That’s a serious issue that would make for a great SXSW panel, but it’s not what Green’s talk actually covered.
Instead, after explaining that her job at the Alphabet, Inc. (GOOG, GOOGL) offshoot was to make the internet safer for “the next billion people who are coming online,” Green said she would conduct some onstage research into one particular problem: fake news.
That’s the current name for stories circulated to bamboozle readers, although Green also used “disinformation,” the term adopted in the 1980s for misleading information the Soviet Union propagated. After the 2016 election, some observers blamed fake news for tilting the outcome; lately, President Trump has latched onto the term as a generic description for stories he doesn’t like.
To unpack the problem, Green brought out two proprietors of fake news. One, a Los Angeles-area publisher named Jestin Coler, found made-up stories unexpectedly profitable, while the other, Tampa-based lawyer Jeffrey Marty, created a popular Twitter account for a fictional congressman.
From satire to market-tested fake news
Green stated upfront that she does not support news fraudsters. “Access to information is a fundamental human right. Deceitful content really does undermine the promise of the internet,” she said.
But neither Coler nor Marty said they set out to subvert that promise.
For Coler, creating a satirical site called National Report was “really just about having fun,” he said.
Then advertisers started showing up, which led Coler and his colleagues to concoct stories that drew more clicks. Conspiracy theories tended to work well, he said, citing a phony story about a government mandate “that you received an RFID chip as part of Obamacare.”
The financial rewards mattered — Coler said he later went on to start the fake Denver Guardian because “my mortgage was due” — but the practice yielded an emotional high too. “It certainly turns into something that’s very addictive.”
Coler’s fake stories, though, had real-world consequences. He said a fake piece about Coloradans being able to buy marijuana with food stamps led a state representative to introduce a bill banning the practice.
(But even that claim is fake. The Denver Post reported that state Sen. Vicki Marble introduced her bill months before Coler’s story.)
Therapy turns political tool
Marty, meanwhile, said he created the phony “@RepStevenSmith” account in 2013 as a form of therapy after the suicide of a close friend with whom he’d collaborated on many pranks. “It was just kind of like a way of lashing out,” he said.
But as Donald Trump’s campaign for president accelerated through the Republican primaries, the account’s popularity did too — and Twitter users including Star Trek’s William Shatner got faked out by it. The phony congressman’s endorsement of Trump drew some 7,000 retweets, Marty said.
None of this made him money, but Marty realized he could use the account to vent about the dishonesty of many mainstream Republicans. Later, he employed it to generate publicity about the WikiLeaks disclosures of Democratic National Committee co-chair John Podesta’s e-mails.
Marty complained about Podesta’s e-mail being ignored by the media — which based on the volume of articles about the topic seems very clearly untrue. Seeing a peddler of fake news use a spot on a SXSW stage to spout more of it may have caused some of the audience members to leave the room.
What works to spread fake news
Green, one of the last speakers added to the SXSW schedule, then asked the two what had worked best to get their disinformation distributed.
Coler said teamwork was essential. He noted that his 20 or so contributors would help each other by “jumping into the comments section with fake outrage.” Facebook (FB) groups also worked to seed stories.
He also built backdrops to lend credibility to fake stories. For example, he created a phony site for a pot dispensary taking food-stamp payments to support his hoax, then populated the Denver Guardian site with “silly local news stuff” to make new readers think they’d found a real publication.
Coler said he never needed Twitter or Facebook bots to promote his work. “Once you get an emotional response from the readers they become your bots.”
Marty pointed to such Twitter best practices as adding photos, video and hashtags — the last of which don’t have to be relevant as long as they’re trending. He also cited the effectiveness of having a foil for his fake account: an outrageous, phony chief of staff that “Rep. Smith” can dress down in public.
Many people, he added, keep reading after realizing it’s all a hoax: “Even when they know it’s fake, they still start tweeting it out as humor.”
Can tech fix this?
Green closed by asking the two what we could do to help real facts overcome fake ones. (She didn’t mention that Google just updated its search guidelines to lower the visibility of fake, bigotry-reinforcing pages.) Both Coler and Marty voiced doubts about any technological fix.
The former suggested that while Google or Facebook could ship new fact-checking apps, “the people who need those tools are the ones who think other people need tools.” The latter complained that traditional media sites served as fake-news outlets when they uncritically passed on U.S. government reports about Iraq’s alleged nuclear-weapons programs before the 2003 war.
And both pointed out that fake news didn’t start with the social media of 2014. Coler recalled seeing supermarket tabloids with front-page headlines about Bill Clinton meeting aliens: “This stuff has always been around.”
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