To understand just how deep the rabbit hole of fake news goes, consider the story of Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., that’s rumored to be the headquarters of a child molestation ring with connections to Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.
It’s a wild conspiracy theory that evolved from the WikiLeaks hack of Podesta’s emails – the phrase “cheese pizza” fueled suspicion – and innocuous photos from the Instagram account of the pizzeria’s owner.
Rumors spread from 4Chan to Reddit and led to fake stories circulating on Facebook and Twitter. Yet even after The New York Times and others published the truth last week, a subreddit was trending with the title: “Cover Up! Katie Reilly at Fortune magazine has just published a story on Comet Pizza. They are running with the fake news angle the NYT pushed.”
As mind-boggling as it may be, this pattern has become all too common. Some 62 percent of American adults say they get their news from social media, and so creating and selling ads on fake news has become a lucrative cottage industry.
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Yet Silicon Valley has shown a stubborn reluctance to accept its role in influencing the public, consistently going with hands-off tactics designed to boost profits. Mark Zuckerberg even dismissed as “pretty crazy” that Facebook could have swayed the vote for Donald Trump.
But the truth is, the dissemination of fake news – particularly when it’s packaged to compete with real news – provides more challenges to American democracy than many would like to admit. It divides the electorate and makes it tough to find a common ground for dialogue because users are trapped in their own algorithm-driven echo chambers of (mis)information.
President Barack Obama had it right when he said that “if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
Silicon Valley is thankfully finally starting to pay attention. Zuckerberg says Facebook is working on technical solutions to flag fake news and soon will make it easier for users to do the same.
Google has said it will ban websites that hawk fake articles from its online advertising service. Twitter, with its tendency to harbor anonymous internet trolls, recently banned some accounts tied to the alt-right and made it easier for users to report abusive language.
These strategies are a start, but this is an ongoing battle. For the sake of the republic, if not always profits, Silicon Valley has a responsibility to identify fake news without becoming a be-all and end-all censor.
Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled.”
Politico’s Jack Shafer
Meanwhile, consumers of social media need to become a bit more skeptical. We realize that quite a few people will ignore this recommendation. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote Tuesday:
“The audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled.”
The difference is, a magic show illusion does no harm. Fake political news has the potential to decide important elections. We renew our suggestion: Be skeptical.