The news, ‘post-truth’

This month, as Oxford Dictionaries reportedly named ‘post-truth’ as their Word of the Year, an article in the Washington Post, describes LibertyWritersNews, ” a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone” whose owners say “they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it.”

They can earn up to $14 per thousand views. Before the US election, they made between $10-40,000 per month by driving readers to adverts for viagra, acne solutions, etc: then their audience expanded fivefold. The Post describes a typical story thus: “The first story Wade did aggregated a South Korean news report that claimed an anonymous source had said that a North Korean scientist had defected with data from human experiments. Wade knew he needed a picture to sell the story to readers. He searched online for an image of a human experiment that, as he describes it, would make people think, “What is that? I got to click.” He found what he recalls was a “totally misleading” photograph of a fleshy mass and made it the featured image. He wrote the headline, “[PROOF] N. Korea Experiments on Humans,” published the story and made $120 off 10 minutes of work. It was, he says, a revelation: “You have to trick people into reading the news.” According to the Post, typical techniques include:
– exaggeration: “OBAMA BIRTH SECRETS REVEALED! The Letters From His Dad Reveal Something Sinister… .”
– stoking fear: “Terrorists Have Infiltrated the US Government! Look Who They Want to ASSASSINATE!!”
– inflaming racial and gender tension: “BREAKING: Michelle Obama holds Feminist Rally At HER SLAVE HOUSE!”
– conspiracy theories: “BREAKING: Top Official Set to Testify Against Hillary Clinton Found DEAD!”

Twitter carries what appears to be an Amazon Turk job offer. To apply: “Write a news article for a new conservative news website”. This asks applicants to: “write a news article for a conservative news website… that will appear with the headline ‘Predictable: First Lesbian Bishop of Stockholm boots out Christ and welcomes Mohammed” and advises applicants to base their articles on this story. (Mind you, the basic story does appear to be true!)

And BuzzFeed carries a story claiming to have identified “more than 100 pro-Trump websites being run from a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” “Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US… 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.” As an example: “….the most successful post BuzzFeed News found from a Macedonian site is based on a story from a fake news website. The headline on the story from ConservativeState.com was “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought.’” The post is a week old and has racked up an astounding 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. (To put that into perspective, the New York Times’ exclusive story that revealed Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns generated a little more than 175,000 Facebook interactions in a month.)” Mind you, given that these sites are all said to be in Macedonia, I do wonder if this story is entirely true…

It’s got to the stage now where the mainstream media themselves are getting confused. According to < href="http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/25/fake-news-cnn-accidentally-falsely-admits-it-aired-pornography-for-30-minutes-on-thanksgiving/">Breitbart: “Late Thursday evening on Thanksgiving, a Twitter user in the Boston area reported that CNN was airing hardcore pornography for 30 minutes through local provider RCN. The original report on those Tweets surfaced in The Independent, a leading left-of-center newspaper based in the United Kingdom. From there, the story spread like wildfire to many other media outlets including Variety magazine, the U.K. Daily Mail, the New York Post, Esquire magazine and Mashable, among others….Eventually, CNN actually confirmed that it did air “inappropriate content” and was seeking an “explanation” from RCN…. now, according to the originally incorrect report from Variety, which was based on the inaccurate piece from the Independent, both CNN and RCN are denying the reports CNN admitted to — that they aired inappropriate content for 30 minutes on Thanksgiving in Boston.”

Bad journalism is not limited to this sort of organisation. The Guardian, for instance, ran a story about a report by consultants on Brexit describing this as a ‘leaked Cabinet Office menu’. The BBC which also carried the story later explained that the memo was by a consultant with no access to the Cabinet Office, and not by the Cabinet Office.

Similarly, the same events attract different types of report. On the one hand: “Hammond had to tell MPs that the EU referendum result has blasted a huge hole in the national finances and he has all but abandoned any hope of getting the budget into surplus on his watch. Osborne’s targets have been abandoned, the government plans to carry on borrowing and spending (the autumn statement envisages a fiscal loosening of almost £9bn by 2021-22) and, although the Treasury hopes to balance the budget in the 2020s, it won’t say when this might happen.” On the other, “The UK economy is “resilient” despite forecasts that government finances will be £122bn worse off than previously expected by 2020, the chancellor said.” On the third hand, “The strength of the British economy has confounded Remain doom-mongers, Philip Hammond declared yesterday. Promising help for hardworking families, a surprisingly upbeat Chancellor said UK output would grow faster than in most EU countries – creating half a million jobs. In his first Autumn Statement Mr Hammond vowed to spend billions to boost productivity, build homes and improve transport and broadband networks.” None of these actually misquote the Chancellor, but you might not think they were describing the same event.

So maybe ‘post-truth’ news is not just a digital invention: but it looks as if click-through advertising might make it a more lucrative pastime….

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